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Practicality at the cost of culture.

“Will you be able to get a job with that degree?” “Does that even count as a real subject?” “Oh, so you’ll probably go into teaching then?”

Hands up, College of Arts students, anyone who hasn’t had a friend or family member ask at least one of these questions in response to finding out the title of your degree program. Nobody? Thought so.

With the pressures to find a good career, and make your degree “worth it” financially, there is a lot of incentive for students to stay away from degrees that are not immediately relevant to the current job market. The Times, in cooperation with UCAS, has recently published an article analysing the decline in numbers of applicants to Arts programs over the last 20 years, with quotes from leading historians lamenting the decline of their discipline, and calls for caution, lest we end up with an imbalance of skills and knowledge.

The Times piece identifies economic reasoning as one of the main drivers behind the increasing popularity of STEM and Medicine degrees, as the growth in funding for these subjects guarantees better quality education with greater access to industry connections and experience programs. As our generation is the first where less than half of us are projected to ever be able to afford to own our own home, is it surprising that students are trying to maximise their chances of a secure career with good pay? Student debt is the highest it has ever been, wages in most industries have been stagnant for so long that adjusted for inflation they have actually decreased over the last 10 years, and the only growing sectors of the economy are technology and finance. The public sector has been cut to the bone, so why would anyone rationally decide to put themselves through the considerable financial stress of a degree for anything other than the most guaranteed of roles?

One of the obvious logical explanations for why students are increasingly seeing their degree as an investment in their future – and consequently gravitating to subjects that look like the surest bet for providing a successful and stable career – is that higher education has been increasingly commodified. When my parents went to university, tuition was paid by the state, and maintenance money came in the form of grants rather than a loan. The change has not been quite as dramatic in Scotland as in England, but a degree is still thought of more as a commodity with utility within the job market than an achievement in itself. “My degree will enable me to…”, etc. This is because all UK universities exist within the same national ecosystem, and when the climate shifts in a majority of the academic institutions, the effects are felt by all. In short, higher education has become a transaction between the student and the institution where it used to be a choice to pursue learning (an economy ravaged by vulture-capitalism and so distorted that you need a good degree to work even the most basic of admin jobs certainly doesn’t help). This forces all but the most well-funded of universities to prioritise outcomes and marketability over research and the funding of “pure academia”. In a job market where STEM is in high demand that means the arts are expendable.

It’s not just accidental that the arts are also less appealing to students themselves. Since 2010, the Conservative party particularly has been pushing STEM education as more desirable, axing school budgets for drama, art, and literature programs while publicly slamming the mythical “Mickey Mouse” degrees (frequently a stand-in for Gender studies and other areas of study that emphasise marginalised voices and alternative perspectives of society). One could speculate that this is because STEM is easier to reconcile with their neo-liberal ideology and sounds better to their voting base of boomers and non-university educated people than the “Mickey Mouse degrees” the rest of us do. Maybe it could be that right wing ideologies do not mix well with a thriving and diverse culture of thought, that would give a voice to those they want to silence, and illuminate the flaws and hypocrisy of most of their stated beliefs? One might indeed say so, I could not possibly comment.  

From a purely utilitarian point of view, there is absolutely no question that a trained doctor is of more immediate use to society than a well-read history grad. I could explain to you the origins of the procedure a patient may need to undergo, or give an assessment of how the social and cultural standing of the medical profession has changed over the centuries, but even if I’m told what to do step by step, there’s no way I’m going to be able to give competent treatment. Doctors, along with researchers, coders and scientists provide immediate utility by physically helping patients, developing products and services, and by making discoveries about the world and universe around us. Arts faculties tend to big up the secondary utility provided by the skills learned over the course of their degree programs as a means of countering this, assuring prospective applicants that literature or history programs develop analysis and information handling skills, and improve the confidence and effectiveness of argument or expression in their students, which can be applied to research, product design, or other fields. 

As a marketing strategy, this clearly doesn’t work. Judging the arts and humanities by using STEM as a desirable “normal”, pitching them as educational “others” or quaint diversions that only offer some of the benefits of other courses just begs the question; why would anyone bother when you can just do maths and get the full package? It also ignores the shared history of educational development between the arts and STEM, all emerging from combinations of the original medieval university disciplines of Theology, Medicine and Philosophy. Appropriate or not for the modern age, (and there are millions of think-pieces pushing the benefits of being a polymath) most of the early discoveries and breakthroughs in thought that made our world possible were made by people who would probably have simply called themselves “men of letters”, whose interests we would call cross-disciplinary. STEM itself is a product of the enlightenment – before which experimentation was considered only as a means of demonstrating established knowledge, and the primary method of learning was by drawing on books and accounts of the experiences of past thinkers. Maybe the study of the arts would be more popular if it could be sold as a legitimate pathway for life post-graduation?

That, or we completely overhaul our civilisation to break out of the stupid obsession with individualism, profitability, and “earning” what incomplete and uneven benefits our society provides us, and instead choose to embrace the love of learning and pursuit of happiness as ends in themselves. While humans organise how we live around capital and the transfer of wealth, we will always have to consider the economic outcomes of our choices, and in these calculations the quickest and most guaranteed route to our desired end is more likely to prevail. Universal Basic Income, the dismantling of class mentality, and a full equal redistribution of land and wealth would make it possible to move beyond the current system, and can you guess what the people who came up with those ideas studied? 


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