“What are you going to do with that?”
The above is the question with which I am most often pestered upon telling people that I study English at university. When they ask this question, it isn’t in a display of sheer anticipatory curiosity. No, no, it’s part of the coded language that we arts students have become experts in deciphering.
A brief translation, if it pleases you: you’ve wasted nearly £40,000 on a subject that will get you nowhere in life; congratulations, you’re a penniless idiot. Now, in case you’re wondering, it is true that I have often pondered where on earth I might invest with my wealth of knowledge on Oscar Wilde’s sexual exploits. Nonetheless, I think it’s about time the world woke up from believing that arts students ought to be deprived of the recognition and, let’s face it, money that STEM graduates are apparently so much more deserving of. This is not to say that the STEM student should be lambasted — not at all, for I admire those that have the stamina to make it through nine to five labs each day. What’s more, ideas behind world-altering developments have sprung forth from the minds of those qualified in STEM and, of course, they will continue to do so. Indeed, the point of this article is not to vitiate STEM subjects or students, but to acknowledge that if we were all STEM students, St Andrews might be a less eclectic and colourful place. Corny, I know.
Amongst other factors, this derogatory attitude towards the arts appears to have been bred out of the humanities’ recent, systematic degradation within British schools. Think about it, if you displayed any talent in STEM subjects you were immediately shoved into talks on ‘Opportunities in STEM’, thrust into maths competitions, and coerced into choosing A-levels based on the superior employability of the sciences. Whilst this is all well and good, desirable even, for those who actively want to be STEMists, it’s fairly narking for those of us who fancy analysing books all day long. To sound like one of those school reps ramming the ‘cold, hard facts of employment’ down your throat, there certainly is a need for those graduating in STEM given that, according to the CBI Education and Skills Survey, 72 per cent of all UK businesses rely on people trained in these subjects. This is a fact that need never be put at stake. The problem occurs whenever the employability of STEM is painted as overshadowing the need for the arts. Pepped eighteen-year-olds are slapped with threats of joblessness and debt before they even make the gargantuan step of leaving school.
No school careers adviser ought to be allowed to discourage someone from living the university career they desire based on scare tactics. It might be true that, on average, those graduating in medicine will earn twice as much as those employed in a career related to media studies, however, this does not consider the latter’s slower ascent up the greasy pole or, more importantly, the individual’s happiness. Here’s the bottom line: the achievement of getting into university, to study the subject you want, shouldn’t be coloured by the fact you’re reading a subject that self-important others have deemed less valuable.
The depreciation of the arts, at the hands of those promoting STEM as the future’s sole guiding light, has led many to disrespect those of us who have opted to follow a more classical interpretation of the university education.
For once, I’m not hitting out at those careers advisers that attempted to shoehorn me into something more ‘useful’, but the relatives, friends, and randoms that have felt the need to prophesy my definite and deserved unemployment. Indeed, the promotion of the sciences at schools seems to have seeped into the homes of these school-attendees and has helped spread this general malaise that attacks the arts.
What these expert individuals appear to forget is the inherent role the arts play in flavouring our culture, defining our personal and national identities alike. Where maths might be regarded as the language of the universe, culture might be regarded as the language of identity; a medium through which we can express and celebrate difference.
It is this difference that matters on a micro-level also, for we cannot all be STEM students and, if we were, universities, schools, and workplaces would be hubs of grey, lacking the alternative insights provided by those once deemed to study a silly arts subject.
So go promote your STEM subjects, but don’t do so at the expense of those who know who they are and who they want to be: arts students.