the school of arts

I studied in four different Schools of Arts, including a very old one in the 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.

Not all call themselves a ‘School of Arts’, they go by different names, sometimes changing names as often as they change heads. 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. 

I’ve been twice and interviewed some inspiring academics there. Their home is the Pathfoot Building, a 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 is free in Scotland, (if you’re Scottish), which suggests a particular attitude: learning is for everyone.

Learning doesn’t end with the award of a degree or the submission of a doctoral thesis. In many ways, degrees are better regarded as the beginning of something, 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. I have two young neighbours who fall into this description. They both have PhDs and it just encourages them – they are full of curiosity, they embrace the new, they never stop learning.

You might expect universities to exemplify this principle, but my own experience among humanities academics in Australia leads me to doubt how widespread that is. I often found academics outside the humanities more enthusiastic about new ideas or the possibility of exploring some new field than my arts colleagues were. Too often those in the humanities would display a defensive mentality towards knowledge, often coupled with – or masked by – a certain arrogance about ‘their field’.

New ideas seem to threaten what I suspect is, at heart, a fragile sense of intellectual self-worth. ‘I feel like a fraud!’ was confessed to me on more than one occasion – standing up in front of students, in control of the  discourse, pretending to ‘know everything’. Older ideas are dismissed – ‘No-one’s doing that anymore!’ – while new ideas are slapped down – ‘We’re not doing that here!’

It doesn’t take much. I once tried to borrow Gavin Kitching’s The Trouble With Theory from the university library. It was in the catalogue but it wasn’t on the shelves. An obliging librarian uncovered its history for me – bought one day, taken out the next, and never seen again. When I finally got my hands on a copy, I knew why. What if this had fallen into the hands of a student?

I had to write about all this, of course. Fiction turned out to be the best medium – Dangerous Things – but I can’t do better than quote the artist Bruno Munari, who had something to say about learning…

Conserve the spirit of childhood

inside of you for all your life

that means conserve

the curiosity to know

the pleasure of understanding

the desire to communicate.

Munari, Bruno, Verbale Scritto (translation, mine)

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