A Point of View: Justifying culture

Woman looking at a painting

Arts subjects are being cut because those who teach them are not saying why they matter, says Alain de Botton.

Speak to anyone working in the humanities within academia right now and you will hear that this country is about to enter a new Dark Age. The reason lies in the coalition government's decision to impose swingeing cuts on almost all departments.

Philosophers, historians, classicists and literary critics feel especially badly let down. They fear a new age of philistinism, a moment when the nation finally gives up on serious culture and focuses instead on making money and inebriating itself on talent contests and celebrity chat shows.

If asked to apportion blame for what has happened to their departments, these academics do not have to search long for an answer, obviously "the government" is responsible. It is the government that has failed to appreciate the valuable work that the humanities do and it must therefore be scorned accordingly.

It could seem unfair to knock someone when they are already down, but personally I can't help but feel this approach and analysis lets academics off far too lightly. I have spent most of my professional life around and in the shadow of academics in the humanities, and have benefited hugely from the stored knowledge that they sit upon.

However, right now, at this difficult moment in the history of British universities, there is a need to acknowledge that at least some of the woes that have befallen academics is squarely their own fault. To put it at its simplest, academics in the humanities have failed to explain why what they do should matter so much. They've failed to explain to the government, but this really only means "us" - the public at large.

They have allowed themselves to be offended by the very need to justify their relevance, speaking only in dangerously vague terms about the value of culture in helping people to "think" or they have counted on having just enough respect left not to have to spell out why they should exist at all, other than because what they do is just so important.

Now they have learnt that if they couldn't say in clear terms why they still mattered, then an impatient, harried government might just decide that they didn't really, and a bored, stressed, stoical wider public wouldn't bother to raise a hand in protest.

Don't get me wrong, I care deeply for the humanities and believe they have a vital role to play in a healthy society. I just think that the way culture is currently taught in universities is a travesty of its real potential, and that the government cuts are an understandable, if not at all nice, consequence of the failure of current teaching methods and goals.


My personal view of what the humanities are for is simple - they should help us to live. We should look to culture as a repository of useful and consoling ideas about how to face our most pressing personal and professional issues. We should look to novels and historical narratives to impart moral instruction and edification, to great paintings for suggestions about value, to philosophy to probe our anxieties and offer consolations.

It should be the job of a university education to tease out the therapeutic and illuminative aspects of culture, so that we can emerge from a period of study as slightly less disturbed, selfish, unempathetic and blinkered human beings, who can be of greater benefit not only to the economy, but also to our friends, our children and our spouses.

Image caption,
Do we learn more from Oprah Winfrey?

I'm certainly not the first person to express these hopes of education. You start to hear them in mid-19th Century Victorian Britain, when men like John Stuart Mill come out with statements like: "The object of universities is not to make skilful lawyers, physicians or engineers. It is to make capable and cultivated human beings."

His contemporary Matthew Arnold sounded similar notes, expressing a view that a liberal education should help to inspire in us "a love of our neighbour, a desire for clearing human confusion and for diminishing human misery". At its most ambitious, Arnold added, it should even engender the "noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it".

These well-meaning, mid-Victorians wanted to use humanistic culture to replace scripture. They wanted universities to become our new churches, places that would teach us how to live, but without dogma or superstition.

Human misery

Claims that culture could stand in for scripture - that Middlemarch could take up the responsibilities previously handled by the Psalms, or the essays of Schopenhauer satisfy needs once catered to by Saint Augustine's City of God - still have a way of sounding a bit eccentric, or just insane in their combination of impiety and ambition. But I want to argue that we are wrong to be suspicious of such claims. Culture can and should change and save our lives.

Image caption,
Alan Bennett's History Boys was about lessons in life

Though it was at first hoped by men like Arnold and Mill that universities might be our new churches, these centres of learning have never offered what churches invariably focus on - guidance. It is a basic tenet of contemporary scholarship that no academic should connect works of culture to individual sorrows.

The contemporary guardians of culture have a habit of cudgelling anyone who might try to use culture for didactic ends or to open a subject up to a mass audience. When confronted by those who demand of culture that it should be relevant and useful, that it should offer up advice on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become very disdainful.

Whatever the rhetoric of graduation ceremonies and the ambitious tone of prospectuses, there seems a strange and regrettable truth to confront about the workings of the modern university, that the institution has precious little interest in teaching us any emotional or ethical life skills - how to love our neighbours, clear human confusion, diminish human misery and leave the world better and happier than we found it.

To judge by what they do rather than what they airily declaim, universities are in the business of turning out a majority of tightly focused professionals (accountants, lawyers, physicians, engineers) and a minority of culturally well-informed, but ethically confused arts graduates aptly panicked about how they might remuneratively occupy the rest of their lives.


We have implicitly charged our higher-education system with a dual and possibly contradictory mission, to teach us how to make a living and to teach us how to live. And we have left the second of these two aims recklessly vague and unattended.

How should universities be rearranged? In my view, departments should be required to identify the problematic areas in people's lives and to design courses that address them head on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies should be properly explored.

There should be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness. A university alive to the true responsibilities of cultural artefacts within a secular age would establish a Department for Relationships, an Institute of Dying and a Centre for Self-Knowledge.

Universities may well be teaching the right books but they too often fail to ask direct questions of them, declining to advance sufficiently vulgar, neo-religious enquiries because they are embarrassed to admit the true nature of our inner needs. They are fatefully in love with ambiguity, they trust in the absurd modernist doctrine that great art should have no moral content or desire to change its audience.

We have constructed an intellectual world whose most celebrated institutions rarely dare to ask, let alone answer, the most serious questions of the soul. Oprah Winfrey may not provide the deepest possibly analysis of the human condition, but arguably, in my view, she asks many more of the right questions than the humanities' professors at Oxford.