What would you think of someone who told you that she had spent three or four years working at the same job and, although she had had to make decisions every day in the course of her employment, she had never thought about the job she was doing? My guess is that many, if not most, final-year undergrads would fail a test that unexpectedly presented the question ‘what is an education in the humanities for?’ As world economies contract and many education budgets with them, there has been a lot of discussion of this recently and perhaps this is a peculiarly relevant question at Groningen as the 400 year lustrum nears (it would surely be inappropriate to exhort any undergraduate to consider a question after four years that an institution failed to address after four centuries). Here’s another contribution to this debate, expressed not uncontroversially (I raised an eyebrow when I saw , ‘At the University of Chicago I read many books, none of them trivial, for the school in those years did not allow the work of second- or third-rate writers into its curriculum. Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Jack Kerouac, Adrienne Rich, or their equivalents of that day, did not come close to making the cut.’)
I hadn’t known that Hawthorne had written: ‘It contributes greatly to a man’s moral and intellectual health, to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate.’ This reminds me that the good news is that some things a university education does are almost independent of systems, syllabi, lecturers and funding.