Why Study the Arts?

“What are you going to do with your degree? Become a teacher?”

That’s a question that I, and I’m sure many other arts/humanities students, will have heard more than once over the course of their uni life, from the point when you’ve decided to apply for these courses, to the point that you graduate and actually (hopefully) get a job. It’s a frustrating question for two reasons (well, maybe more than two, but I’m sticking with two for now). The first reason is that it implies that your degree isn’t actually useful for any other jobs, which I can categorically say is not true, and the second is that it strongly implies that the reason for doing a degree is to get a job at the end of it. I could argue about that first reason for hours (and I do, regularly, with my chemistry and law student housemates), but it’s the second reason that I think is actually far more important, because it begs this question: why are you studying at all?

Well, why are you? This question applies to all students, not just those doing undergraduate degrees in the arts.

Are you doing it to get a job? That could be a specific job that your degree leads into, or it could just be a job in general that it’s useful to have a degree level qualification for. If you are, that’s fine! In no way am I suggesting in this post that that is not a valid reason to do a degree, because it completely is.

But actually, you might not be doing it for the job. You might be doing it for a reason more similar to mine – that you enjoy the subject, and want to learn about it more. When I chose to English at university, I wasn’t thinking about what I would do in the world of work afterwards, I was simply thinking about what I would enjoy doing. And, from what I’ve seen in my two-and-a-half years at uni, is that the people who enjoy actually being at uni the most are the ones who – shock-horror – enjoy what they’re studying.

I’m going to go ahead and talk about why I think studying English is actually pretty awesome. Some of my thoughts will probably apply to other arts/humanities, and some will be more discipline-specific, but the whole point of this is to look at why it might be worth going to uni to study something that doesn’t necessarily put you straight into a job, to look at why it’s worth spending all this money on.

Something that English does very well is to make you think. It sounds obvious, maybe even redundant, but it shouldn’t be ignored. What English does is essentially force you, for around 3 years of your life, to more or less continuously think about things. These could be more practical, analytical things, around the structure and the language of a number of texts, or they could be big, philosophical themes. When engaging with this, you need to be able to form and defend your own opinion, something that seems to be lacking in a world where it is so easy to share a post or retweet a good quote. And the thing is, these big themes are all things that matter. It sounds grand, but studying the books that we study confronts you with big, big things, like mortality, your place in the world, freedom…the list goes on.

I don’t want to be over the top here. A lot of time studying anything is spent on more mundane practicalities such as essay planning on sifting through secondary reading, but throughout all of it the fact of the matter is that you have an opportunity to engage with something bigger than yourself with the complete freedom to work out where you stand in relation to those issues, and that is impossible to put a value on.

The reality is that it shouldn’t matter what sort of job you get at the end of a course like this, because studying the arts is a thing of value in itself. It is an opportunity to spend three years doing something that is going to shape you as a person, and inform your ideas in one of the most encouraging, varied ways possible. I don’t care if that sounds airy-fairy to some people, because to me it’s worth it, and I’m willing to bet that there are thousands of people out there who would agree.

If you’re someone that’s been umming and ahhing about going into the arts to study, then I would say 100% that you should go for it if it’s something that you know you love. And to my fellow students, or graduates of these courses, I know that my arguments still won’t raise you in the eyes of the tyranny of the sciences (remember, this is all in good humour!), but I think it’s good to remind ourselves every now and then that there is nothing wrong with doing what you love for three years of your life.

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