Arts for arts sake? Writers on the value of an arts degree

Is an arts degree still worth doing? A host of writers explain what they got out of it

Joseph O’Connor

I did an arts degree, English and history, at UCD, and it was one of the most valuable experiences of my life. I was very lucky in that my teachers included such great people as Declan Kiberd, Seamus Deane, Hugh Gough, Ronan Fanning, Mary Daly and Michael Laffan. When taught well to a student who wants to engage, an arts degree develops the ability to think independently, to sift and weigh evidence, to be able to express views critically, to approach the world with a degree of skepticism but not cynicism. It teaches you that having an opinion is something a bit more demanding than being a pub bore and it enourages a sort of intellectual restlessness, which I think is useful not just for the individual but for the wider community. The division between science and the arts is a false one anyway. The artist and the scientist are often trying to do similar things: understand how the world works, how it might be bettered, where realities came from and where they’re heading now. Every novelist must be a sort of engineer, for example, in that the structure of the novel must be designed for purpose. And I’m struck by how often students of design use the language and techniques of storytelling.

Professor Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt Chair of Creative Writing, University of Limerick

The Guyliner


Very simply, my arts degree taught me to think for myself. When I was tipped out into the world at 18, after finishing school, I was still so undercooked, so incomplete; I had no idea of my place in the world was or how I could make things happen. I wasn’t quite good enough for a journalism degree and my practical skills were lacking, but I knew I had a voice and all I needed was to develop it, to become articulate, informed. Arts degrees encourage free thinking, and discussion. Maths and sciences are vital and practical – my arts degree taught me that in life there are very few final answers and everything is open for debate. If you are going to get anywhere in this world, you have to realise you can never know everything, but as long as you’re as clued up as you can be, you can still make it work.

Arts degrees are about fine-tuning the voices of thousands others into a melody that suits you. They teach you compassion, understanding, assessment and judgement – they tell you to object, to listen to your emotions and accept that logic is only a point of view. To do a degree that isn’t particularly prescriptive, specialised or vocational isn’t useless; it’s committing yourself to a journey of self-discovery and improvement, and that should be applauded. Arts degrees show your independence of spirit, that you know your own mind. They teach you to question and critique the world. Maybe that’s why everyone else is so afraid of us – they know we’ve already got them all worked out.

The Guyliner is a writer and journalist for Gay Times and British GQ among others. He also blogs about the Guardian Blind Date column.

Manchán Magan

I have a BA from UCD, received in 1993, but I term it my Batchelor of Cretinhood.... My brother, Ríoch, paid for me to go to college and I’m so grateful to him for it, but I believe UCD taught me very little. Fortunately, I went to an amazing Jesuit-run secondary school that taught me the basics very well and from then on I believe all my most enlightened and mind-expanding education was through travel in Africa, South America and India. Had I my time over again in this era of the 21st century I would definitely study science. I believe art and the arts have exhausted themselves. They are eating their own tails. The true pioneering breakthroughs and daring exploration of what it means to be and exist are all likely to be through science in the 21st century. Clearly, we need to learn how to communicate elegantly, creatively and eloquently, which an arts degree can help with, but then we must resist the temptation to get stuck in the arts and instead continue to expand our horizons into science and technology if we are to continue to grow, learn and develop our minds, curiosity and understanding of existence.

Manchán Magan is a writer and broadcaster. His books include Truck Fever: A Journey Through Africa

Neil Hegarty

A certain Irishman once announced he was about to set off to forge the “uncreated conscience of my race.” How did James Joyce do that? – through words, through examining his cultural experience, and sharing the power of its richness. Without Joyce, we wouldn’t be as conscious of that cultural wealth, which he enabled us to become aware of at the same time as we grasp its oppressiveness, its absurdity, or its fragmentation.

We are all familiar with encounters in which there is a lack of any such consciousness: the dull, flat language of technical expertise or measurement, which dominates increasingly the world of work. We also all know what it is to encounter a person, a book, a conversation, in which that consciousness is alive and expansive, in which we get lifted out of the monotony of chores, targets and obligations.

Culture, then, is a fundamental building block of society. The arts need to be studied, discussed, valued – but the time and togetherness needed for such experiences is rapidly slipping out of reach, due not only to the demands of work but also to the encroachment of technological distraction that now permeates all our lives. The chance to spend a few years at university studying works of literature, art, music, and philosophy, or studying the society which produced us and which will soon enough call on us to contribute to it as workers and citizens: this can be a small yet vital part of our entry into adulthood – as well as a significant contribution to the common good.

Neil Hegarty’s debut novel is Inch Levels

Tommy Conlon

Disastrously, my arts degree helped get me into journalism. Helpfully, it meant that said arts degree could be translated into the hard currency of a job, despite offering little hope in this regard.

