When I tell people that I’m studying English, I’m often met with ‘So you’re going to become a teacher?’, followed by ‘You went to Dublin for that?’, and then I’m ultimately reassured by a variation of ‘Well sure, if you enjoy it, I suppose that’s the main thing’. As an Arts student, there are few conversation topics more disheartening than those of ‘majors’, second only to discussions of rent prices. It’s no secret that those who choose to study within any area of the Arts and Humanities are the least celebrated variety of students, and we are typically regarded as little more than a bunch of dossers with Bachelor’s degrees not worth the paper that they’re written on.
This attitude has undeniably emerged from and evolved into a general consensus through the twenty-first century fixation with the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Although an entire academic essay could easily be devoted to exploring the origins of this phenomenon, simply put, knowledge in the field of STEM is the current method of guaranteeing personal economic security. In a time of increasingly bleak prospects for our collective future, the desired economic stability can hardly be criticised, however, we should be wary of the fact that we are perceiving this trend as a black and white issue.
If a Bachelor of Science degree plus a job in the STEM sector equals an enviable starting salary straight out of university, then it is no wonder why this formula is seldom questioned. On the surface, it mimics a new-age American dream – work hard, and your bank account will be lavishly rewarded. This raises questions about the current status of the human condition, and our willingness to function as cogs in the machine of the grand scheme, thereby providing our capitalist society with the tool which it currently desires and thus values most – advancements in technology.
It is no coincidence that the rapid propulsion of our current technological revolution in these post-war years coincides with the steep fall in popular estimation of the arts; our artists and independent thinkers do not currently possess the key to unlocking the next steps of our ‘societal advancement’, so their skills are not only undesirable, but they have lost their previous cultural value in modern society. Precious few of the Western world’s greatest artists, irrespective of their precise mediums, have been produced after the midpoint of the twentieth century, and it is no great stretch to conclude that a substantial reason behind this occurrence is due to our contemporary creative minded individuals no longer being encouraged to academically engage with their crafts. On a smaller scale, however, it is no great surprise that we now prefer to invest in degrees which yield significant financial results, is this not, after all, our current conception of the innate function of attending university? This is certainly not to suggest that we should cease our high emphasis placed on STEM fields but rather, that the deepening schism between these two areas is one which will ultimately prove to be a detriment on both ends. Steve Jobs once declared, that “it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing”. In order to reach the greatest potential in each of these areas, we must broaden our established preconceptions and realise that collaboration is key, not polarisation.
A recent study carried out by the BBC has revealed that there are fewer students choosing to study arts subjects for their A-Levels with a 13,000 person decline in those taking drama, music and art since 2014, whereas those opting for STEM subjects has increased by 15,500. This follows a series of contentious moves by the government that are designed to prioritise areas of study which will be deemed useful in later life, leaving little space for artistic subjects, which begs the question; is creativity no longer a valued skill among our young people? Rather than encouraging our students in second-level education to neglect their affinities for the arts – or even English, as the same study revealed at 25% decline in its A-Level uptake among British students – perhaps the Irish government’s approach in offering extra Leaving Certificate points for sitting the Higher Level maths paper is more effective, as in its current state, there is no evidence that it diverts the attention of students away from also studying music, art, or Higher Level English.
Although we have spent the better part of the last decade fostering a rivalry between STEM and the Arts and Humanities, it will prove to be of our collective benefit if we strive towards eradicating this divide and eliminating our black and white approach towards these sectors. Last year, the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith, acknowledged that Arts and Humanities graduates will prove themselves to be of immense value in the coming decades, through working alongside their STEM peers, as opposed to against them. ‘At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science, [but] as computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.’
If we must continue to define ourselves and our worth in a post-graduate environment by our employability, then we should, at the very least, admit that the schism between STEM and the Arts in universities is an artificial one. One which can be resolved by celebrating our differences, and realising that these varying skills may even prove useful to one another within shared employment opportunities. We are not representatives of a dichotomy as we have been led, and taught, to believe.
Alex Mulhare – Features Writer