There is an interesting article in today’s Weekend Australian, an interview with Philosopher John Armstrong from the University of Melbourne regarding the growing decline of the importance of the humanities to the general population. Armstrong refers to the reduction in government funding for those studies and argues that such a reduction in funding is not surprising given the growing disparity between “academia” and the general population. This disparity means that the study of humanities subjects such as philosophy, history and literature is becoming more and more the provence of the well off members of society and those who choose to specialise in those fields. The general population rarely sees it as an area which is relevant to their lives.
The solution according to Armstrong is to encourage the general population to ask the bigger questions. We need to encourage thought about the questions and issues which will help people in how they live their life. I agree with this completely. There is a certain view in academia that making disciplines such as philosophy accessible to the general public represents a certain “dumbing down” or “low brow” approach to the discipline and as such is not a worthwhile pursuit. For example upon returning to my studies in philosophy recently, when I spoke of my admiration for some of Alain De Botton’s work in his book ‘Status Anxiety’ (www.alaindebotton.com), I was cautioned that this may not be well received by some in the Department as it was considered relatively “low brow” philosophy. I even had one female philosopher pass on an essay she had written on motherhood, excusing herself with the comment that this was not “serious”.
Having only completed part of my studies so far, I have yet to encounter the reactions to some of the topics which interest me philosophically and which I am sure may not be deemed “high brow” enough by other philosophers. Given however that the foundation of philosophical thought is essentially rooted in trying to answer the big questions in life, are we with this approach, in danger of removing life from the picture. Of what use are the big questions if they do not seek to assist us in understanding and experiencing our lives.
The way forward with this of course is to support the introduction of philosophical thinking at a much earlier age and to see it less as a specialist field of academia and more of a “toolbelt” for life. By training young minds to reflect, consider and work though philosophical issues which they can relate to, they will be better prepared for the big questions life throws at them later on. Support should also be given to places such as the School of Life in London (www.theschooloflife.com) and the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne (wheelercentre.com) which try to make areas like philosophy more accessible to the general public and engage them in thought. Finally, don’t be afraid to throw one in at the next BBQ you attend. Questions you may wish to ponder are, does food need to be cooked on a BBQ to have a BBQ? Is it important for people to socialise? and you could throw in a discussion on animal welfare rights (is it wrong to eat animals) for good measure!