In any event I didn’t have much of a choice, being stone useless at any kind of manual work, and lacking a scintilla of the motivation necessary to study anything that didn’t interest me. I tried law at night school for a few months. My brain shut down from sheer boredom.

English and history it was so, at UCD. Happily, you could spend days and weeks reading novels while deluding yourself that you were actually studying, as opposed to being a complete layabout.

If one studies accounting, engineering or medicine, one usually becomes an accountant, engineer or doctor. Do a BA and you could end up doing anything. I remember arguing this point at the time with my sceptical father, a tradesman who took a more practical attitude to the business of making one’s way in the world.

“Or you could end up doing nothing either,” came the retort. We were both half-right and half-wrong.

Tommy Conlon is a sportswriter, ghostwriter, Sunday Independent columnist and co-author with Ronnie Whelan of Walk On: My Life in Red

Robert O’Byrne

I took a degree in history at TCD so long ago that the era probably now merits a history undergraduate’s dissertation (as might also my subsequent “career” trajectory). The present debate over third-level education revolves around whether or not its primary function is to produce employable graduates. Such an approach seems to be more about training than education per se: in effect attendance at university becomes a form of upmarket apprenticeship. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, should broaden all horizons and allow for all possibilities. Of course it will always be the case that certain fields of study, most especially the sciences, are intended to prepare participants for specific work, but others prepare you for life. I’m thankful I opted for the latter.

History teaches you: that the passage of time makes almost every dispute look absurd; to distrust all ideologies, religious and political alike, and to fear all ideologues; that change is inevitable but progress is not; to appreciate that hatred and love have consistently co-existed and will continue to do so; that legislation may undergo alteration but the Law of Unexpected Consequences remains the same; that popularity is no measure of quality; that we should not be troubled about the opinion of our contemporaries because posterity remains the only unswervingly accurate judge.

Robert O’Byrne is a writer specialising in the fine and decorative arts, and blogs at

Michael Hughes

I’m a good person to ask about the value of an arts degree. Not only do I have one myself, but I’ve taught on one too. And I found that most of my students chose it for the same reason I did: to spend a few years studying a subject they loved.

A couple of decades later, I’m still in touch with half a dozen of my fellow English literature students. Most of us have found our way to careers we couldn’t have guessed at back then. One advises companies investing in high-risk countries, one produces video games, another trained as a criminal barrister. And yes, a couple teach English at schools or universities. All of us still love the subject.

But I remember that when I first got to college, I was extremely frustrated by what we studied, and how it was taught. It all seemed so far away from what was happening in the real world, and the issues that really mattered to me. Just what was the point, I found myself asking, of an arts degree? So after a year, I decided to change course, to politics.

It was a huge mistake. The real world, as I saw it, was nowhere to be found. Instead of discussing ethics, and identity and the nature of power, I was trying to get to grips economic theory, and the checks and balances of the US executive branch, struggling to catch up with fellow students who’d been studying the subject for years. Because they loved it.

And I began to realise why it was I loved English so much. The literature I’d been reading all asked the same question, one I think is at the heart of all great imaginative writing: “What is it like to be alive?” Simply put, these works let us travel through time and space, between classes and cultures, testing and forming ourselves in sympathy with what we read, and often in opposition to it. Equally valuable is the ancient skill of rhetoric: how to structure an argument, support it with evidence, persuade others to think again.

After six miserable weeks studying politics, I put this last skill into practise, and I was allowed to change course to English again. I never looked back.

So now I ask myself: did an arts degree make me and my fellow students better people, or better citizens or even just better at our jobs? The safe thing to do is hedge my bets, and say, “It’s impossible to tell.” But the truth is, I think probably all three.

Michael Hughes is the author of The Countenance Divine

Michael Collins

I majored in English at an American university, but there was ample opportunity to take elective courses in other disciplines. I took computer programming classes and logic courses in my last two years of college and on the merits of these real-world projects I was able to compile a portfolio of computer projects, which I submitted with my resume.

In the intervening years, while working with high-tech start-up entrepreneurs, I discovered that most entrepreneurs majored in the arts and that their engagement with technology was prompted from a philosophical sense of inquiry, the asking of hypothetical “What if?” questions. Programming was merely the most expedient tool to actualize what was being asked.

So, to answer the question “is an arts degree worth pursuing?” I’d qualify my answer and provisionally say “Yes”, but I would advocate that students take elective courses in an array of other disciplines, especially programming, given the underpinning of most successful startups is tied directly or indirectly to technology and one’s sense of how technology can be used to streamline processes.

