Learning for learning’s sake: are arts and humanities degrees a waste of time?

Published

Shona McCombes

In the context of rising tuition fees and uncertain economic futures, the data is unsurprising: according to newly-released UCAS statistics, university applications are down by 8.7%, and it’s not the sciences or vocational subjects that prospective students have decided are not worth the debt. To spend three or four years studying the arts and humanities can seem a difficult choice to justify: the kind of subjects that don’t come with clear career paths, where curricula tend towards the eclectic or the esoteric, are apt to fall out of favour in a society that increasingly demands quantifiable, marketable results from its educators. So are the arts and humanities, as their critics claim, little more than self-indulgent pastimes, irrelevant to that place we like to call ‘the real world’? Do they make us better workers, better citizens? Should the value of an education be measured in economic units, or is the study of culture ever an end in itself?

Most arts and humanities students are well-accustomed, by now, to hearing about the value of ‘transferable skills’, along with the enticing list of professions that will embrace us thanks to our high-level communication and dazzling research abilities. Most of us are used to reeling off that list when somebody asks, ‘but what do you do with a degree like that?’ Whether or not it’s true that arts graduates come out well-trained for the world of work, the message is clear: studying has to be for something. Studying has to be a step, a pathway, a preparation for economic success. To learn for learning’s sake is not a widely promoted ambition; for many school leavers, university is not an enthusiastic bid for knowledge but the next logical stage in a standard life plan. University prospectuses flaunt, above all else, their ability to produce skilled, smart, flexible graduates ready for exciting careers. And so, inevitably, the value of an arts education is routinely reduced to the list of transferable skills that seem necessary to justify its existence.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who will defend the arts on the basis of prestigious tradition, arguing that subjects like literature and art history are essential for refining our aesthetic sensibilities and our appreciation of classics, canons, the finer things in life. This really is learning for learning’s sake, if ‘learning’ means dutifully absorbing the history of dominant Western culture and filing it away in our heads, like well-stocked but dull bookshelves. This is the arts in the service of the status quo: to spend time indulging in the aesthetics of ‘high culture’ has always been a privileged option, and even as access to education has progressively widened, the class connotations of academic taste have never really gone away. To insist on the segregation of ‘culture’ from ‘real life’, and aesthetics from politics, is to subtly reinforce this state of affairs, especially in an economic context where the luxury of choosing cultural literacy over solid job prospects is one that vanishingly few can afford. These should not be mutually exclusive choices, but they will remain so for as long as ‘culture’ is seen as a useless indulgence, detached from everyday life and confined to the traditionalist departments of ivory towers.

The arts and humanities may look more vital if we cease to fetishise either ‘high culture’ or ‘transferable skills’ and insist, instead, that culture itself is already inextricably entangled with real life; that literature, history, philosophy are not just static bodies of knowledge but dynamic components of the world we live in. At their best, the arts and humanities don’t deal in straight facts or good taste, but in critique, comparison and interpretation. Cultural critique is above all a matter of suspicion, a careful refusal to take narratives at face value, a probing of gaps and inconsistencies that questions the coherence of dominant meanings. Interpretation is a matter of contextualising, historicising, locating ideas in the powerful networks of ideology and representation that we all inhabit. These are not just the generic ‘communication skills’ that we’re assured can be transferred from books to jobs; they are vital tools for understanding and questioning the society we live in, requiring us to actively engage rather than passively absorb. The process of studying should not be regarded as practice for the ‘real world’, but as a very real interaction with it. We can’t afford to sell out the arts to crude careerism or leave them in the hands of cultural elites: the recently threatened closure of our university’s Lifelong Learning department – which has now been averted thanks to the successful ‘Save DACE’ campaign – was the latest in a long line of attacks on the principle that learning for learning’s sake should be an option for everyone. Regardless of how well they may translate to the economic arena, the arts and humanities foster skills that are crucial to invest in at every level of education for the sake of an engaged and critical society.