How to justify the humanities in a time of cut-backs

I am a king. 

I sit in the hall of my ancestors, on a throne of gold and crystal.  My castle overlooks the land, where there are many towns.  I rule as my fathers have done, justly, that all may live in freedom and enjoy their property without fear of robbers or invaders or my own tax-gatherers.  Yet we are not savages, and every modern convenience is at our disposal.  But we have no university in our land.

Today some clerks came to see me.  They asked me to give them gold every year, to pursue their studies. 

I asked them why I should do so.  For while my land is not impoverished, my people are not wealthy, and I will not take one man’s goods to give them to another without true need.

One of the clerks talked largely and vaguely of the importance of their studies, and I put him aside as a blatherer.  But another spoke more to the purpose.

“O king,” he said, “This land needs learning, that it may prosper, that your people may become more numerous — which is the strength of any land — and your treasury overflow with gold.”

“Say on,” I told him.  “How do words in books lead to so pleasing an end?”

“Your land needs Chemistry, so that plastics may be made and other synthetic materials, all of them necessary to a society which depends on such things.”

I replied, “Fair enough.  Let some chemists be hired, then, and facilities for their work supplied.”

“O king, unless you are willing for this knowledge to be the property of a rival monarch, to be withheld at their whim, you must train your own folk to be chemists.”

“Let it be so, then,” I replied.

“A university, then, there must be, and means for the young to attend it for the period of study necessary.  There must also be jobs for them to occupy, to practice their craft, after they have trained, or the supply will quickly wither away.”

“This seems reasonable,” I said.  “I will pay for some of this, and those merchants in my land who profit from their labours will pay for more.”

“There are other forms of learning also, which your land will need, in a similar way.”

“Say on, most persuasive of clerks.”

“You will need physicists also, for their command of the properties of matter, without which no machines may be fabricated.  Mathematicians also are needed, to create the control mechanisms for computers and electronics of every kind.  Doctors we shall need, until a day comes when none of us get sick.”

“All this I agree to.”

“You will need the botanist, to collect and examine plants.  For how else do new drugs and medicines come into being?  And the blights that affect the crops may be cured, if we know enough about them.  Likewise the zoologist, for his knowledge of animals, unless your majesty considers that a diseased horse is one fit to ride.”

“Your university will not be small, it seems, and the cost will be high.”

“Yet the cost of not doing so is higher.  For all these things are necessities, and lands that do not have the means to produce the works of craft that arise from these skills are poor indeed.  The engineer, who can build roads and railways and bridges, must also be found. And then there are those whose skills are less obvious, but equally necessary.”

I asked, “Who are these?”

“Your courtiers rely much on persuasion, on words, and on casting ideas in a favourable light.  But unless a king is educated, how may be know truth from falsehood?”

“These seem like vague statements,” I said, not entirely patiently.

“When a king has a matter of statecraft to decide, does he not wish to know whether his choice is wise or not?  If he could see what the consequences of each choice might be, would he not choose to do so?  This knowledge may often be found in the deeds of past rulers, however far in the past.  Moreover many things that exist in the world today make little sense of themselves, unless we know how they came to be.  A man can only remember a short period of time, from his own youth onwards.  A man who loses that memory is at the mercy of others who know more.  He cannot even live an independent life.  But what if it were possible to extend your memory back before your own life, into the remote past?  Would not such a thing be of the highest utility to a ruler?”

“I can imagine that it is so.  The decisions of rulers, the laws they passed, the battles they fought, the speeches that were made for and against, and how men politicked with one another… it seems useful for a ruler to know this.”

“Thus your majesty’s university must include the historian, who gathers this knowledge and produces books containing it.  It must also contain those who know the languages and literature, both of other lands, and of times gone by; for how otherwise can a historian read the books of past times?  Likewise there must be libraries of knowledge and literature for the same purpose, and those whose task is to find and edit these texts.  No doubt it is not necessary to have many who are skilled in a dead language of limited modern relevance, but what ruler would not choose  to have such a man at his disposal, at need?”

