Debate: Are Arts Degrees Worth It?

MAX FOREMAN and OLIVIA ANNESS on the science/arts degree debate.

arts degrees Cambridge English gordon brown science transferable skills vet

Are arts degrees worth it?

The Times recently ran a debate questioning whether arts degrees are as important as science degrees. We asked two people: a veterinary medicine student and an English student to defend their subjects.

MAX FOREMAN, a 1st year vet from Emma, argues that science degrees are more valuable than arts degrees.

‘I guess if you're not up to doing a science degree, you might as well amuse yourself for three years and do an arts degree… It's a real indulgence, spending three years learning something that has no other purpose to it.’

This opinion, posted on The Times’ website in response to the age-old ‘science versus arts degree’ debate, caused me great upset. In fact, I almost shed a tear at this woman’s obvious idiocy. While her point may appear valid, it seems to suggest that the real purpose of an arts degree lies in the personal entertainment that it produces. And, we all know that’s absolutely not the case.

The purpose of an arts degree is far deeper that its entertainment value. I mean, where on earth would I be without all those lovely history and geography students to subsidise my education?

‘Our fees are used to pay for all the books we need!’ they cry. Oh dear. How very naïve. They know just as well as I do that, come essay time, they have to race to the library to ensure that someone else doesn’t get dibs on all the good books first. So, their fees clearly aren’t funding books. I wonder what they could be funding. I wonder how the four horses that the first year vets butchered with kitchen knives and saws last week were paid for. Thanks arts students.

I wouldn’t really have considered myself as prejudiced against arts degrees. In fact, I thought I was quite open-minded. Emphasis on was. Having conducted some considerably extensive research, I came to some, quite frankly, shocking discoveries. Who knew, for example, that theology students don’t actually know whether Jesus would have been good looking without his trademark beard? I didn’t. Who would have known that English students can’t actually work out whether Dumbledore would be able to break Gandalf’s staff? I didn’t. And why, oh why, can’t I find a music student who is proficient at the glockenspiel? The question remains: what do arts students actually learn?

The answer, or so I am told, is that they learn ‘transferable skills’, those fabled talents reserved only for the educated elite. Whilst the content of an arts course may not strictly be relevant to, well, anything, these students have ‘increased thinking and analysis and writing skills’. Or so they claim. So this is what science students lack: the ability to think, analyse and write. Thus we need a massive English faculty to teach this stuff. No, hang on…

Having scoured The Times’ debate webpage, I have found the argument to end all arguments. It is provided by a mysterious lady who goes by the name of Cathy. Now, Cathy reckons that arts degrees must trump science degrees, since sciences ‘don’t contribute anything measurable to the sum of human happiness’. Touché, Cathy. I honestly wouldn’t have thought of that gem. Then again, who am I to interrupt your skipping and flower-sniffing with nit-picking details about health care, or the design of your (no-doubt eco friendly) home?

So, do we need arts degrees? Not really. I’m pretty sure Monet didn’t have a degree in art, and I’m almost certain that Shakespeare didn’t have a degree in English. But, hey: we shouldn’t totally discredit the arts degrees. Investment bankers have to come from somewhere. And so do teachers.

OLIVIA ANNESS, a 2nd year English student from Girton, disagrees, and claims that arts degrees are definitely worth the paper they’re written on.

Okay, I admit that some degrees are self evidently useless. The only productive outcome of a degree in ‘David Beckham Studies’, for example, is likely to be unhealthy obsession with the man and a restraining order. But, can all other arts degrees really be tarred with the same Beckham stained brush – are arts degrees really useless?

The government seems to think so. In the recent Budget, our darling Chancellor (no pun intended) proposed 20,000 new university places for STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths. ‘Useful’ subjects, apparently. Ironic, considering that our current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, is actually a history graduate. See: we don’t just become teachers. The government’s proposal is just as misguided as the hackneyed arguments that spout from science snobs at any mention of the arts. So, like many before me, I seek to defend our degrees against the attack of the STEM (this sounds more contagious than I intended).

The first clichéd attack: arts degrees are indulgent.

Indulgent? Really? My idea of indulgence is staying in bed all day while eating Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food watching reruns on E4. Translating medieval poetry, grasping the philosophy of Locke, or considering the pros of Nazi Germany, are not indulgent. In fact, these tasks are often downright impossible. Week after week, we arts students are expected to think creatively and originally about intellectually demanding concepts, and week after week we churn out essays. Not to mention the 15,000 word dissertations as standard. Without demeaning the demands of veterinary medicine or natural sciences, a 700-word summary of a textbook isn’t quite the same.

The second, slightly more understandable, attack: arts students don’t work as hard.

Yes, I agree that medics work hard and vet meds go to more 9am lectures in a month than most English students go to, well, ever. But, as scientists are well aware of, it’s all-relative. Science degrees are based on a structured system of lectures and labs from 9 to 5. Arts degrees, on the other hand, are based on independent, self-motivated library time. I think it’s safe to say that arts students often crave the back-to-school approach of science degrees: take our freedom and 10am starts; we’d love to be taught the right answer. Please.

The third and final attack: arts degrees are a waste of money.

This is usually coupled with the undeniable statistic that in subjects such as history, philosophy and the creative arts, 30% of graduates are still unemployed three years after their course has finished. Sigh. But ‘unemployed’ is such an ugly word. I prefer ‘finding ourselves’ or, ‘refusing to conform to the demands of a capitalist society’, or something along those lines. More importantly, however, these statistics fail to comprehend the long-term benefits of an arts degree. Many of the most successful figures of our society began with one: Jonathan Ross; Jeremy Paxman; Stephen Fry – you get my point.  An arts degree has no vocational demands, and as such there are no quantifiable results. But, this doesn’t necessarily make them any less worthwhile. What do you do, for example, if you decide not to be a vet, after studying veterinary medicine? Now isn’t that a waste of money? If only you’d studied a subject with ‘transferable skills’, you poor, out of work, non-vet…

So yes, I conclude: arts degrees are worth it. I can talk for an hour about a book I haven’t read; I can answer the arty questions on University Challenge and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? I am a really good speller (no speck check necessary) and more importantly, impressing at dinner parties and pub quizzes aside, I can think, write and argue. And, I do all of these things with a smile, because I know that I’ll never have to wake up before 9am.