Week five is for me, like many other students, a rude awakening to the fact that university isn’t all beer and skittles, and actually involves doing an essay every now and then. But as I sit here in the library, reading tome upon tome of musings about the historiography of early Islamic history, I do occasionally wonder; what’s the point?
As a history student, I am vulnerable to that dreaded, dreaded question raised all too often: ‘what do you want to do after university?’ This is an extremely pertinent question when one thinks about it. If you come to St Andrews and find a real passion for your subject, it immediately makes sense to go into academia.
What could be better than doing the thing you love, day in, day out? Whether you want to investigate the true origins of Armenian apostolic architecture, or the Romanian roots of Swiss riddles, the world is your oyster.
However, for a large percentage of us arts students, university work is simply something to be completed and submitted, rather than a source of striving and emotion. Therefore, what are we to do?
This is certainly a worry of mine, as I don’t really think that doing, for example, a philosophy degree properly prepares you for any particular occupation. For one, there are the contact hours; I would love to have a job where I would only be obligated to show up to the office two days a week, wearing a shirt that had not been washed since Christmas. In the corporate world, however, I imagine that this would be somewhat frowned upon.
In my despair over the questionable value of my degree, I have sought out the views of my fellow artsy students in order to retain my sanity. The first counterpoint presented to me is that arts students, through their studies, develop strong social skills which science students simply do not. I must admit the attractiveness of this point, as the film studies students I have met probably possess a certain subtle social grace that a computer science devotee may not (to put it lightly). But is this really explained by the fact we study different subjects?
As I sit here in the library reading page after page about the Dutch Tulip Bubble, should I be feeling my personality improving with each passing letter? As I carefully edit my bibliography, should I expect to become a yet more charming, personable man? And as I think over the sociographical meaning behind the word ‘heresiarch’, do I feel my soft skills swelling to an awesome mass, with grateful employers soon to be lining up outside my door?
The reality of the situation is that arts students are less awkward than their scientific counterparts because they have less work to do. Therefore, they are not as stressed, and have time to deal with social situations, and to engage with societies. All in all, arts students simply lead a more relaxed life.
This can be seen brilliantly through the lens of lateness penalties in our respective faculties. Hand in a history essay a day late, and you will find that you have been deducted one point out of twenty.
Sure, it’s not ideal, but it’s hardly “make or break” for your future prospects. On the other hand, if you turn in your chemistry lab report a day late then you may as well have been sent to the shadow realm. With this in mind, it’s little wonder why some science students feel like, and sometimes resemble, Gringotts goblins who haven’t seen the sun in months. If going outside means a failed module, why go outside?
I am also regularly told that an arts degree imbues one with an ability to bluff and bluster through difficult questions; in essence, it allows you to seem clever even if you aren’t. I think that this highlights the main difference between, for example, a comp lit student and a medic; sure, you can bluff about the metaphors contained within poetry until the cows come home, but you can’t bluff open heart surgery.
I am of course not denying the fact that an arts qualification, especially from St Andrews, has a large degree of utility. For example, being able to read large amounts of text and condense them down into a relevant, cogent point will always be a skill in demand. It’s also nice to learn interesting facts and trivia about the world, because one day you might be on Tipping Point or Pointless. But is engaging in a four-year arts course, costing between twenty and eighty thousand pounds, the ideal way to spend your time and money?
This is an especially pertinent point when you consider how most degree programmes are funded. A recent projection by Martin Lewis estimated that over 83% of students would fail to repay their loans in full. This, in the end, means that the bill is picked up by the taxpayer, meaning that struggling families are subsidizing the educations of hundreds of blokes called Tarquin who didn’t fancy joining the family business.
In the end, I wish I was as optimistic as the rest of my fellow History nerds in St Andrews. I too dream of a world where knowledge of the economics of the eighteenth-century flower market is an employable skill. But until my dream is realised, you know how I’m feeling: worried.