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This morning on the tube on my way to speak about 21st century enlightenment to 200 sixth formers of St Paul’s Girls’ School, I began reading ‘Not for profit’, the new book by leading American intellectual Martha Nussbaum (she is speaking at the RSA next week).

Talk about prescience! It turns out that the book is a passionate defence of the place of arts and humanities in education, especially college education.

If I had read the following words a year ago I might have thought they were an understandable overstatement from someone with strong convictions who wants her readers to sit up and take notice:

‘Radical changes are occurring in what democratic societies teach the young, and these changes have not been well thought through..…The humanities and the arts are being cut away…in virtually every nation of the world. Seen by policy makers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market, they are rapidly losing their place in curricular, and also in the minds and hearts of parents and children. Indeed, what we might call the humanistic aspects of science and social science – the imaginative, creative aspect, and the aspects of rigorous critical thought – are also losing ground as nations prefer to pursue short term profits by the cultivation of the useful and highly applied skills suited to profit making’   

But there is no questioning the credibility of this analysis now: not a year after the last Government insisted that all publicly funded research had to be ‘relevant’, nor a day after Parliament confirmed that all direct public funding for the teaching of arts and humanities in higher education would cease.

What makes Nussbaum’s analysis particularly interesting is her emphasis on human development, something which chimes with my own argument for ‘21 century enlightenment’. Indeed she explicitly talks about the vital importance of fostering a capacity for empathy in all young citizens. 

I’ve only read the first two chapters but I am looking forward to devouring the rest in reading time I have earmarked tomorrow. I am hoping that when I meet the formidable Ms Nussbaum next week she will be impressed that I can quote back passages of her book. But I somehow think she would be less impressed if I told her that the opportunity to mug up had been provided by the train journey to see Aston Villa versus West Brom.         

C’mon you Baggies !


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