Campion Professor: Eradication of Humanities ‘at our peril’

Reading Time: 6 minutes

 

Dr Luciano Boschiero, Dean of Studies at Campion College, says the humanities is vital PHOTO; Campion College

If you would like a simple and clear artistic expression of why the Federal Government’s proposed reform of university funding, especially the reduced support for the humanities, is so wrong-headed, let me draw your attention to a fresco in Siena, Italy.

This fresco, in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico — the city’s town hall, if you will, during the Renaissance — is known as The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. t was painted in the 1330s by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and stretches across three adjoining walls. It was commissioned by the governors of Siena and intended to be a reminder of their duties. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

After we defeat the Coronavirus and lift the travel restrictions, I recommend you see this artwork and appreciate why Humanities students must not—and will not—be bullied into dropping their interests for the sake of the government’s presumed future job market.

students must not—and will not—be bullied into dropping their interests for the sake of the government’s presumed future job market

This fresco, in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico — the city’s town hall, if you will, during the Renaissance — is known as The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. It was painted in the 1330s by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and stretches across three adjoining walls. It was commissioned by the governors of Siena and intended to be a reminder of their duties — perhaps something similar is needed in Canberra overhanging the Cabinet room.

“Perhaps something similar is needed in Canberra overhanging the Cabinet room Interior,” writes Dr Luciano Boschiero. Pictured is a detail of Australia’s Federal Parliament building, Canberra. PHOTO: Edward Dalmulder

The main fresco representing good government contains one large allegorical figure; a male personification of the Common Good. He is surrounded by allegories of Peace, Bravery, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice.

He is surrounded by allegories of Peace, Bravery, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Beneath him, the citizens of Siena carry intertwined cords, seemingly dispensed by Justice, assisted by Wisdom and Harmony. The people are, in other words, united. The people of Siena also submit to the Common Good through the offering of taxes and tributes, even acknowledging that the nobles among them owe their positions of privilege to the city.

Above them all, float representations of the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Above them all, float representations of the virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. The effects of a good government, observant of the virtues, is depicted on an adjoining wall. Symbols of manufacturing, construction, trade, and civic harmony abound, as well as a peaceful connection between the people and their land.

Here, greed, lust, cruelty, and material gain are evidently causing the destruction of the virtues, including the death of Justice and the decay of the land. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Bad government and its results are depicted on the opposing wall. Here, greed, lust, cruelty, and material gain are evidently causing the destruction of the virtues, including the death of Justice and the decay of the land. The message is abundantly clear: to achieve a peaceful, just democracy, the virtues must be upheld and protected.

 to achieve a peaceful, just democracy, the virtues must be upheld and protected

The presence of Wisdom, floating above Justice, is especially important in this respect, because it was well known during the Renaissance that the study of Philosophy (the word literally translated from Latin as ‘love of wisdom’), was the pathway to personal growth, good governance, and civic harmony. And to study Philosophy, meant pursuing the combination of language, music, mathematics, rhetoric, and logic. These were the basics of an undergraduate career in the medieval universities, and remained so into the modern age. Central to these liberal arts, was Theology.

“These were the basics of an undergraduate career in the medieval universities, and remained so into the modern age. Central to these liberal arts, was Theology,” writes Dr Luciano Boschiero. Swiss Guards attend a Mass in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican – a UNESCO World Heritage site and a testament to the achievements of the Arts in the Western tradition PHOTO: CNS/Maurizio Brambatti, pool via Reuters

We find all these studies currently in our humanities departments and emphasised in our liberal arts colleges — yes, even Theology, or at least some version of this which might come in the form of Religious Studies — augmented by modern university disciplines, such as History and Sociology. I don’t believe, in my lifetime, I’ve ever heard a Prime Minister or Education Minister, speak of the importance of virtues in the study of the humanities and its positive effects on society.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a man of faith and conscience, (pictured here consoling the mother of deceased firefighter Andrew O’Dwyer) means well but may underestimate the crucial role of the Arts – no less than the fiscal health of a nation – in steering a society towards the Common Good PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

I did, however, recently hear a recorded speech by Robert Menzies (founder of the modern Liberal Party that Scott Morrison now leads) in which he railed against job-focused specialisation at university.

Campion College’s Old Toongabbie Campus – Australia’s only Liberal Arts College that teaches a Classical Western educational tradition PHOTO: Campion College

The Prime Minister would do well to reflect on his predecessor’s message to the Headmaster of King’s School in Canterbury, UK: “When you sit down at the end of your academic year and contemplate the past 12 months, your greatest pride will be to feel that you have helped to create a substantial group of civilised citizens.”

These words should echo in the minds of Prime Ministers and Education Ministers who dare to undermine the value of the humanities.

A young man contemplates the devastation in front of the ruins of Urakami Cathedral, Nagasaki – a reminder of the unspeakable atrocities that can be unleashed by a civilisation that forgets its history PHOTO: (Stanley Troutman / The Associated Press)

If we continue to ignore the fundamental principles and importance of the humane sciences towards achieving good governance, this will only ultimately be to the peril of our tertiary education system, and our society as a whole.

Dr  Luciano Boschiero is the Dean of Studies at Campion College. He specialises in the history and philosophy of early modern science – particularly scientific academies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He is also interested in the history of universities and has edited a book on the topic: On the Purpose of a University Education (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2012). Luciano is Co-Editor of Metascience: Reviews for the History, Philosophy and Social Studies of Science (Springer) and is an Advisory Editor for Isis: An International Review Devoted to the History of Science and its Cultural Influences (University of Chicago Press).

Related Stories: