The value of the Arts and Humanities

Dr Mairéad McKendry, Head of English

The quest for ‘great value’ is a commonplace of modern life. “Yes please!” to that three for two offer on Cult Beauty; “Might as well buy five!” upon seeing a 20 per cent off deal for cereal in Tesco. But with this quest comes another commonplace: the queasy, sinking feeling of regret when you realise that you have filled your cupboards with items that, perhaps, you don’t really like, or that you didn’t really want in the first place. 

I would like to pause here and explore the idea of value. Are you really enjoying ‘great value’ as you sullenly sip your way through yet another cup of that coffee you find overly bitter, but was on offer? In terms of monetary value, yes, you have spent less money overall on a month’s worth of morning caffeine, and now more than ever, the importance of keeping a close eye on our finances is undeniable. But this mundane instance of buyer’s remorse provides a tiny example of how, in our relentless quest for ‘great value’ (and if we only measure that ‘value’ in terms of perceived financial gain) we may inadvertently find ourselves in a situation where we feel less satisfied, less fulfilled.

In the Cambridge Dictionary, the first definition of the noun ‘value’ is ‘the amount of money that can be received for something’; the second definition is ‘the importance or worth of something for someone’. In the analogy above, our caffeinated hero has pursued the former at the expense of the latter. In this case, there is no great harm done, but I would argue that this kind of blinkered thinking has become so ubiquitous in modern society that we are at risk of becoming the poorer for it. When we begin to make assumptions about what holds value and what does not based primarily on what we assume will be most financially advantageous, things may not work out as we initially hoped. 

The consumerisation of university education in the UK within the last decade has been an inevitable result of funding for undergraduate degrees moving further away from the state and further towards the individual who benefits. The pressing question of whether an undergraduate degree may be considered valuable is fuelled by the fact that UK undergraduate fees are currently £9,205 per annum. It is imperative, therefore, that students are confident that their degree will constitute good value, but equally imperative that the concept of ‘value’ in this instance embraces the full range of this word’s meaning. 

There is no doubt that the world is changing at a fantastic rate. In the year 2000, there were no iPhones, no Wikipedia, no Alexa, no Gmail, no Uber and no Amazon Prime. Who knows what – by 2040 – will have become as integral to the fabric of society as these innovations. There is also no doubt that technological, scientific and mathematical expertise was intrinsic to their creation. It is a cause for celebration that so many young people feel inspired and empowered to follow their passions in these areas, and to study STEM subjects at A Level and university. What is a cause for concern, however, is the facile, yet increasingly prevalent assumption in UK society that, as the value of STEM subjects becomes ever more plain, the value of the arts and humanities is lessened.

The question of potential future earnings is important, but so too is the excitement of the opportunity to spend three years engaging with a subject which sparks the imagination, and which fires the soul. If an individual’s interests tend toward the arts and humanities, these interests should not be ignored. The true value of arts and humanities subjects is immense. These are subjects which not only develop a myriad soft skills, but which also offer opportunities for intellectual and emotional growth. These are subjects which have at their core a desire to understand what it is to be human, and to facilitate critical, creative thinking and communication. 

And of course, while a degree in English Literature, Classics, Textiles or History may not be a direct route to a 6-figure salary, the fact that these subjects tend not to be specifically vocational means that one’s post-university future can be flexible. These are subjects which leave doors open, including those which lead to high-paying jobs. Indeed, the UK is a world-leading hub for the creative industries: a study published in 2019 showed that the arts and culture industry annually contributes £10.8 billion to the UK economy. 

We do not know for certain what the world will look like in 2040, in 2050 or beyond, but I would argue that while we will certainly need doctors, engineers and scientists, we will also need individuals who excel in the creative, communicative critical skills that degrees in the arts and humanities can bring. When making choices – whether big choices about your future, or smaller ones about shopping – it’s always worth pausing to consider which choice is likely to prove most worthwhile in the long run, and to ask yourself, ‘What do I actually want? What will actually leave me satisfied and fulfilled?’