Subscriber Only

Finn McRedmond: Why you should do an arts degree

Studying humanities helps us understand the world, allowing society to express and explain itself

Struck with student debt, a hostile rental market, a cost of living crisis about to fully exert itself, why study classics at University? It won’t fast track you to a high paying graduate scheme around Grand Canal Dock. You will earn less than your science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) colleagues. No money, no prospects, perhaps just enough cultural references to seem interesting at dinner parties.

But dinner parties don’t pay the bills, obviously. And this is the logic behind a shift in university education over the past decade. Most recently Sheffield Hallam in England has culled its English Literature degree because graduates struggle to find high paid employment. Howard University in the US dissolved its entire Classics department last year, apparently for similar reasons.

Policymakers have been doing this for years: eroding the foundation of humanities in favour of the profit-oriented, capital generating, oh so respectable Stem subjects. And now we are seeing more and more legislators toy with the idea of actively rewarding Universities for producing Stem students, as though a graduate’s only value is tied to their contribution to gross domestic product.

Somewhere in the late 20th century our universities took a wrong turn

This is, needless to say, an act of vandalism so intellectually and spiritually impoverished that we might as well abolish higher education altogether. It displays no respect for the minds and curiosities of young people, and reminds everyone that their sole value is their contribution to the economy. It tells us that a woman who can operate an MRI machine is inherently — at all moments and in all circumstances — more impressive than one who has read Finnegans Wake.

But we must think of the children. Those who graduate in Stem fields command the highest salaries, they find the most stable employment too. In Ireland arts and humanities graduates are the lowest paid, earning around €25,000 per year nine months post graduation. In the United States, Stem major’s starting salaries are around $20,000 higher than their arts equivalents.

But this is a terribly narrow view. For a start, in Ireland arts graduates are more likely to do postgraduate degrees meaning they earn later in life. And, as the New York Times discovered, by the time people reach the age of 40 that salary difference basically evens out. Women Stem majors earned 50% more than history majors aged 25, but only 10% more by 38. “In the salary race, engineers sprint but English majors endure” the newspaper wrote. So the economic case for disrespecting the humanities and centuries of educational tradition doesn’t even bear out in the figures.

Even the act of making such an argument is stooping to the level of the educational iconoclasts. This should not be an exercise in proving the raw value of an education but instead understanding on a base level what education is for. And not to mention, citing high cost of living as a reason for discouraging philosophy and encouraging structural engineering is very much an exercise in treating the symptom not the cause.

We have embraced but ought to resist a utilitarian view of education

Somewhere in the late 20th century our universities took a wrong turn. But this phenomenon is endemic to the very first years of our lives. In Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, Malcolm Harris suggests school is now designed as a workplace training ground and family life is geared towards maximising a return on investment: casual backyard football is converted into competitive soccer leagues; learning to sing encouraged not for the love of music but to impress a college admissions board; a good hockey player might even win a scholarship.

This matters not just because it neglects the emotional needs of children, even though of course it does. But because adopting the idea that education’s primary function is to help us be economically productive is shortsighted. In Not For Profit, political theorist Martha Nussbaum argues that it has severely compromised our ability to criticise authority and has compromised our competence when it comes to dealing with complicated real life problems. This, she concludes, is dangerous to the stability of democracy itself.

This became overwhelmingly evident in the pandemic. The scientists who discovered the vaccines, and the mathematicians who worked on the modelling were vital. So of course were any doctors and nurses on the frontline. They deserve the adulation.

But we learnt that the way to navigate such a profoundly complicated terrain was not solely by heeding the “expert” advice, or blindly “following the science”. We learnt that the science can be wrong, that it is liable to change, that the only way forward was to balance competing interests, and that perhaps a combination of doctors, mathematicians, philosophers, and perhaps even French literature enthusiasts would always make a better team than one with no divergent interests at all. The Covid-19 crisis was as much about creativity, lateral thinking, and history as it was about numbers and statistics.

We have embraced but ought to resist a utilitarian view of education. Studying the humanities helps us understand the world, allows society to express and explain itself, and acts as a perfect balancing force to much-needed scientific rigour. Neither arts nor science should have primacy, it is the equilibrium that matters.

And we should not forget, all the values we hold so dear — liberalism, justice, democracy — were not designed in laboratories.