The Importance of Being Useless

A piece by one of the most inspiring tutors I had at the then King Alfred’s College, Nigel Tubbs – who always challenged our thinking. I remember our first lecture with him (Education Studies), when he asked us to stand up (we did) “you’re a product of the educational system”. When he said it again, none of us stood up. Nigel repeats observation. The third time none of us knew quite what to do… read some of his challenges as to the purpose of education here:

Aristotle noted that the same ideas return in men’s minds, not once or twice but again and again. By the same token, does the recent introduction of named liberal arts degrees at the universities of Winchester, Exeter, Birmingham, Kent and King’s College London (and in the nascent independent Catholic Benedictus College) signal the return, again, of the ancient ideal of education as an end in itself? Put differently, and not pejoratively, does it mean the return of “useless” education?

In antiquity, a useless education was the highest and most noble form of education because it represented the genuinely free education of the genuinely free man. But such individuals were free from instrumental ends only because they owned slaves, leaving these leisured scholars uninterrupted freedom for their intellectual enquiries into the first principles of the natural universe and social life within it. This is not the definition of freedom, or of useless education, that is appropriate for a modern liberal arts education.

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It’s the breadth that matters

I was taught by Nigel Tubbs (years ago) as part of my Education Studies degree.

Liberal arts degrees are appearing in the UK and arousing much interest. Protagonists claim that the wide-ranging education provides more rounded individuals who are better prepared for modern employment. Rebecca Attwood writes

Nigel Tubbs, professor of philosophical and educational thought at the University of Winchester, has encountered a few false impressions when promoting his university’s new degree in modern liberal arts.

One prospective student, confusing liberal arts with creative arts, thought that taking a liberal arts degree must mean that “you dance a lot”.

So, on open days and when visiting sixth forms, Tubbs tries to raise interest in the degree, which imparts general knowledge and develops intellectual skills rather than specialising in one subject. Good tactics, he has found, are asking prospective students if they have found that their own world view doesn’t fit neatly into any of the subjects they are studying; and asserting that degrees that focus on just one subject are “the new kids on the block”.

“We were here in 400BC,” he tells them.

Many of the students’ parents have told Tubbs they wish that they had had the chance to take such a wide-ranging programme, which spans disciplines from art and music to politics, mathematics and cosmology.