What’s the point of an arts degree?


A chara, – I note with interest a feature in your paper on the utility of the arts degree (Carl O’Brien, “What’s the point of an arts degree”, Analysis, March 18th).

Once the default choice of many school-leavers, the BA now faces competition and sometimes displacement from BSc, BComm and many competing disciplines.

To sustain our burgeoning high-tech industry we hear a regular call for more Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduates to fuel and sustain innovation in the economy and supply our multinational employers.

As Fianna Fáil spokesman on science, technology, research and development, it might be expected my focus would be away from the arts and entirely on those more numerate, pure science subjects. However, to do so would misunderstand the nature and challenges of modern education. The old-style Leaving Cert heavy lifting, which I went through myself, saw students as memory banks, where retention and knowledge were key. Today information is literally at our fingertips and smart computing enables the most obscure of facts to be retrieved or validated in an instant.

Far more important now is the ability to process that data, to perform an independent analysis, to weigh conflicting points of view and arrive at an objective, evidence-based assessment (more than ever now in this era of “alternative facts”). Whilst of course the sciences teach us this in a robust, experiment-based fashion from day one, subjects like history, economics, philosophy and indeed law teach students the power of reasoning, of analysis, assessment and to weigh competing hypotheses in reaching a conclusion.

In the same way that I believe it was critical that history remained mandatory on the Junior Cert curriculum, I believe the arts and wider humanities have an invaluable role in preparing not just the authors and lawyers of tomorrow but also the engineers and computer scientists.

Critical thinking and reasoning are assets to every career path, and especially those based around innovation and further discovery.

For many graduates now the primary degree is not an end-game, but a jumping off point for many and varied career paths, often in other disciplines.

It is also why funding streams like the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI), which include libraries as well as laboratories, must be maintained and not replaced by exclusively technical alternatives. Finally in an era when Stem subjects compete for graduates, I also believe a common entry into more third-level courses and a broader subject choice in first year would be of great benefit.

With elective modules from each discipline available to students, professors could compete for second-year intake. Such a model I believe would enhance both the Stem and humanities sides of the house. – Is mise,


Fianna Fáil,


Co Kildare.