school of arts


A little history. I studied in four different Schools of Arts, including one in the lovely old town of Graz in Austria. I taught in three, and I visited dozens on a research project investigating the situation of the humanities in contemporary universities.

They go by different names, these schools, sometimes changing names as often as they change heads. Not all call themselves a ‘School of Arts’. They are remarkably diverse. They have the humanities in common, but that can also mean they have little in common. Some have a mere handful of tenured academics, while the biggest boast Nobel laureates and budgets greater than some universities. In many, philosophy is central; in others, it’s almost non-existent. There’s a tension here between the long history of the core disciplines and the imperative for newer schools to identify as ‘contemporary’.

I have a favourite, but it’s not where I studied or taught. It’s the School of Arts at the University of Stirling.This one is actually called the School of Arts and Humanities. A beautiful university, Stirling, with its enormous park-like campus, its exquisite loch and 18th century Airthrey Castle on the hill. I’m sure it’s taxing in the Scottish winter, but in September when the academic year begins, it’s just wonderful to stroll around it, to get lost in it.

I’ve been twice and interviewed some inspiring academics there. Their home is the Pathfoot Building, a sparkling modernist building from the 1960s. It’s also a public art gallery and houses the university’s collection. There is literature and languages in the Pathfoot Building, philosophy and history, politics and law, media and communications. Quite enough for a banquet. Tertiary education in Scotland is free, (if you’re Scottish), which suggests a particular attitude there: learning is for everyone.

But learning doesn’t end with the award of a degree or the submission of  doctoral thesis. In many ways, degrees are better regarded as the beginning of something, rather than the conclusion, the point being, that now you have graduated, you have learnt how to learn. Ideally, you are open to different ideas, you can approach the strange and the new with a confidence you did not have before.

You might expect universities to exemplify this principle, but my own experience among humanities academics here leads me to a different conclusion. Too often they display a defensive mentality towards knowledge, where new ideas appear to threaten an apparently fragile sense of intellectual self-worth. I had to write about this, of course. Fiction turned out to be the best medium: Dangerous Things. Indeed.

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