At the end of 2018, a constituent college of the University of London called Heythrop College closed its doors after more than four centuries of training Catholic priests (it was originally founded in Louvain or Leuven in 1614) and decades of secular education in theology and philosophy after moving to London in 1971. The Jesuit Order will now sell the Kensington Square campus to a real estate investor. While the closure of Heythrop involved more directly ecclesiastic and administrative concerns about the future of the college, it anecdotally reflects a wider decline of institutional education in religious studies, philosophy, history, and the classics, collectively known as the humanities.
Larger cultural and economic forces have led to fewer enrolled students at high school and university levels, to the slashing of courses or closure of departments, and to increasingly insecure or temporary work for humanities professors. In popular culture, humanities subjects like philosophy are often trashed, often for a cheap laugh or put-down, as “useless” degrees that do not offer any “practical” qualifications or lead to well-paying jobs. Whenever someone attempts to defend the humanities, they are accused at some point or another of being an out-of-touch, ivory tower elitist who does not understand “the real world.”
Yet this decline is not necessarily because of a diminishing interest. As educationalist Dr. Peter Vardy noted in his speech “Reading the Signs of the Times” at Heythrop’s farewell conference in May 2018: “Don’t let anybody tell you that young people are not interested in God. They are. They’re interested in God, meaning, evil, atheism, omnipotence and omniscience, ethics, is there a distinction between good and evil. They’re interested in just war, genetic engineering, abortion, the ethics of sex.” (YouTube) In other words, there will always be an appetite for opportunities to explore the deeper dimensions of religion, spirituality, and ultimate meaning. Rather, it is the instrumentalization of education and an increasingly philistinic outlook on the purpose of education itself that has incubated a cultural cynicism (manifesting as either subtle skepticism or outright hostility) to the idea of the humanities.
In certain developed economies, ideological attacks on subjects like anthropology or Buddhist studies come from two questions: one, of how “useful” the subject is, and two, whether it should even be taught, let alone be funded. The first argument contains several presuppositions about the nature of education, including the idea that the value of a degree or diploma lies in the supposed utility or projected salary ranges for its holders. Is it true that students sometimes make wrong choices? Certainly, but that is no different to a graduate of physics choosing to open a restaurant and finding happiness there instead of inside a laboratory. Furthermore, there is quantitative evidence to show that humanities qualifications are not as unusable as some stereotypes claim, although again, this is a one-dimensional way to conceive of education.
The second question is a loaded statement that implies that learning the humanities simply is not that necessary. Profit and instrumentality is preferable to self-reflection. The proponent of this argument claims that it is far better for young people to learn a practical trade than study the Renaissance or Sinology. It should be clear that affirming the relevance of the humanities does not come at the expense of denying the value of finance, business management, the STEM subjects, or law. Also, it is completely natural that developing economies emphasize subjects like chemistry or engineering for the time being, but with a strong economy should come a strong culture, and the latter comes through immersion in the humanities by a broad base in society. Educational traditions across the world have long histories of trying to figure out how education can nourish the student’s understanding of what it means to be human—and how the search for a higher truth is not just its own joy, but also the authentic journey of a truly mature individual.
This goes beyond religious traditions, or East and West. In China, the Confucian scholar-gentry understood education to be more than an accumulation of skill sets. Education was about the refinement of the individual and their place in society. It was not just about the competent execution of a profession, but cultivating a deeper understanding of the human place in the universe and our relational nature with others. The Buddhist panditas of diverse cultures argued that learning and scholarship should be geared toward existential liberation, not the unthinking recitation of scriptures (they also worried about practicalities, but in a different way).
And when we look to the Western intellectual traditions, we see the great Dutch polymath Erasmus (1466–1536) as having embodied the search for truth thanks to his tireless union of Christianity and humanist philosophy. Finally, from the 17th century onward until the entry of “hard” subjects into academia, the European aristocratic and intellectual elite (small and exclusionary though these circles might have been) saw a certain degree of prestige in studying the humanities. This wasn’t because the humanities were inherently superior, but because the aristocrats identified something in the way humanities made us think that distinguished it from other subjects.
The purpose of this commentary has been to offer a defense of the humanities, including subjects such as Buddhist studies and religious studies. However, the argument will have failed if it has been made at the expense of other fields or disciplines. As stressed earlier, the point is to cease thinking in binaries or of winners and losers. The search for truth is not the sole reserve of a single subject. It is not the subjects themselves, but our approach to learning or the spirit of education, that needs to be centered on what it means to be human. Education should be preparation for the real world, but in a different sense to its more common, functional implication: to give people the tools to explore for themselves the great mysteries.
Sold: London redevelopment site Catholic Church is sitting on (Evening Standard)
Goodbye Heythrop, Farewell Kensington Square – Dr Peter Vardy (YouTube)
What Do You Do With a B.A in the Humanities? A Lot, Actually (Big Think)
Why debate on useless degrees is worthless (Standard Digital)