Big Question: Are Arts Subjects as Valuable as the Sciences?


The value of studying science at university is blindingly obvious. Graduates can heal people, discover the universe, and tell us exactly how our world works. How can mere bachelors of the arts hope to match this?

With the rise of tuition fees, arts students will pay more for fewer contact hours compared to science students, indicating the government’s perception of the arts. And yet, the majority of graduate entry jobs simply require a degree – so surely there must be something valuable about an arts degree?

Looking at the bigger picture, science alone is not enough. Yes, research is crucial for solutions to problems such as climate change, but humans are not rational robots; we are creatures of emotion. And it is in articles, books, art, music and films that the fruits of these emotions lie.

How can we appreciate progress if we don’t know what’s come before? And more to the point, why do we even want progress? Arts satisfy the human urge to understand our own experiences. In an age of globalisation and multiculturalism, this is crucial; it is only through empathy that we can be responsible citizens.

This self-reflection also acts as a balance to scientific developments. With cognitive scientists asserting that the mind is simply a computing device, a counterbalancing interpretation is desperately needed to remind us of who we are. During the Cold War, it was only knowledge of the essence of human nature that saved the world from destruction at the hands of ‘scientific progress’, in the form of nuclear weapons.

Grand progress aside, arts offer a unique kind of pleasure; there is not much room for original thinking in science degrees, where all assessments have ‘right answers’. Arts students are taught to think differently, seeing truth in different phenomena. Neither view is superior, but both are necessary.

Those studying arts degrees are paying for far more than merely the “privilege of reading textbooks”. If we cannot ponder as well as empirically prove, we commit ourselves to a close-minded, one-sided, and incomplete study of the world; hardly something conducive to the healthy progression of humankind.



Do you like the Internet? Have you ever watched TV? I thought so. The world around us is dominated by technology. Walk down any high street and the wonders of the modern age will tease and tempt you with their ‘faster processors’ and ‘Higher Definition’. We are living in an age of gadgets, the smartphone and Facebook; we take for granted things that one hundred years ago people accepted as impossible. And who invented it all? That’s right; it was the scientists.

What was science fiction only a few decades ago is now available with a range of covers and accessories. This is possible because of new generations of scientists that have studied long and hard, probed and examined, pushing the limits of what is possible.  Yet this debate goes beyond what you study at university. Here, we are talking about society’s general view of the worlds of science and art.

Art tries to recreate some truth, some meaning of the world around us. But our masterpieces, our greatest novels and sonatas will always be constrained by human limitations. Literature, no matter how exquisitely written, can never escape semantics. Science, on the other hand, lets us understand what creates the beauty in the first place. The English writer Alan Moore once said, “Artists use lies to tell the truth” – in turn, scientists simply find the truth.

The idea that art has some particular elegance that science lacks is wrong; Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2has had a greater effect on the world with only three letters than most authors have had with a thousand pages. Its simplicity produces an elegance that cannot be matched by art.

Don’t get me wrong. Art for art’s sake is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human race; it is one of the hallmarks of a civilised, creative society, but the scope of science quite literally knows no bounds. Scientists will always have something to strive for: a purpose. And that is the most valuable thing there is.


‘Yes’ by Chloe Wenman & ‘No’ by Ben Mcgeorge-Henderson
Images by Justin B. Sailor & Sergei Golyshev

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5 Comments on this post.
  • Amanda
    28 March 2012 at 10:45
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    That TV would be pretty boring without all the artists putting programmes on it…

  • Dave J
    28 March 2012 at 13:56
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    I would argue that the ‘no’ point could actually be reversed –

    Science, not art, will always be restrained by limitations, be they human or physical. Art (in the loosest sense of the term) has no such boundaries but the extent of your imagination.

    This shouldn’t be simplified too much, though. My degree in Politics is a BA, but I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself an ‘artist’ because of it. Equally, I wouldn’t consider myself a political ‘scientist’ either. There are plenty of subjects with worth out there that aren’t scientific by nature. The study of philosophy has as much value as the study of engineering, because informed minds and discussion make life worth living. Science by itself can’t create culture, and the stagnation of culture is the death knell for a society.

