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Artyness columnist Liza Mulholland argues that there is no vanity in learning and stands up for the arts and humanities

By Liza Mulholland

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Students have started back at universities and colleges, and when, locally, some of our UHI courses are being labelled by the new principal, Professor Todd Walker, as ‘vanity’, I must, as a musician and music educator, speak up for the arts.

Liza Mulholland.
Liza Mulholland.

I’m not entirely sure what Professor Walker, recently arrived in the Highlands from his native Australia, meant by the term ‘vanity courses’, but my guess is he refers to non-vocational study, for example in the arts, humanities and social sciences – courses where a student is not training for a specific job.

A quick search for a definition of vanity includes the Oxford Dictionary’s ‘the quality of being worthless or futile’, from the Latin vanus meaning empty or without substance.

With Scotland’s cherished tradition of reverence for education, the intrinsic worth of enquiry and nourishment of the mind, learning for its own sake, what aspect of education could ever be classed as futile or worthless?

My own experience is perhaps a useful case in point. My three siblings and I attended Glasgow University, all of us arts graduates. My main subjects were Scottish history and sociology but also in the mix were Scottish literature, moral philosophy, Gaelic and psychology.

Now, I never became a historian or a sociologist, but those studies were not futile or mere vanity; they have enriched my life immeasurably, and informed and enlivened every single day of my working life. Not to mention enhanced my love of lively reasoned debate and discussion.

Todd Walker, UHI's principal and vice-chancellor.
Todd Walker, UHI's principal and vice-chancellor.

Yes, of course we need to meet the requirements of new industries like renewables and build on Scotland’s long tradition of engineering and science expertise, and, as my dad was an engineer working in heavy industry, I have great respect for those fields.

But arts and humanities are as essential to the ambition and broad vision of a university, as STEM subjects, and the benefits of arts and culture in folks’ lives are real, tangible, and multifarious. It is worth remembering too that they also contribute a massive amount to the economy.

So, on this note, I encourage any youngsters who might enjoy musical and creative fun, to sign up for a Fèis in the ‘tattie holidays’!

In Inverness, Fèis a’ Bhaile will run from October 18-22 in Culloden-Balloch Baptist Church, with instrument and groupwork sessions from age five to teens. (I’ll be tutoring at this one and would love to see you there!)

Meanwhile, Fèis Rois runs the first-ever ‘satellite’ Fèis Rois nan Deugairean in Dingwall, Tain and Ullapool the same week.

The sense of accomplishment and confidence-boost when children master a tune, play with others in a ceilidh group, sing, dance or act, can’t be overstated.

They may even wish to pursue the arts in further or higher education.

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