Book review: Arts degrees in the shade

Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education by Alan Ryan Profile Books, pounds 14.99, 182pp Can courses in culture from Plato to Nato really deliver the workforce of the future?

When it comes to education, Alan Ryan has been around. "I am what used to be called a scholarship boy: the beneficiary of a meritocratic educational system that plucked boys like myself from working class and lower-middle-class backgrounds, to give us a fiercely academic secondary education," he tells us in the opening chapter of Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education. From Christ's Hospital, which gave him the the kind of general education to which his parents could never have had access, Ryan went on to study that most revered of liberal subjects at Oxford, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).

In the early Sixties he was a lecturer at the new and radical University of Essex. His period there coincided with student protests and sit-ins, targeted against restrictive, job-orientated curriculum reforms. I was a graduate student there, and remember him as an enlightened champions of the student cause. Later Ryan went to Princeton University - an Ivy League college which prides itself on recruiting and funding students from a wide range of backgrounds, and which delivers a "liberal education" on the classic American model (a thorough grounding in western civilisation from Plato to Nato). He returned to this country to become Warden of New College, Oxford.

Not surprisingly, Ryan writes with quiet authority and a reassuring sense of optimism. In a tone of level-headed reasonableness he takes his reader through the historical and philosophical arguments in favour of providing a general education in humanities for all, from Aristotle to Jane Austen, with a dash of art and music thrown in. As he puts it with touchingly old-world confidence, "A grasp of our national history, an acquaintance with John Keats and Robert Frost, some sense of why and how Bach is different from Beethoven, are indispensable to a civilised life." Leaning heavily on the American philosophical educationalist John Dewey and, closer to home, on Bertrand Russell, Ryan constructs a kind of mid- Atlantic case for "cultural literacy" as the essential grounding for an enlightened education, as against narrowly vocational skill training.

He does it so reasonably, barely ever raising his voice, that the question which heads his penultimate chapter - "Is Higher Education a fraud?" - becomes effectively rhetorical. How could anyone be anxious about the benefits of an all-round training in clear thinking, coherent arguing and problem-solving which, according to Ryan, are the "skills" a liberal university education offers? Who could quarrel with his contention that this humane introduction to everything beautiful and good in our culture is the best grounding for life?

Indeed, he concludes, the distinction between vocational and liberal training turns out to be misleading. Training in liberal arts is vocational, in the sense that it inculcates all the components of intellectual competency necessary for reasonable participation in our society. Any government ought to be eager to fund such an enterprise, destined as it is efficiently to produce the next generation of useful citizens.

Here, it turns out, is the crux of Ryan's argument. Writing from within the beleaguered British system, his goal is to convince government that an investment in higher education in the humanities is one worth making. "I have spent all my working life in universities," he begins his final chapter: "The sense of working in a beleaguered system is one I have lived for most of my career." As Ryan draws his argument to a close, it becomes tantamount to a direct plea to the present government to reinvest in the liberal arts within universities, on the grounds that these pragmatically provide the basis for the kind of pliant, intellectually well-equipped workforce of which New Labour dreams.

The trouble is that, in order to make his case, Ryan is obliged seriously to understate the case made by liberal education's opponents. If this book is to be a grant application to the funding body, mounting the strongest arguments for this blueprint as opposed to its competitors, it must like all grant applications overstate its own case and understate that of the opposition. Where the project is to sell a liberal arts education this means underplaying the entire "culture wars" debate - endemic in education circles in the US and increasingly prominent here.

This is not a problem that Ryan alone faces, as he defends a largely traditional curriculum against Business Studies and Accountancy as the education of choice for the aspiring young. In the US, Leon Botstein, President of Bard College and musical director of the American Symphony Orchestra, has made a similar case for the kind of educational project in which he, like Ryan, has had a life-long involvement, in his highly regarded book, Jefferson's Children. Like Ryan, Botstein dismisses the nostalgia school of educationalists by insisting that the golden age never existed - that we now educate far greater numbers to a far higher level of competence than in the "good old days". Like Ryan, he maintains that a broadly civilising grounding in great art, music and literature is the ideal education for any young person to become a useful member of the workforce. Botstein too is adept at hands-on adaptation of the traditional curriculum to suit the less well-prepared, more culturally impoverished students who enter the admired institution which he heads.

Ranged against both men stand both the forces of Gradgrind conservatism and the ranks of multicultural pluralism. In the US the former have noisily contended that, in its focus on the student as an individual and its classroom encouragement of challenges to the status quo, the liberal educational ideal is intrinsically left-wing, disruptive and anti-social. Although Ryan, like Botstein, coherently argues the case that such a point of view is unnecessarily alarmist, the fact is that the "public at large" (for which read successive ministers of education) has by and large been persuaded. Hence the broad success of books on both sides of the Atlantic advancing vigorous arguments to prove that education is "dumbing down" - that "liberal" merely means pandering to the downmarket, television-led tastes of an increasingly self-interested tier of the education market.

It is, however, the second category of opponents whose neglect undermines Ryan's careful case. Outside the charmed enclosures of Oxford and Bard, those who oppose an old-style liberal education do so on grounds that it no longer addresses the cultural or intellectual needs of an increasingly diverse community of learners. This case can be made. We need an advocate with Ryan's authority actively to persuade us of that his programme in the humanities can compete in the global village as the foundation for our civilised, and civilising, future.

Lisa Jardine's latest book is "Ingenious Pursuits: building the scientific revolution" (Little, Brown)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'