Dr Marilynne Robinson: arguing the case for liberal artsTuesday 21 July 2015
In the first ever Liverpool Hope Hopkins lecture, Dr Marilynne Robinson argued the case for the liberal arts university model and warned of the dangers of creating graduates who are there solely to fulfil an economic need.
In a lecture that traced the way in which the liberal arts have been viewed since the birth of Humanism, Dr Robinson revealed that when she teaches a new class she always begins by saying that “the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe.” She added, “We haven’t even begun to find out what we are capable of or what anyone we encounter is capable of.”
In response to a question from the audience, Dr Robinson cited President Barack Obama as “an argument for the liberal arts in the sense that he understands a great many things but he is not frozen in one way of thinking.”
Dr Robinson said that the President was a “very atypical politician” in that “he does not by any means have a one track mind. He understands economics, he talks with people about how to get to Mars, at the same time that he is very deeply read in fiction.” She also said that there have “been very few things in my life as moving” as the fact that the President likes her writing and has quoted her at various occasions.
Dr Robinson spoke of her fears that in our rush to ensure that our nations are the most competitive or the most productive, we are also at risk of abandoning our heritage for what, we are told, is our own self-preservation.
She argued that to see people merely as economic competitors and workers, who should learn simply what they are supposed to learn, is to trivialise human life. Dr Robinson then recounted her own experience of speaking to a cab driver who said that he had no idea that the world was something that he could be interested in – until he read a book.
Dr Robinson asked whether the vision of Alexis de Tocqueville, of a world where we can all enjoy the brilliance of people and there is no mention of competition or hierarchy of talents or gifts, is actually attainable.
However, she said that she is “afraid of the consequences of undervaluing human beings” and that “the idea of undervaluing human beings in any degree, approaching them with less than awe… is dangerous.”
Discussing her own work, Dr Robinson said that she does not see her fiction and her essays as separate, but that the novel form in particular allowed her to begin a conversation with those before her and with the different streams of her own civilisation, as she has come to understand it. Dr Robinson said that in fiction “you rotate an idea and look at it from various sides.”
The Liverpool Hope Hopkins Lectures are named after the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived and worked at the Creative Campus. They are hosted by the Department of English and focus on contemporary writing.
Dr Robinson will receive an honorary doctorate from Liverpool Hope University on Tuesday 21st July at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.