A rich foundation in the classical humanities is critical to understanding how best to solve the world’s most challenging problems. Students of the classical humanities – through the foresight of history, the enlightenment of philosophy and the creativity of literature – are armed with a strategic grasp of the world’s great dilemmas, in a way that gives them an enduring and versatile ability for problem solving. Such protégés of the arts are equipped with a keen situational awareness of the contemporary world’s context in the evolving experience of humanity. Make no mistake – their work cannot be simply confined to schools and universities, their presence of mind is greatly needed in this day and age, especially as our nation approaches a particularly important federal election. To illustrate why our country, and our world, needs more humanists I’ve chosen to reflect on that most rarefied classical problem solver: the statesman.
Australia now looks to an immediate future where our part of the world will change rapidly and profoundly. The prosperity – and power – of our close neighbours are set to rise and Australia’s role in this prosperity seems uncertain, particularly set against the backdrop of our increasingly interdependent world. Now, perhaps more than ever before, our nation needs great statesmen: leaders of imagination and creativity who can look at the world and the challenges before us from an elevated and enlightened vantage point. We need people of ambitious vision to raise the calibre of our domestic debate and seize the momentum of our political neighbourhood so that Australia can fulfil its absolute capacity for greatness. Statesmen need not be politicians (in fact perhaps they shouldn’t be); they can be from all walks of life: entrepreneurs, spiritual leaders, writers who capture the national imagination, scientific masters of innovation or even the warriors of sport and combat.
One of history’s ultimate statesmen and a man who exemplifies the strengths of a classical education is Benjamin Franklin. It is difficult to know where to begin with Franklin owing to the fact that his accomplishments were so richly numerous and spanned so many fields of expertise that to simply laud one victory unjustly diminishes the weight of another. Franklin never committed himself to any one profession at the exclusion of others, instead living as a jack-of-all-trades, an exemplary polymath of life-long learning. He was a prolific writer, a tactful propagandist, a cunning politician, a concise philosopher, an innovative scientist, a lucrative businessman, an inspired inventor and a budding guitarist to boot.
Franklin’s ‘education,’ was not confined to any particular institution or any particular period of his lifetime. By his nature, he consumed and analysed all the information he encountered and by the end of his days he boasted honorary degrees and doctorates from Harvard, Yale, Oxford, St Andrews and Pennsylvania University, of which he was a founding forefather. He was possessed by an unquenchable curiosity in all aspects of academic endeavour and distinguished himself in several fields of science as well as in poetic, political and philosophical writing.
Franklin was a globe-trotter in an age where most people rarely left their home town. He was as integrated upon the international stage as he was within his local community of Pennsylvania. As America’s first official diplomat he forged vital treaties with France and Sweden and was an inspiring influence on the revolutionary French whom he counselled during his travels. Franklin was a vital figure for America at every level of its fledging nationhood. Whilst he settled deals of commerce and military alliances in Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic he was equally instrumental in everything from the establishing of the first postal service to the drafting of the Constitution itself. Indeed, Franklin was the only figure of the period to have signed all the critical documents of America’s birth, making his mark on the Declaration of Independence, the Treaty of Paris and the Constitution.
Franklin was a strong advocate for interdisciplinary learning with his studies never being confined to a single discipline. His experiments in electricity and meteorology were as much practical exercises in natural philosophy as they were observations in physical science. It was this approach that imbued his mind with a versatile brilliance. Franklin was armed with a firm education in every layer of his society that he was able to traverse topics of expertise with ease, and analyse and evaluate the challenges of his era by way of lateral thinking and alternative methods outside the considerations of his more orthodox contemporaries. All that Franklin achieved seems to be in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles of the age. In the face of war, ill health, isolation and a meagreness of educational resources, Franklin gave to the world momentous treasures of thought in the emerging physical sciences, political philosophy and social science.
It’s worth remembering that far from being a prescribed or formalised role, statesmen come in many forms, but all, like Franklin, seem to embody the great virtues of selfless duty and inspiring leadership on the world’s stage. More so, however, these resonating figures in human affairs are always equipped with a fundamental grasp of society’s numerous layers, a multi dimensional perspective that is best nurtured in the broad-based study of the classical humanities.
The classical humanities do not teach to a career or a trade, but teach to a vocation, an open lifestyle designed to nurture our individual virtues for the cause of a greater societal ideal. Franklin lived this lifestyle of open and unfettered learning fired by a searing curiosity. The classical arts awaken and nurture that same curiosity that we, like Franklin, all have within us. Organisations like The Melbourne Globalist and Humanities 21 ensure that the next generations have interactive outlets to explore and develop that curiosity for the benefit of themselves, and the wider community. Who knows – we might even produce a statesman or two.
by William Stoltz