Michael Collins’ latest novel is The Death of all Things Seen

Ed O’Loughlin

Far from being impractical, my arts degree has been very useful to me in both of my careers, as a journalist and writer. I studied English literature and French literature and language at Trinity College. The utility of an English degree to an Irish author goes without saying. As for the French component of my degree, which I pursued somewhat half-heartedly, I had more or less written it off when, six years after graduation, I was sent to Africa as a correspondent for this newspaper. Many of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa were colonised by France or Belgium and still use French as a lingua franca. So my college French was belatedly dusted off and put to practical use.

Having said that, I believe that an arts education is something you should pursue for the sake of self-improvement rather than merely for vocational training. Very few professions really require several years of specialised study (medicine and engineering are obvious exceptions) before they can be attempted; a good arts degree teaches you to think, read and analyse, and those tools can, with some postgraduate or on-the-job training, equip you for pretty much any skilled job. As a reporter, I was always very skeptical about the value of multi-year journalism degrees. Journalism is a job, not an academic discipline.

Ed O’Loughlin’s latest novel is Minds of Winter

Olivia O’Leary

My arts degree taught me how little I knew. That was a useful lesson for a journalist to learn. To be introduced, however fleetingly, to some of the great works of English, Spanish and French literature, was to be given a key which let me come back and explore on my own. Did it help me as much as a degree in media studies and new technology might have done? Yes and more. Literature tells you about life, and it tells you about power and politics. It helps you understand the culture which shapes politics.

My arts studies developed my natural curiosity and curiosity is a mighty engine. It can bring you anywhere.

Olivia O’Leary is a writer and RTÉ presenter. Her books include Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography

Clare Schofield

I studied English literature at Goldsmiths, University of London – I grew up in England. Like a lot of arts graduates I didn’t really have “a plan” for afterwards, I just studied what I loved. I read a lot and have a great second-hand book collection from browsing Charing Cross Road!

My degree took me to the dole queue (for a little while!) and then to Greece for a couple of years, teaching English to children and working on my tan! Then later to Galway, where I worked in youth work and eventually to Dublin to work in the homeless services. After a few years working in hostels and outreach teams I studied again, doing a HDip in social policy. Then I got an opportunity to work for the Education and Training Board and set up an education project for people using homeless services. That’s what I still do. I run a project with educational programmes and supports for adults and children whose families are homeless.

I can see the thread of how my degree and early studies led me here. But, I think perhaps the beauty of an arts degree is that a career path isn’t neatly laid out from the start. You make one yourself, by experimenting - trying out jobs and seeing what comes your way. Studying arts gives you the time, freedom and confidence to do that. Having said that, I studied in the days when education was much better funded for low income families and I had free fees and a full maintenance grant. So I wasn’t finishing college with a load of debt and a regret I hadn’t studied computer programming or dentistry!

More recently, I’ve been doing some psychotherapy studies. When I interviewed out in the School of Psychotherapy in UCD, I commented to the director that maybe I regretted not continuing on to the Masters in Social Work years ago (I thought it might help my current studies perhaps). He just looked and quietly said “I’m much more interested in the fact that you have a literature degree”.

Clare Schofield is the sister of Anakana Schofield, author of Malarky and Martin John

Gavin Corbett

Looking at the timetable on my first day of history at Trinity College, I was startled by how few lectures and tutorials there were during the week – perhaps about 10 hours in all. Partly I was happy after the sweat shop of school, but mainly I thought, “How can this even call itself a degree course?” The lectures were excellent, though, and the benefit of the “time off” soon became apparent. History is the art of gathering, distilling and using written information, which entails long hours hunting down and working through icky, powdery, flaky, waxy, old documents. I think I became good at skimming huge amounts of information to find what I needed. If that’s not a useful skill in this information-saturated world, I don’t know what is. It certainly stood to me when I later went to work in newspapers. And I’m sure my training in history conditioned me in how I write novels – essentially by finding links between disparate ideas to create a satisfyingly-shaped bit of writing.

I despair at the way arts degrees are disparaged by even some in third-level education. Of course it’s important that technical subjects like the sciences are funded and ringfenced, but never at the expense of arts. The attitude comes from too much of a focus on the economic role that universities have to play, and a misunderstanding of what they’re actually for. Every type of third-level institution has an important function in society, but our universities’ function is not to get people into the jobs market or – God help us – to create “entrepreneurs”. A university’s loyalty should always be to learning. Its role is to add to the greater bank of knowledge. It should be open to all, but protected from the clamour of the world around it – a place where it’s safe to think for the sake of thinking.

Gavin Corbett is the author of three novels, the latest of which is Green Glowing Skull (Fourth Estate)

Kerrie O’Brien

I studied history of art and architecture and classical civilisation in Trinity College.

