Wollaston Theological College
Of Education, entrepreneurship,
and Old Entish
Dr Mark Jennings, Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies
Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the Annual Cathedral Art Exhibition at St George’s Cathedral. I was gratified to see that the fine arts tradition is alive and well in our schools, evidenced in the high quality of the exhibited work. This is in stark contrast to the liberal arts tradition in our universities – including not only the fine arts, but literature and music, and the disciplines of enquiry such as history, and of course theology – which continue to dwindle. In part, this is because of the universalisation of entrepreneurship.
Arguably, entrepreneurs are an important element in a classic market economy, as they identify new areas of demand and assume the risk of satisfying these, and (if successful) reap the immediate monetary rewards before the market recalibrates. However, in a neoliberalised society such as ours, everything is monetized and measurable – not just markets – and so everyone needs to behave as if they are an entrepreneur. This is because the progressive rolling back of the welfare state and the demonisation of those who require it – nowhere more evident than in the despicable ‘Robodebt’ debacle – means that the risk that used to be assumed by a quantum of entrepreneurs is now universal. In other words, we are all ‘self-entrepreneurs’ now, and we are ourselves the product, as we build our personal ‘brand’ and constantly upgrade our own ‘human capital’ in order to compete for jobs, status, and even love (nowhere more evident than in the entrenchment of dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble, and Grinder). We have been socialised into acceptance that we must compete and win, because if we fail, absent any of the tax funded structures that are supposed to undergird an equitable society – we are on our own.
The liberal arts are declining in universities in part because self-entrepreneurs cannot afford to divert time and resources toward something that may not yield a competitive advantage. Law degrees ostensibly lead to a lucrative legal career, likewise accounting – but what on earth is a theologian? Starting salary? Prospects? (Granted, this may sound odd coming from someone with theology degrees working in a theological college – but not many will find themselves in that position). Likewise, literature, fine arts – does studying in these disciplines make you competitive in a brutal job ‘market,’ or are they a pleasant waste of your valuable time?
In defence of pleasantly wasting time – in the second book of J R R Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, we are introduced to the Ents, and their ponderous leader Treebeard. The Ents are the ‘shepherds of the trees,’ caring for the forests and roused to vicious and ‘hasty’ anger only when their beloved arboreal flock are threatened by Saruman’s war machine. The rest of the time, they speak and act very, very slowly. Indeed, responding to the hastiness of the two hobbits Merry and Pippen, Treebeard remarks that nothing ever happens quickly in his language, Old Entish: ‘It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a very long time to say, and to listen to.’
The very word ‘school’ arrives in modern English through a lengthy etymological process. In Greek, its original meaning was ‘place of leisure.’ And, equally, that word ‘leisure’ has its own history, derived from the Latin word for ‘liberty’ – leisure is what free people, not enslaved people, do (just as the ‘liberal’ arts are the pursuits of the free). It is supposed to be in such places of leisure, where we have the space to say things that have taken a very long time to think about and say, precisely because they are the only things worth taking a long time to think about and say, that we encounter what it really is to be a human being (as opposed to human capital). Arts don’t cure neoliberalism, of course – but in presenting the best of human achievement and knowledge, the things worth taking a very long time to think about and say, they help us imagine, contra the late neoliberal ideologue Margaret Thatcher, that there IS in fact an alternative. And we may even start wondering why we are so busy building our personal brand, and wonder what on earth all of it is even for. And – great news – theology, philosophy, history, fine arts, literature, are all about those questions too.
So, it really is more than wonderful to see that our schools are valuing and fostering the arts, long may they continue, as they have already long endured. And I encourage you to come study theology with us – at your leisure, of course. It is not just a pleasant waste of time – it might change you, and help you change the world as we know it.