Bias against arts degrees is misinformed and narrow-minded

degree snobbery arts stem

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Rosie Wilson

Bethany Woodhead

Some of the world’s largest conglomerates are run by people who pursued arts degrees.

You’re reading this, which means you most likely attend Glasgow University – a prestigious top 10 Russell Group university, fourth oldest in the English-speaking world and Scottish University of the Year. No matter which course you’re taking, you probably worked your butt off to get those outstanding grades to land you a place here. Yet, despite everyone’s efforts, there is a clear stereotyped hierarchy regarding the degree you are pursuing. Unfortunately, as an arts student, the snobbery is often directed at people like me.

But when did this degree snobbery start? Look at the typical Renaissance man: a master in a significant number of subjects. You had to be a painter and a poet as well as a scientist and an astronomer. Perhaps it all began with the rise of “the boys’ club”, when women were unable to attend university and it fell into the male domain. From the Enlightenment onwards, the stereotype that men are more pragmatic, and women are more emotional led to the splurge of men in scientific academia and women as “the writer” (thus producing remarkable pieces of nineteenth and twentieth century literature by and about women).

I believe that this snobbery is partly rooted in the differences in contact time. As an arts student in first year, I have 11 hours contact time (lectures and seminars); my boyfriend, however, a chemical engineering student, has twice as many – 22 hours a week. Is it the assumption that because arts students are physically in university for fewer hours that their degree is much easier? When comparing the total work time between my boyfriend and me, I totted up similar hours due to the extensive amount of independent research, reading and writing I must do each week to make up for less contact time. So, unfortunately for me I suppose, an arts degree isn’t “easier” and all degrees have their difficulties.

I have been fortunate academically and, growing up, I pulled out top grades across all my subjects. When choosing the next steps in my academic career at aged 16, I was told by many to “pick the subjects you’re best in” for my A-levels. Being a persistent high achiever, this caused problems; however, I eventually chose science and maths courses, with the intent to go along to university and become an engineer or a doctor. I had the grades and that’s where the money is, so why not? Nevertheless, it was my mother who sat me down and asked me the question we should all ask ourselves: will you be happy? She reminded me that time moves slowly in this short, short life and do I really want to spend the next 50 years miserable?

I contemplated this – how miserable can you really be in a fulfilling and well-paid career? However, as per usual, she was completely right. I’m not saying I’m disinterested in the sciences and maths (okay, that’s a lie – numbers bore me); but I need something more than that. I don’t just need thrilling, I need something enlightening, something purely passionate and something that makes me grip the edge of my seat until my knuckles go white. And that is what an arts degree gives me. Conversely, I totally understand that people have different priorities and interests, and many people find the arts utterly boring and pointless. It all depends on your point of view, priorities and what you want to take away from life.

Indeed, some of the world’s largest conglomerates are run by people who pursued arts degrees: Howard Shultz (Starbucks CEO) studied for a communications degree, Susan Wojcicki (YouTube CEO) studied a history and literature degree, Peter Thiel (co-founder and CEO of PayPal) did a philosophy degree, and I’m sure nobody would like to contest the intellect of Stephen Fry, who has a degree in English Literature… The list goes on, but you get the gist. Although, having a degree isn’t the be all and end all anyway. Look at Bill Gates! One of the most successful self-made billionaires in the world is a “university dropout”.

All in all, degree snobbery is useless, misinformed and narrow-minded. Just because someone isn’t doing a similar degree to you doesn’t mean they don’t work hard or don’t have the potential to be someone and do something astounding. I’m not pointing the finger at all STEM students (in fact, I’m planning on going back to uni in my 40s to do a STEM subject and switch up my career a bit). It’s just important to note that arts students choose their subjects out of passion too, not simply a lack of intellect or drive.