In Defence of the Arts: The Value of Arts and Humanities Degrees

20/06/2016 15:25 | Updated 6 days ago

Why do arts students get such a bad rep? From school to uni, the jibes continue: your subject is worthless, all you do is lie around and read, better get ready for unemployment, ha ha ha. Even when it's a 'joke', like my old school friend bemoaning the lack of male 'talent' on her Maths course and saying "ugh, we might have to mix with humanities students", it actually reflects genuine attitudes to anything that's not rooted in facts and figures. I shouldn't have to protest "But it's a BSc!" to defend the value of my Politics and International Relations degree, with its nine contact hours a week. The type of degree I'll get is irrelevant; it's still hard work, and I still worked hard to get here.

While there's no doubt science students have a fuller and more structured timetable, our minimal contact hours mean a lot of the work we do is up to us. The time you spend in labs, we spend trawling through books about political philosophy or Shakespeare or the French Revolution, trying to 'critically analyse' what this dry, academic text actually means. That's entirely different from picking up a Zadie Smith or Stephen King novel before bed, and it requires a great deal of self-motivation.

And it's not only our timetables that are attacked, but the content of our courses. While we may not be about to change the world through ground-breaking scientific research or technological advancement, humanities students can apply their knowledge in equally fruitful ways. I still remember, to this day, the prospective Oxbridge science student at school asking (without a hint of irony) who the Liberal Democrats were. She may have been good at Chemistry, but when it came to who was running the country, she didn't have a clue. Meanwhile, this is the very focus of subjects like Politics, Sociology and History.

Now, I'm not trying to resolve the debate by asserting our dominance over lowly science students; I'm sure there's many a student who knows how to solve an equation and reads the news. But my point is, the country (and the world) needs people with a variety of skills, knowledge and specialisms - we should celebrate the diversity of subjects in our education system, not pit them against each other. While our need for doctors, engineers and computer scientists is (quite rightly) widely acknowledged, the lawyers, politicians, translators, teachers and journalists of this world don't just appear out of nowhere, either. And that's focusing on just the 'respectable', professional arts-based careers: nor would our society be the same without the authors, musicians, designers, actors and museum curators that we so take for granted, but so enrich our lives. As the late Robin Williams said in Dead Poets Society, "Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits, and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."

While the nature of an arts degree is inherently less vocational, giving rise to the argument that "you don't need an English Literature degree to be a writer", they provide a range of transferable skills that enhance the capabilities of our population in more subtle ways. Three years spent reading widely and learning to extract and condense that information into concise, coherent essays is invaluable experience for a multitude of careers. And it's also about the knowledge gained: subjects like English, History and Philosophy create an awareness of the world around us, its culture and heritage, that would be lost if they ceased to exist. Contemporary literature would be entirely different without the study of the classics - and the same is true for art, music, and so on.

With tuition fees at £9,000 a year and set to rise even further, the stakes are high, and a degree is becomingly increasingly viewed as a sales transaction, only worth obtaining if you'll do something economically 'useful' (read: science or technology-based) in the end. But, despite what Michael Gove and co might think, education is more than a commodity, and a chronic disregard for the merits of arts degrees could result in the steady erosion of our culture.

Say what you like about arts students, but you'd miss them were they gone.