Let’s talk numbers.
According to Forbes, subjects studied as part of Arts degrees such as English and Philosophy are ranked exclusively under the Top Ten Least Valuable College Majors. Meanwhile, more than 90% of graduates from subjects such as medicine, engineering, veterinary and mathematical science are employed.
A 2013 report by American consulting firm McKinsey finds that 42% of arts graduates feel that college didn’t prepare them for employment, more than graduates from any other degree. 47% said that if they had the choice do their degree over again they would have chosen a different subject, again a higher percentage than any other course.
For the lucky few who do get employed they earn the least out of any other degree, a third less than those who graduated from science according to a British Labour Force Survey from 2012.
The idea that an arts degree is useless has been around for a while, but the discussion about whether they should remain part of university course catalogues has come back to the fore with the discussion of youth unemployment.
The main issue is that arts degrees, by their nature, are unable to teach practical skills needed in the workplace. Apart from teaching English, when are you going to need to write a comparative essay or look for major themes in a piece of prose?
Things like working in groups, problem solving and adaptability do not form part of the course. While this problem is not specific to arts, it is certainly the best example of a course which is taught through lectures, exams and essays.
Group projects tend not to happen because of the subjective nature of a course like English or International Relations. There is no right answer, only opinion. This means that there can’t be problem-solving either.
You can’t be taught practical elements of your course like you can with science or medicine or law because these courses are purely theoretical. Knowing about theories of democracy is unlikely to become part of your job description even if you end up working in the field of politics.
Some argue that skills such as research, evaluating evidence and presenting a convincing argument can be gleaned from courses taught in arts. However, it is certainly a roundabout way to teach these skills, and often students find it difficult to adapt what they know to the requirements of a job. Additionally, these skills are taught in more straightforward ways in other degrees which means that even if arts degrees do provide some benefit, it is less than any other degree at the same cost.
There are many things to be said in favour of an arts degree. We do need people who can think in unconventional ways and focus on the bigger picture rather than just the specific task at hand. Every society needs some people who are devoted to more creative and artistic activities, or who are the guardians of our broader heritage.
For those that leave secondary school uncertain about what their next step is, doing an arts degree gives them the opportunity to try a number of different subjects and to develop some useful skills in the process. Learning arts subjects such as politics or economics informs our worldview and provides context for our understanding of current affairs.
The problem is the lack of honesty, not just with subjects like English, but also journalism and psychology. Our students put these options down on the CAO because they seem interesting without realising that, for example, it’s almost impossible to make a living in journalism unless you happen to be Pat Kenny. Or if you’re studying psychology you will need to get a PhD in order to get a limited number of jobs.
For better or worse, we’ve gotten to a situation where you are no longer guaranteed a job by mere virtue of having a degree. We present success stories of people with arts degrees who ended up becoming the head of major corporations without taking into account that they had to deal with a different job market decades ago.
Nowadays the only fields where having a degree prepares you for having a job is in fields like science and engineering where you’re practical experience as part of your course accurately reflects what will be expected of you when you graduate. Courses like law have started moving towards more practical skills and away from theory without application. Yet arts courses have no room for growth without including some sort of inter-disciplinary element.
Maybe we should teach knowledge for knowledge’s sake. If you go in with your eyes open, knowing that at the end of three years you’ll have to retrain in order to get a job then maybe you should be allowed to make that choice. But given how much easier it is to inform yourself about these subjects through free online courses should we really be subsidising your personal growth at the cost of the tax-payer?
Removing pure arts courses from universities would have a number of implications for all levels of education. If anything, it would become more important to teach students about these subjects at secondary level in order to preserve our culture and broaden students’ minds. Perhaps there is a place for teaching arts; it’s just that it is not in university.