There is nothing wrong with vocational training; a fulfilling career is an important part of a good life. Much of my academic work over the years has been devoted to career preparation. I was once a Dean of Medicine and there are few more vocational courses than medicine. Our students were all bright but they were narrowly focussed on their career goals.

They resented any time spent on subjects that weren’t directly related to diagnosing or treating patients. It’s easy to see why.

Studying philosophy does not make it any easier to remove a prostate gland; reading Galen sheds little light on how to recognise pneumonia. As far as our students were concerned, time spent on any subject not related to a doctor’s daily work was time wasted.

It’s easy to empathise with them; medical education is long, arduous and expensive. Why add to its length and cost with apparently irrelevant subjects? If students want to study history, literature and philosophy, they can take them up when they retire and have time for such frivolity.

This makes some sense, from the students’ vantage point, but it demeans our purpose as universities.

Yes, we must prepare graduates for what they will do in life but we also have a duty to help them to at least think about what kind of people they want to be. Indeed, these two educational goals—doing and being—are actually inextricable. Let me tell you why.

No one would try to argue that a deep knowledge of philosophy makes surgeons better at removing a prostate. But, it might deepen their empathy and improve their understanding of what constitutes a high quality life.

This would not help them know how to remove a prostate but it could help them to decide whether it should be removed in the first place. Such wisdom is essential for a doctor’s work. Without it, how does a doctor tell a mother-to-be that her baby will have Down’s syndrome? How does the doctor explain the mother’s options to her in a humane way? This takes more than just knowledge of genetics. It also requires an understanding of suffering, of disappointment and maternal love.

How does a doctor tell a daughter that her mother’s life support needs to be withdrawn? It takes more than just knowledge of physiology. It also requires an understanding of loss. How does an emergency room doctor avoid despair when faced with a baby battered nearly to death by its own father? Such horror requires a faith in humanity that cannot be learned in the anatomy lab.

It’s not just doctors who could benefit from a broader education. Everyone can.

Studying drama would not have helped financiers devise the complicated financial derivatives that plunged the world into financial crisis. But, if they were familiar with Faust, they may have thought twice about the consequences of their actions.

Being able to quote from Shelley’s poems will not help politicians get elected (certainly not in Australia). But studying Ozymandias might make them more humble and thoughtful about their accomplishments.

Rupert Murdoch might not now be shaking his head and muttering “Who would have thought it would come to this?” Instead, he might be reflecting on Shakespeare’s words about how easy it is to be “done to death by a slanderous tongue”.

As I say this, I’m looking around the audience and I can see the raised eyebrows of my academic colleagues. A generation of graduates familiar with the great works of history, philosophy and literature is a wonderful vision. But they doubt that reading Goethe and Shelley and Shakespeare guarantees wisdom.

They are correct. Reading, by itself, won’t make anyone wise. Experience is also required.

As Odysseus learns on his journey back to Ithaca, some important lessons can only be learned the hard way—through bitter experience. Nothing has changed.

Youth start out with sex, drugs and rock and roll and with experience they eventually come to appreciate the Delphic prescription “nothing to excess”. Tragic exceptions—like poor Amy Winehouse — only serve to prove the rule. There is a problem, however.

Experience, alone, cannot guarantee wisdom any more than reading books can. The lessons of life are only available to those who are ready to learn them.

If wisdom is the goal, then students must “walk 10,000 miles, read 10,000 books” said 17th century Chinese philosopher, Gu Yanwu. In other words, becoming wise requires more than a set of adventures but a cultured mind that is open, ready and able to absorb the lessons that experience teaches.

Pasteur famously said that “Chance favours the prepared mind”, and our job as university academics is to take his words seriously. To prepare students to learn from experience, we need to go beyond vocational training.

Life, death, tragedy, love, beauty, courage, loyalty — all of these are omitted from our modern vocational curricula and yet, when it comes time to sum up our lives, they are the only things that ever really matter.

On Ash Wednesday, the priest admonishes the faithful to “remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” A salutary reminder of what we all have waiting for us.

In the meantime, like the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, we spend our years trying to find some meaning in our lives. It is easy to fall into the pit of nihilism, to consider life “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.

But before we let our students reach Macbeth’s conclusion, we should at least try to provide them with the intellectual foundation they need to make such a judgement. Fortunately, it turns out that students want us to do this.

The Vice-President of an American university recently asked his students: “Why have you come to university?” The students said, “I want a good job” or “I need a degree to get a promotion at work”. Not surprising. Just what he expected. But, when he framed the question in a larger context: “What kind of life to you want to be leading five or ten years from now?” the answers were different. Students talked about purpose, meaning, identity, integrity and relationships.

There is a hunger for the kind of insight and wisdom that a narrow skills education cannot satisfy.

Not long ago, I published an article in a magazine saying that there ought to be a list of great literary works with which every student should be familiar. This sparked a lively debate in the magazine and the Internet.

Most writers agreed that there should be such a list, but, as you can imagine, not everyone agreed about what should be on it. The important point is that people really cared. They felt strongly that books have the power to convey wisdom. And so do I.

Whatever profession students choose to pursue, they will benefit not only as professionals but also as human beings from being exposed to the greatest works of fiction, history, biography, philosophy and science.

It is from these sources that they will learn about love and loss, about memory and desire, about loyalty and duty, about our world and our universe and about what it means to be a human being.

This is an edited version of the 2011 Macquarie University Annual Lecture by its Vice-Chancellor, Professor Steven Schwartz, in Sydney. 

Professor Steven Schwartz is the Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University. He has also served as Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in London, England and Vice-Chancellor of Murdoch University in Perth,...