A humanities education is the best preparation for a life of leadership

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E will always be a need for higher education to produce the experts essential to advanced economies. Scientists, engineers, doctors and lawyers are indispensable, and universities will always train them because there will always be the resources for training them.

However, there is a curious blindness to the equally great need in our complex societies for generalists. There is a related blindness to the need for educational generalism itself, as one of the richest possibilities for people to be more than just cogs in the economic machine.

It should be the baldest truism that people are not merely units on balance sheets, but that is exactly how they are being treated in the planning and financing of higher education. That is why we must remind ourselves that people are also voters, friends, lovers, parents, makers of choices, deciders about matters of human as well as economic significance. People must be capable of understanding a complicated world, to be equipped to overcome the human propensity for tribalism, limitation, and self-interested short-termism.

The generalism in question is provided by the humanities. By “humanities” I mean history, literature, philosophy, politics, classics, languages, and those social sciences – economics, anthropology, psychology and sociology – which relate to the understanding of human nature and the human condition.

Study of these pursuits can widen horizons and deepen insight. They introduce perspectives, experiences, distillations of wisdom and observation, thought-provoking questions, new opinions, assumptions and outlooks, that must healthily influence any mind that contemplates them.

These pursuits provide the materials for individual lives to be well-lived. This is no small matter. Fulfilled people with alert, outward-looking understanding are always going to be a civilising influence in the world.

But study of the humanities also provides the basis for successful careers. The humanities equip their students with two invaluable possessions: an overview of human affairs, with lessons that can be applied to new circumstances; and a capacity to think – really, genuinely think – which means an ability to handle and evaluate ideas and information, to solve problems, to apply the lessons of experience, to see new opportunities, and to lead.

Study of the humanities has always provided leaders in society. To study the humanities is to study the example and insights of our forebears in the great human story. Consider the lessons of history and literature, and the analyses offered by philosophy and psychology. The process of studying these subjects demands the acquisition and honing of a repertoire of intellectual skills of great value.

It has become a commonplace to say that, in a rapidly changing world, one of the fundamental purposes of education is to render people fit to deal with unpredictable changes and challenges. This includes having to compete in a global economy. More than ever people need flexible, alert and well-informed minds. Otherwise, they will fall behind and play a passive rather than active part in the tumultuous events that characterise our world. Given that education is the great resource for enabling people to be actors in their own lives, we have to ensure that real education continues to be available.

The liberal arts model in US colleges and universities is the right one for the purpose. However higher education in the UK – and education in general – is too narrow and becomes over-specialised far too early. As the realisation grows that our world needs general humanities education as much as it needs specialist technical education, so the liberal arts model will grow internationally and become the prevailing one; of that I am morally certain.

At present, the trends appear to run in the opposite direction: witness the British government’s abolition of all teaching subsidy for humanities in universities, and the switch by students to courses of study that they think will give them advantages in the workplace. But this will prove a short-term blip. Although humans are capable of great folly, we are not so foolish as to fail to recognise what our real needs are: that is for what feeds mind and spirit as well as job vacancies.

A C Grayling is the first master of New College of the Humanities (NCH), and one of Britain’s foremost academics and public intellectuals. NCH, which opens this September, offers a new model of higher education for the humanities in the UK. Its website is www.NCHum.org

This article is an extract from Blue Skies: new thinking about the future of higher education, published by the Pearson Think Tank, and can be found at: http://pearsonblueskies.com