Being human

A liberal arts education is about much more than quick financial gain, as J S Mill knew –– it is a v

In 1867, delivering his inaugural address at the University of St Andrews, John Stuart Mill praised the Scottish university system for its commitment to a broad-based, liberal arts education, which all undergraduates received in addition to specialised preparation in a major subject. "Scotland," he said, "has on the whole, in this respect, been considerably more fortunate than England." Mill argued that education forms the mind for a life rich in significance and, not least, for active citizenship:

Government and civil society are the most complicated of all subjects accessible to the human mind: and he who would deal competently with them as a thinker, and not as a blind follower of a party, requires not only a general knowledge of the leading facts of life, both moral and material, but an understanding exercised and disciplined in the principles and rules of sound thinking.

Some of the learning for which Mill praised Scotland and whose absence from England he lamented involved the sciences, but much of it also came from the humanities. The "principles and rules of sound thinking" are learned, he argued, by the study of logic and philosophical arguments. He assigned particular value to Plato's dialogues, which teach the student "to accept no doctrine either from ourselves or from other people without a rigid scrutiny by negative criticism, letting no fallacy, or incoherence, or confusion of thought, slip by" - a disposition invaluable, he held, for the survival of republican institutions. Scottish students also learned a great deal about the world outside Britain: he praised the study of international law for its broadening effect, badly needed in an era of narrow nationalism, saying that this discipline, too, should be required in all universities. And finally, Mill praised how the imagination and the moral sentiments are cultivated and refined through the study of poetry and other works of literature.

Were Mill to return today to the England whose narrowness he so often deplored, he would find that the principle of broad-based, liberal education never did win acceptance here. Like continental Europe, England has always focused on single-subject university training. And now, in the latest assault on humanistic values represented by the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the new system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, he would see a much more insidious threat to the rich idea of learning he favoured. Even Scotland is affected, with its erstwhile commitment to liberal education in tatters as a result of the homogeneities imposed by the Bologna Process, which governs higher learning across Europe.

Mill would find a good deal of what he valued in the liberal arts colleges and universities of the United States, but even there, he would discover, the commitment to shaping the mind and heart is under great stress.

Indeed, the values in higher education that Mill rightly cherished are under threat all over the world - for a reason that never occurred to him. To Mill, the enemy of liberal education was a stuffy form of elitist classical education, practised mechanically and soullessly, without an eye to the formation of citizens or the enrichment of the soul. Today, the enemy is the unquenchable thirst for economic growth that drives education policy across the globe. How could Mill have imagined a monstrosity such as the REF, in which 25 per cent of the assessment mark given to each and every scholar will be awarded for the "impact" of his or her work - by which is meant, above all, impact on economic enrichment? How could he have imagined that disciplines such as history, literature, classical studies and philosophy would be valued only to the extent that they can sell themselves as tools of a growing economy?

From the US to Europe to India, the same demand is heard: higher education must make nations competitive in the global marketplace by training people who know how to apply what they learn to the creation of short-term profit. At a time of economic stress, this goal is driving out all others, so that we find our politicians repeatedly praising the achievements of Singapore and China and urging local educators to emulate them - without ever mentioning that these are authoritarian states which have not the slightest interest in training democratic citizens who can think for themselves. The goals of China and Singapore are best served by the absence of liberal education. But nations that still cherish democratic institutions have reason to pause before rushing down this road.

Liberal education is not just for citizenship. It forms minds capable of appreciating life in a variegated and complex manner. Nonetheless, a focus on citizenship can help us appreciate the magnitude of the risk that democratic societies run when they place "impact" at the heart of higher education. It is not too late to step back and ask ourselves what sort of society we want to live in and what it will take to get us there. If we ponder this question seriously, we are likely to discover that Mill was exactly right: Scotland was indeed "more fortunate" than England for its commitment to values that create citizens who can both live rich and meaningful lives and keep decent democratic institutions alive.

Socrates knew this long ago; he described himself as a gadfly on the back of Athenian democracy, which he compared to a "noble but sluggish horse". Modern democracies are no less sluggish, prone to substitute invective and rhetoric for genuine debate, or insult for critical assessment. The study of philosophy can shake the mind out of its torpor and help to create a wide-awake, critical culture, capable of holding politicians to account.

We also need to reacquaint ourselves with something else central to Mill's conception of a humane society: the imagination. A cultivated imagination is an essential weapon against bigotry and pettiness. By connecting people to depths in their own personalities, it also helps them communicate with others in an informed and responsive way. Today, literature and the arts seem like useless frills to many, but they are intrinsically worthwhile and also of the highest importance for communication and understanding across economic and social divisions.

Britain is not about to adopt the American or even the former Scottish system of liberal education, but it can at least give strong protection to these subjects and the staff who teach them. In the long term, it would be a good idea to move gradually towards a system like the old Scottish one, in which some essential types of learning are required for all. In the short term, it is crucial to challenge the crassness of the REF, and to demand forms of assessment that respect humanistic scholarship for its own sake and as an enrichment of a democratic society.

Liberal arts education in the US is relatively healthy. It still protects scholars who pursue knowledge for its own sake, and it still protects the Scottish style of broad-based undergraduate education. Indeed, some of the country's liberal arts colleges and universities have never had so many applicants. Nonetheless, there are signs that this commitment, too, is eroding, under the pressure of economic constraints.

In some parts of the US, private funding remains a source of strength and resilience - but only because the system of liberal education works so well that people who become rich in later life know its worth and use their money to support it. This type of private support requires both a long tradition of liberal education and a developed culture of private philanthropy, so the system that sustains universities such as mine cannot be easily adapted to Britain or any other part of Europe. Britain needs to work much harder than we do in the US to keep the humanities alive. Resistance to the bureaucratisation of academic scholarship and teaching will be difficult, but it is essential if the culture of the mind and heart that protects both knowledge and citizenship is to survive.

Martha Nussbaum is professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is "Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities" (Princeton University Press, £15.95)

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil