Think of that moment of epiphany when you have just read something that has changed your life beyond what you imagined.
For me it is the moment in The Grapes of Wrath when Ma Joad is dealing with her son in law. He can stand life with them no more and has told her that he is leaving. Having been brought up in a world where you had to do what other people and circumstances required, her answer – you have to do what you have to do – was like a lightning bolt. I don’t say it made me different in my own actions, but it opened up the world to me.
For me it was the moment when listening to Leonard Bernstein conducting Beethoven’s 9th in Vienna in 1990, when he substituted Freiheit (freedom) for Freude (joy) in the choral movement – when a symphony that I had loved came alive in an entirely new way and we were witnessing the dawn of freedom in Eastern Europe.
For me it was first seeing The Awakening Conscience by William Holman Hunt because as a non-visual person (one word is worth a thousand pictures to me) it was a moment where I understood how a static painting could contain a whole narrative and convey a range of emotions.
It was listening to Tina Turner’s On Silent Wings when she sings about almost being able to hear the song they danced to, which somehow fired my soul and I was thrown back to remembering how songs were associated for me with pivotal moments of my life.
It was seeing the genuine love between the characters played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman at the end of Midnight Cowboy that had been created out of mutual antipathy, the most miserable circumstances and foulness, that made me think of relationships in a different way.
It isn’t necessary to have a liberal arts degree to have that sort of epiphany, but without the liberal arts, all of our lives would be much more like deserts than they are. Having liberal arts degrees is a testimony to the importance of literature, music and art – and show that one can deepen and broaden one’s own understanding of the world in a way that the crassness of most of modern life just doesn’t allow.
Some people like to suggest that a liberal arts degree will ruin the very object that you are studying because you are subjecting it to an analysis that it either can’t bear (usually unlikely) or that will trivialise it. Watch Howard Goodall analysing Sergeant Pepper – where the sheer artistry and joy are brought to life in a way that I hadn’t ever a chance of understanding even though I loved the album – and you will be disabused of such an attitude.
I’m obviously not a believer in utilitarianism – that you should only do something if it materially benefits you or society. I rail against the horribleness of most rich and powerful people’s attitudes which suggest that the fine arts are good – for them – and a complete waste of time for other people.