By Niamh Cullen
Third level education is a contentious subject in Ireland these days; it seems that just as more and more people flock to gain access to it, there is less money to pay for it. However, urgent as the struggle to balance the budget is, there are in reality much more fundamental issues at stake in Irish education. The number of students attending university has risen dramatically in the last few decades, from 11% in 1955, to more than
half the population in 2003. Expressions like ‘the knowledge economy’ are worn out from use in media debates, and everyone seems to be convinced that education is the key to lifting Ireland out of recession in the long term. However, when we talk about the kind of education we wish Irish universities to focus on, opinions begin to diverge. Recent articles in the Irish Times by Tom Garvin and Salter Sterling show how this debate is at the forefront of the public consciousness; however the questions of what should be taught and what kind of research projects should be done in universities, as well as how these should be financed, managed and justified, are ones of global import. In her address to the Royal Irish Academy on Wednesday evening, Harvard university president Drew Gilpin Faust made an eloquent and impassioned contribution to this debate.
As a historian, Faust herself is deeply convinced of the importance of a humanities education to the individual and to society. The role of education in driving economic growth was indisputable, she argued. However, while some of the most visible drivers of economic growth – engineers, scientists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and business people – are trained at universities in their thousands each year, and valuable research carried out in laboratories and research institutes across the country, a focus on the crude financial benefits and short term outcomes could risk eclipsing some of the less tangible benefits of education. In Faust’s words, too narrow a focus on the present was at the expense of the past and the future.
Focusing purely on the kinds of skills – whether in economics, engineering or science – that seem to have a practical ‘use’, and on research that yields straightforward results and fast, risks leaving the creative minds of the next generation unchallenged, underdeveloped, and unable to make the imaginative leaps needed to solve the problems they will face in a world that could look quite different to ours. If students have no concept of how the world has changed, or could change – Faust asked – how can we possibly expect them to have a spirit of innovation? History, she argued, teaches students that the world has once been different to how it is now; in fact has been through many different stages; the study of literature teaches them empathy. Even a subject based on facts and numbers like economics benefits enormously from the study of people and how they think and act. The recent economic crisis has shown us that the financial world is governed by anything but rationality; economies are unpredictable and are governed as much by people’s perceptions and reactions as by hard figures. Out of this understanding has the relatively new discipline of behavioural economics been born.
Education is not just about the acquisition of knowledge, she elaborated, but about acquiring the skills to interpret it. It is about how to give meaning to our experiences, as individuals, communities and nations. The work of the historian is instructive here, as historians don’t just gather facts and data from documents in archives; they construct a narrative about the past, and provide a framework for thinking about the past. For the historian, as for all researchers, the important question is often deciding what to research, and what questions to ask. The mere acquisition of practical skills will not help students and researchers to come up with new ideas about what to investigate, or help them frame the questions they might need to ask. For scientists researching sensitive issues with wide implications, another pressing concern is that of how to interpret and to use their findings. Whether it is stem cells, weapons of mass destruction or other more prosaic areas of research, the use of the research is not just of technical concern. Deciding what to do with scientific results or discoveries is rather about giving meaning to them; realising the potential and the implications that they might have for our society. Again, imagination, thought and judgement come into play here.
When it is brought down to its most basic form, a humanities education is not about learning new facts, poems, and about places and events in the past; it is really about equipping us with the skills to understand the world around us, or in Faust’s words, ‘it is about hearing and seeing what is all around us but which we could not see before’.