I replied, “Very well, you may have these also, O glib one.  But what of the study of the religions of man, past and present?  Will you find me a reason why I should hire men to tell me of these also?”

He paused, and then spoke slowly.  “The ideas that men share and throw around influence the course of politics; not always, but often.  Men who can discuss these ideas should be available to your majesty.  There seems no pressing need for your majesty to fund the training of your majesty’s clergy — surely their own collections of money to fund their own activities can cover that.  Some study of the past of these movements would naturally form part of history.  But there would seem to be a limit to what your majesty should pay for.”

“Particularly when your own pocket will contribute to the tax I levy to pay for all this,” I grumbled.

“Likewise knowledge of the beliefs of the fanatic clergy in your majesty’s neighbouring states should be paid for, as a matter of intelligence gathering on potential foes.”


“And thus you see, your Majesty, that you need a university, and you need one with clerks skilled, not merely in metals and machines and the methods of their invention and production, but also with a knowledge of the humanities.  This is not for any indefinite purpose, but as source of information whereby you can rule better, achieve more, and whereby your land can prosper.  A prosperous land will fill your treasury with gold.”

He ceased speaking, and there seemed little more to say.  All that remained was the question of how many jobs I should fund, how many students were desirable or necessary in each area, and the number of establishments required to make the whole system work.  And this task I assigned to my steward, reminding him that gold did not grow on trees and that no clerk should doubt that he held his post as a favour, not as of right.

5 thoughts on “How to justify the humanities in a time of cut-backs

  1. “There seems no pressing need for your majesty to fund the training of your majesty’s clergy — surely their own collections of money to fund their own activities can cover that”
    Two obvious problems here
    1. The kingdom may end up being rich with much gold and knowledge of its external enemies, but it will be fragile as the people of the kingdom may lack well trained clergy. The people in the first generation lack understanding of their religion but still express the external form of religion, the second generation lack even the external form, and the third generation lack any anchor that will stop them following any alternative – including the politics, philosophies and religions of the other kings. Much gold but neither cohesion nor loyalty.
    2. Outside of this hypothetical kingdom is the real kingdom of the UK – where many of the clery are theological flakes. Unfortunately funding from the taxpayer goes to both good and bad clergy – the bad clergy being one of the reasons why the first generation lack understanding of their religion … see above in point 1 for the rest.

  2. I think this presumes that state funding of the clergy is necessary for the work of God to take place. History rather suggests the opposite — state funding of clergy turns them into civil servants, and changes the church into a source of jobs, rather than a road of service. So I rather disagree. I think the state link is pernicious, you see.

  3. My point 2, at least regarding the bad clergy in state funded churches, is in agreement with you on this. But the majority of bad clergy in a whole range of denominations in the UK as well as in Australia where I am are not state funded
    Not sure how to fund the good clergy but the private enterprise method of funding is resulting in clergy who lack needed funds, and denominations unable to either fund full time research or properly support the training of clergy.
    Having worked in the largest theological college in Australia until just under 3 years ago (I’m a theological librarian) I am aware of how much more could have been done if there were sufficent funds

  4. Historically, it was the responsibility of each bishop to train clergy, and to feed and clothe the trainees (originally in his own house, and later in seminaries he ran). If there’s not enough money in a single bishop’s keeping, he can always pal up with bishops in like case and pool the finances and living expenses for the trainees.

    Even for small denominations, it’s a pretty darned poor denomination that can’t field its own minister school (or pool with denominations of similar theology).

    Why on earth would anybody trust the government to do the churches’ work for them? The UK is weird that way.

    As for crappy clergy, it’s generally not any lack of money for their schooling that makes them so. Plenty of well-funded yucky seminaries and theological schools.

  5. The King’s shilling comes with obligations, I agree. But Matthew is right that the bad clergy are just as prevalent in denominations like the US episcopalians that do not receive state money. But the state link — the establishment link — is still part of the reason for the bad clergy.

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