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Why Arts and Humanities Are Vital To Education

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

SSOA members' responses to this week's writing prompt ranged from opinion pieces to addressing the proposition obliquely through fiction. You'll probably enjoy reading them all for their variety, but let's start with a story approach:

It wasn’t Harrison’s vocal level that made me go to the old bookshelf in the small dark office at the front of our terrace house, rather the tone of his voice. Listening to him call down the microphone to his friends as he sat in his bedroom playing 'Fortnite', his voice carried the serious immediacy of a captain shouting orders as he guided his sloop though a gale.

The office smelt of decaying paperbacks and yellowing foolscap. It had one small window that looked out onto the street and allowed a single beam of sunlight into the dingy space for three hours every afternoon when the sun dipped below the awning, before sinking beneath the thick green Japanese box hedge that lined the front of the house.

I ran my hand over the dusty undulations created by the different novels, thinking most of them beyond Harrison's capacity but stopped when I came to ‘The Old Man and The Sea’. Simple language that a thirteen-year-old could understand, I thought.

Standing in the doorway to his bedroom, I held up the book so he could see the cover. ‘Harrison, I’m going to read you a book this afternoon.’

Without looking up, ‘Can I finish this game?’

I swallowed a hard little ball of annoyance. ‘No, I have to drive you back to your mother’s place in a few hours and I really want to get you started on this book.’

He rolled his eyes, sighed and flicked down his headset microphone ‘sorry guys I have to go AKY for a while.’

‘What does AKY stand for?’

Shrugging his shoulders, ‘I don’t know.’*

We sat together on the large worn sofa in the corner of the lounge room under the lamp with a wooden shade. He put his head on my shoulder, and I opened the book.

'You know Harrison, this is only a small book but it’s a particularly important book. It works on different levels. So, you read it now and then when you read it again in ten years you'll see more meaning in it.’

Harrison lifted his head and frowned. ‘You’re not gunna make me read it again, are ya?’

David Benn

* AKY stands for 'Awesome, Knowledgeable, Youthful'.

Arts and Humanities are integral to human life

Since the beginning of humankind, we have felt a deep need within us to express beauty or our surrounds in some art form, long before words were invented. The decorative bulls in Lascaux cave in France, dating back to nearly 15,000 BCE, show us how skilled our ancestors were in depicting the movement and flow of their everyday existence. The still vibrant natural colours lift our hearts and spirits to this day.

It is the same with the dancing Mimi Spirits in the rocky crevices of our own ancient continent. They represent the first teachers for the indigenous people of the land - showing them how to hunt and survive in harsh conditions while playfully singing and telling stories. It is this imparted knowledge that allowed them to survive for 40,000 years at one with nature.

Women and men for millennia have adorned themselves with whatever was available in their environment, whether it be shells, stones or dyes from the earth or forest. This shows how innate it is in us to use our imagination and reflect what is within, in some outward fashion.

The Industrial Revolution had many good outcomes but sadly it heralded the era of speedy mass production of goods for profit, and slowly but surely, time became the new master of our lives, with so much of what we do now calculated and regimented by how long it takes. Craftwork that once demanded careful attention, time and precision is now churned out by machines and 3D printers and our imaginations are curbed by deadlines.

I was very resentful at the school I attended that our classes were streamed into categories deemed to represent levels of intelligence, offering little or no choice to mix languages, art and music with mathematics and science subjects. We were pre-programmed like sheep into particular roles for life that were all about earning capacity and status in society.

Robots and computers will evolve to replicate our right brains but we need to take care and nourish the left side so that beauty and creativity will prevail in our world for now and for posterity.

Gerdette Rooney

Arts and Humanities are essential to education

Like everything else in life, it’s all about balance. What inevitably impedes this state is vested interests. Before the digital revolution, it is fair to say that most Western academic institutions could boast of reasonably balanced course offerings, given that some also developed reputations for excellence in particular fields. Achieving a balanced education was almost certainly the basis for insisting that faculties such as engineering, architecture and the sciences ensured that their candidates for degrees undertook one or more arts or humanities subjects. While this may have been paying lip service to more historical educational practices, it possibly broadened the thinking of what would be otherwise narrow specialities.

Nature has a way of seeking homeostasis in order to maintain equilibrium among all forms of life. When imbalance occurs, forces beyond the control of humankind have a way of tipping the scales back towards the centre. So it is with education. Over the centuries, pragmatic politicians and education policy makers have attempted to load up cultures with more science, more esoteric subjects or courses aimed at producing a particular strain of professionals according to the perceived needs of the times. Artificial intelligence and I.T. are perhaps the current driver.

I have every confidence that the scales will tip eventually and we will see digital scientists with a penchant for poetry or philosophy.

Lawrence Goodstone

Why are Arts and Humanities important?


Who invented the first manifestation of scientific research? A philosopher called Aristotle. Who defined the basic principles of the modern scientific method? Philosopher John Locke and others who followed, including David Hume and Karl Popper.

Who inspired many of the leaders of modern research in artificial intelligence? The script writers of 'Star Trek' and science fiction novelists such as H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem to name but a few.

Who gave us the first psychological examination of human motivation? Shakespeare.

Who gave us our myths of heroism that inspire great achievement? Storytellers throughout history from Homer and Virgil through to the business leaders of today, who all learn about storytelling as a key part of the role of leadership.

Who exposes the truth? Journalists who know how to research the human archives of correspondence and history, and then write about it.

Who teaches us to look with open eyes and listen properly? Artists and musicians such as Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso, Mozart, Beethoven and Ravel.

So who is asking why? Someone who has decided to penalise university students who intend to study subjects in the Arts and Humanities. That same someone who needs to learn about human history himself.

Wayne Henderson


Copyright David Benn, Gerdette Rooney, Lawrence Goodstone and Wayne Henderson.

Photo credits Unsplash and Wiki Commons.

SSOA writers' blogs are made possible through the support of City of Sydney grant assistance.


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