It wasn’t my ideal choice because I didn’t have an ideal choice. At the beginning of fifth year a teacher had morbidly declared to us that the next two years would be the most intense working period of our lives. And he was right. I spent those years focused purely on studying for my Leaving Cert, staggering home to do homework and not really thinking beyond my results. By the time it came to filling out my CAO I had no idea what to do with myself so I put down a random assortment of arts choices.

The Leaving Cert taught me to memorise all the reams of information they told us to memorise and spout it all back out. The poetry essay questions, the French and Irish oral phrases, the accounting formulas – all learned by rote.

Now for the first time I had to think for myself and I had no idea how to do it. I went from being a straight A student to being mediocre – I didn’t know how to give the right answer to questions such as “Was Manet an Impressionist?”

And it was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Without relying solely on my grades to define me, an arts degree gave me something that I had been robbed of during my school years – time. I had time to sit and read all the poetry and journals and biographies of writers I’d always admired, to visit the most incredible art museums and galleries in the world. I sat in on English, French and Philosophy lectures, I joined the committee of the Trinity Arts Festival, I got to know the most extraordinary people who to this day are my closest friends and who encouraged my creativity. I still remember submitting my first poem to Icarus, feeling so nervous. And eventually I learned to think for myself.

Few of us ended up working in the art world – some went on to study law, some are chefs, some are teachers, singers and designers. But I know all of us would agree that to be taught by lecturers such as Dr Edward McParland, Dr Roger Stalley, Dr Christine Casey and Dr Peter Cherry was quite simply an honour. It is because of their minds, their passion and their friendship that I have finally written a poetry collection all about art and painters.

An arts degree gave me four years to discover who I was and what I loved. And most of all it taught me that there are far more important things in life than achieving an A.

Kerrie O’Brien is a poet and writer. She is the editor of Looking At The Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing which aims to raise €15,000 for the Rough Sleepers Team of the Dublin Simon Community. Her debut poetry collection, Illuminate, is forthcoming from Salmon Press

Caitriona Lally

When I was 20, I dropped out of a college course that would have landed me directly into a secure job, took a year out to work, and went back to study English. There were no rose-tinted glasses; I knew that studying pure English wasn’t a surefire path to riches, but the idea of halving my reading time by adding a more practical subject to my degree didn’t appeal. I spent four years gorging myself on novels, plays, poetry and any form of printed matter – as well as getting sidetracked by books in the library that weren’t on the course. Reading and absorbing so many books so quickly was good practice for my first proper job as an abstract writer, in which I had to read 46 magazine articles and summarise them every day. Reading so widely also gave me a good grounding in what had been written and how, before I came to write my own novel. And writing so many essays in college helped me in filling out forms for the dole office when the abstract writing company went asunder.

I’d be reluctant to either encourage or discourage someone from doing an arts course. I was fortunate to have gone to college at a time when fees were in the low hundreds, not the thousands of euro that they are today. In the face of such costs, I’m not sure whether I could justify doing a course for sheer love of the subject, with no guarantee of employment at the end. In a way I’m glad I didn’t know the job woes that lay ahead; if I knew then what I know now, I probably would have stuck at my original course and been decently paid but miserable. Recently I met up with some friends from my English course. Each of us was doing something creative; each of us scrabbled for paid work; none of us had pensions: In financial terms, we were all abject failures. There’s no moral here, I don’t have a tidy answer as to whether we made the right course choice, but in unquantifiable ways, we felt our English degrees had served us well and there were no regrets.

Caitriona Lally is the author of Eggshells, published by Liberties Press last year and due to be published by Melville House, the New York publishing house founded by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians, in the US next spring

Myles Dungan

At the end of the day, Brian, it’s really all about apples and oranges.

I know it’s a disgrace that an arts graduate can’t come up with a better opening line than a tired cliche that won’t even be appreciated by non-football fans under the age of 55. But, you see, it is about apples and oranges.

I could argue that doing an arts degree broadened my mind. That it helped me develop vital skills which facilitated my entry into the marketplace. I could certainly make the former point quite cogently because I’m pretty sure it did. So there. Except that doing a science/ engineering/ law/ medicine/ architecture/ social science degree would have broadened my mind as well. And anyway I don’t give a toss about the marketplace. What has the market ever done for us? [With apologies to non-Python fans under the age of 50.]

I have an amazing daughter who opted to spend four years doing a science degree in UCD and now holds a PhD in immunology from Trinity. She’s an apple. Her siblings and her Dad all did arts degrees. We’re oranges.

I can’t speak for them but I can barely count to 20, was equally baffled by organic chemistry and calculus and don’t find binomial theorem nearly as sexy as the 1916 Proclamation.

We need to retain and nourish arts degrees because nobody has yet found a way to make decent cider out of an orange. I know that’s a bit reductive but there you go.

I wonder would I have learned words like “reductive” doing applied maths?

Myles Dungan’s latest book is How the Irish Won the West