Arts Investigates: Where Lies the Value of an Arts Degree?

So you’re going to be a teacher, then? Yes, bitch, and I’m gonna teach you how to live.

I’m a second year English student, and I love it all; the reading, the faux-intellectual discussions, the sparse timetable… until I realise it’s 2am and I’m reading Batman comics, we’ve been talking about the presentation of gender in post-colonial novels for four hours straight, and it’s the sixth Tuesday in a row I’ve been doing absolutely fuck all.

“At least I’ve got a stable job as a teacher ahead of me”

But none of that is an issue, is it, because at least I’ve got a stable job as a teacher ahead of me (as long as I can afford a post-grad, that is). Wherein I’ll spend the next 60 years of my life educating little bookworms about why the author made the curtains blue, so that they too can one day study an Arts degree, while their classmates, the popular kids in class, sit around twiddling their thumbs, dreaming about being either a banker or being on the dole.

“This article is going to explore the true value of an Arts, specifically English, degree”

But this isn’t going to be an article dismissing the myths of the Arts student lifestyle. There’s only so much Shakespeare I can quote to try to get you to stop biting your thumb at me, sir. No, this article is going to explore the true value of an Arts degree, specifically English, inspired by my thoughts on writing my first piece of coursework for the year.  An essay on essays, if you will.

“I’m not even doing a History and Government degree”

In front of me lies eight books with fancy titles such as The Theory and Practice of the Balance of Power, and God and the State, a plethora of books raging from the ins and outs and shake-it-all-abouts of subjects ranging from anarchism to the European revolutions, history stretching back to the 14th century. And I’m not even doing a History and Government degree.

But these are interesting books with a lot of great quotes, and if there’s anything an English student loves, it’s a great quote. ‘Promise peace, that though mayest begin war with advantage’ (Johann Gottlieb Fichte, The Development of the State in Modern Europe) – PHWOAAR!!

“It sometimes feels like my performance is not graded on how well I write”

But that’s precisely the problem. With so many of my essays in English, it sometimes feels like my performance is not graded on how well I write or how perceptive my tenacious links between a twenty-first century novel-turned-film-megahit, and a seventeenth century book on poems is, but rather how many fancy, flowery ‘highbrow’ quotes I can manage seamlessly to jam into places where they really shouldn’t belong to impress my lecturers.

“Most lit crit is hearsay, or unnecessarily long and drawn-out interpretations”

Stylistics aside (a school of studying texts through careful attention to the language used and how it is processed by the mind), most lit crit is hearsay, or unnecessarily long and drawn-out interpretations, which are essentially over-elaborate reviews bordering on fanfiction written by ‘art critics’ who are only in the field because they failed to become an author themselves.

So maybe the supposedly English-student mantra of If You Can’t Do, Teach does have some backing to it, after all. I mean, we don’t need a ten-chapter book on how to read The Great Gatsby when Gatsby itself is only nine chapters.

“We can use what we learn to improve our future”

But when done right, even the most speculative of art criticism has its value. Though this idea could constitute an entire article, if not book, of its own, I will tentatively state that art in its objective form is nothing more than a reflection of the context in which it is produced – and by analysing art, we can not only learn more about our present and our history, we can use what we learn to improve our future.

If I were writing an essay on patriarchal dominance in Harry Potter, and this led me to reading a set of very unrelated books, which in turn led me to forming the idea that household patriarchal dominance leads to the proletariat craving a domestic government, then what’s the problem? (Disclaimer: this is entirely speculative, given only as an example.)

“If not, there’s always teaching”

If art opens our eyes to the corruption in the world, let it. Us Arts students need only remember to apply what we learn to life outside the lecture halls – for that is where the true value of an Arts Degree lies.

And if not, there’s always teaching.

Matteo Everett

Image credit: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr.

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