    This isn’t a debate that should be polarised between painters and physicists. It should be a question of whether subjects which are not necessarily scientific (such as politics or philosophy) should either ‘become’ scientific (bad idea in my view), or whether they have value anyway.

    The argument that scientists are worth more to society than sculptors and painters is easily dismissed by Amanda’s argument above.

  • Bart
    30 March 2012 at 16:13
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    Dear Ben,

    I just read your entry on sciences and the arts in the latest Impact issue. I happen to have a significant other who has just finished her PhD in astronomy as I myself am writing a dissertation on Cold War history. We have spent countless hours musing over these very issues. I think it’s a mistake to consider one discipline severed from and superior to the other. Not merely in the face of inextricable kinship, but impact. You seem to me an optimistic positivist. I am glad. It will give you energy and faith to pursue concrete goals in life as a scientist. As a thinking human being however, I would like to ask you one question. Why do you think every time a totalitarian regime arises, the first thing it does is control the arts, purge every single expressive outlet (literature, film, drama, journalism)? Does that reveal to you something deeper in terms of subversive potential?
    Now I don’t feel I should be preaching to you, as you seem intelligent and assertive. I would only like you to step outside of your own orbit or interest and consider for a minute the complexity of human culture and thought in its totality. An Arts degree, this I can tell you, does not guarantee a profound understanding of how society works. In fact, it doesn’t guarantee anything. That’s up to the individual student, for it relies on imagination, critique and vision. Many of the groundbreaking scientists that have shaped our world were philosophers, avid readers and brilliant writers ad shared these gifts. Your comments disconcerted me as societies that fail to put those talents, however vague they may seem, on equal par, coincide with censorship, purely functional, utilitarian approaches to human existence. To financially discourage students to pursue a career in the arts is the slap in the face of basic human diversity and inventiveness. We are critics, political scientists, historians and our schemata of “truth” are just as problematic and essential.

  • ben
    2 April 2012 at 16:27
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    Thank you for your comment, I’m glad to see that my piece is causing at least some discussion. I must admit that I wrote it with the premise of fuelling debate and as such do not agree totally with what I said.

    I agree that society without artistic expression, without culture, is nothing. And yes totalitarian regimes do try and subdue the population’s outlets for such things. I suppose by definition totalitarian leaderships require the suspension of the ‘humanity’ of the people to gain true subservience. Art on the other hand is the basis of fostering that humanity, whether that be through paintings, sculptures etc. or through other ways understanding one’s culture and heritage. So yes the arts certainly do have a massive significance for any society.

    However I suppose the whole question comes down to your description of ‘value’ which is why it is one of those questions that does not have a correct answer, everyone’s personal interpretation of value will be different. In terms of things such as making peoples live more comfortable and, essentially, easier then disciplines such as medicine would obviously lay claim to the high ground (whereas perhaps atomic weapons would put Physicists at the bottom of that list). If your interpretation of value is more in regard to the spiritual and emotional development of mind as well as body then the study of Philosophy, literature and Art would be more of a priority.

    I do think that my argument is perhaps a little too polarised in its approach to the problem, there is definitely a whole spectrum of academia that is entirely unexplored by the initial question of Science Vs. Arts. It seems that this division has been formed simply by the name of one’s degree qualification, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science make up the majority of final undergraduate awards and as such seem to cause enough of a separation between so-called ‘Arts’ and ‘Science’ subjects for debates such as these to be possible. Maybe if every degree simply was rewarded by Bachelor of [your subject] then there would not be so much conflict.

    I do not agree that failing to put arts on an ‘equal par’ to sciences leads to a utilitarian society. Just because one thing is less valuable than something else, it does not mean that it has no value at all. I understand that arts are important to any society, however I stand by my view that science has a larger impact on the modern world and as such is more ‘valuable’ in my interpretation.

  • Joshua jacob
    15 October 2012 at 23:38
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    Wao,wht a wondaful experience.science is more and more valuable to study d science dan d art.take frmd paspectiv of technology.science has done d best.kudos

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