Last summer, shortly after graduating with a degree in English, I was mocked for devoting three years to studying this subject. The person who smirked at my choice of study was an academic himself – a professor of genetics. He had scoffed:
“Pfft. Story-telling is all well and good, but, I mean… really?”
My reply at the time was a combined splutter of bemusement and bits of sandwich, topped off with a pained, high-pitched yelp (probably an expression of the growing, post-graduate job market related fear that was enveloping many of my friends and I).
I would like to respond a bit more coherently now.
It was not the first time I had felt the need to ‘defend’ my degree. Judging by the surprisingly not so unusual ‘What are you going to do with that then?’ type remarks, anyone would have thought I had carelessly got myself into debt for studying something as frivolous as tiddlywinks. And last week, education secretary Nicky Morgan actively discouraged teenagers from studying arts and humanities subjects, by suggesting that this choice could ‘hold them back’ forever.
Largely thanks to Morgan’s government tripling university tuition fees, it is no wonder that we have been forced into debating the ‘value’ of studying subjects such as literature, history and philosophy at degree level. The arts and humanities sit uncomfortably on a shelf in the higher education supermarket, awkwardly trying to distract attention away from their hefty price tag that is so at odds with what they represent. As Dead Beats Literary Blog put it:
The substance of a thing’s ‘value’ lies within the context in which the object of concern is assessed. The value of Arts and the Humanities has been assessed under economic and pragmatic terms which are distinct from, and incompatible with, the formative and experiential benefits that are inherent to the subject field.
It seems nonsensical to view the study of literature in terms of monetary value. Back in 2012, the University of Sheffield held an event entitled Against Value in the Arts and Humanities in which the following argument was made:
… the task of the arts and humanities, both in their creative and educative aspects, is to contest, to challenge, to question, to undermine, to satirise, to offend, to violate, to deconstruct, to degenerate, to critique, to undo, or to suspend dominant and dominating assumptions of value. The purpose of the arts and humanities, the purpose of the university, is to think against value.
It is no surprise then, that Morgan and the rest of the political elite want to discourage this kind of deconstructive thinking. One of my lecturers once described feminism (which incidentally, I would not have understood so well had I not taken an arts and humanities degree) as ‘never blindly accepting the prevailing terms for anything.’ Another defined literature as a deeply political subject – but one that is far more exciting that studying politics – because it allows one to engage with notions of authorship and ownership, and to critically question pillars of tradition and power. The existence of the literary canon, for example, is a reminder that ‘value’ is not innate but is instead constructed.
I could attempt to begin listing the ways that studying literature aids personal development: encouraging moral and political agency, and improving transferable skills in ways of thinking rigorously and analytically. But perhaps the most essential and beneficial life skill that is enhanced by reading literary fiction is the ability to empathise. Science, thankfully, has confirmed this, and Morgan and the rest of the cabinet would do well to take note, preferably before they introduce rash policies such as the book ban on prisoners, or make sweeping statements claiming that only the STEM subjects are ‘useful’, and thus disregarding all other subjects as unimportant.
Granted, Morgan’s definition of ‘useful’ is probably quite different to mine. I would say that nurturing the empathic potential in young people through the study of arts and humanities, and through encouraging reading more generally, is more than ‘useful’ – it is vital. I would agree with Roman Krznaric – writer, cultural thinker and founder of the Empathy Library, who views empathy not as a ‘fluffy’ concept, but as a radical force for social change, creativity and innovation. The act of stepping inside someone else’s head and beginning to understand how their experiences and circumstances inform their perspective – this is made possible by art, film and literature in particular. This imaginative leap nurtures an interest in others, helps to break down assumptions and harmful stereotypes, and can even be a first step towards taking positive action. Turns out Krusty the Clown’s slogan for his literacy campaign, ‘Give a hoot, read a book!’ ain’t as silly as it sounds.
Aside from Morgan’s suggestion that arts and humanities subjects no longer have any ‘use’ based on her own limited, economic-driven terms being complete nonsense – the UK’s creative industries are now worth £71.4 billion per year to our economy – by encouraging students to write off arts subjects at the age of 15 so as not to limit their career prospects, she reinforces an old inequality: that the arts are only available to the wealthy. If you’re concerned about getting a job, better not risk getting into all that debt for a degree that might not guarantee you a stable career or high income. Rather than breaking down barriers that prevent young people from disadvantaged backgrounds accessing careers in the arts, such as crippling student debt or unpaid internships, the education secretary would rather they just didn’t bother trying in the first place. It is for this reason that we desperately need charities like Arts Emergency, an organisation that recognises the importance of equal social access to the arts, and the crucial benefits that the arts and humanities bring to society.
Particularly now, it is essential that empathy, moral agency and experimental thought are encouraged through a good arts education, rather than schools and universities producing depoliticised students, and what the writer Henry A Giroux calls a “technically trained docility”. Giroux has spoken out about the relationship between the context of neoliberalism and a perceived breakdown in forms of social obligation. Within the neoliberal project, capital rules, and ‘compassion and concern for others are viewed as a weakness.’ Recent growing support for UKIP and the rise of extremist parties elsewhere in Europe amidst austerity can be interpreted as a form of collective empathic collapse. Our media continues to tar people with unfair labels, stirring up prejudice within communities.
The arts and humanities promote a just society. Nicky Morgan needs to realise this, and prove that she does give a hoot.