Comment & Analysis
Nov 21, 2018

The Arts Might Not Teach Us How to Make a Living – But They Teach Us How to Live

In a world increasingly focused on making us employable at all costs, it's worth remembering the value of arts courses, writes Alanna MacNamee.

Alanna MacNameeColumnist
Sinéad Baker for The University Times

There’s a scene in Channel 4’s cult sitcom, Fresh Meat, that’s been on my mind lately. In it, a group of student housemates are speaking to prospective student Luca, who is questioning the value of going to university, fearing that afterwards he’ll end up “having to work as a pot-washer in some kitchen somewhere”. Their response? “But you’ll have a degree. That’s worth a lot.”

Luca remains unconvinced. “You’re putting all this time and money into a system that might have nothing for you. The number of unemployed graduates are going up, starting salaries are going down, industries are outsourcing, down-sizing…”

At this stage, the students begin to panic. Geology student Kingsley is apoplectic: “I haven’t just wasted three years of my fucking life for no reason!” Luca, though, is unsympathetic: “I’d say if you want to work in radio then you definitely have.” At this point Kingsley almost vomits into that staple of student homes everywhere, an orange traffic cone.


Lucky Kingsley: he’s only worried about having wasted three years of his life. I sometimes wonder whether I’ve wasted five years of mine.

As an arts student, I have a grand total of four hours of college every week. I spend just 2.38 per cent of my week in class, which I’d imagine will make it none too easy to transition to working 10 times that in a full-time job. Luckily, this is an unlikely prospect: the gradIreland careers website tells me that “there are very few career areas directly related to humanities graduates”. Fantastic: this really makes my €3,000 course fee – sorry, €3,128 when you include the USI and the gym, which I don’t use (no time!) – seem like a worthwhile investment.

Is university worth it then? And what is the point of it? Of course, university trains some students for the job market, gives them the technical and practical skills to be able to earn a good living. In this light, my degree probably hasn’t been particularly beneficial: as a graduate I’m certainly not going to be young, dumb and worth a lump sum.

Derrida’s concept of hostipitality has a lot to teach a Europe in the process of adjusting to mass immigration

But it’s worth considering another object of university. In the mid 19th century, a decline in religion coincided with the growth of a large number of universities, and it was thought that studying culture could step in for studying religion. JS Mill certainly saw it that way, declaring that universities’ object was not to “make skilful lawyers, physicians or engineers” but rather “capable and cultivated human beings”. I’d argue then that universities can have more than one object: sure, its STEM subjects can teach us how to make a living – but the arts can teach us how to live.

Too often we see the first of these privileged. For example, in 2015 the Japanese Minister for Education sent a letter to the presidents of Japan’s national universities advising that they close their humanities and social sciences departments and instead focus on practical subjects. In 2017, the State University of New York announced its plan to close a number of departments for budgetary reasons. The departments in question? Comparative literature, cinema and cultural studies and theatre arts. It’s worth noting, too, that the humanities receive less than 0.5 per cent of federal research money in the US, and only about 1 per cent in Europe.

In this light, I think it’s worth reasserting the value of studying the arts, or humanities, as it’s called in the US. In a world characterised by a dearth of empathy, where we increasingly find ourselves being nasty to one another on the internet (hello, comments section on the!) and where the far right is on the rise, we need more people skilled in how to be humane, and how to think. This isn’t abstract theorising either: psychologist Keith Oatley has shown, for example, how reading fiction makes us simulate social worlds and increases our capacity for empathy. Derrida’s concept of “hostipitality”, an exploration of the hospitality we ought to extend to a stranger, has a lot to teach a Europe that’s in the process of adjusting to mass immigration. The work of Judith Butler, a renowned gender theorist, completely changed how I understand what it means to be human.

Can we not also ask students what and how they would actually like to learn in line with what’s relevant to them?

The problem, then, isn’t that it’s not the place of universities to teach us how live. Instead, I would contend, the problem is that some are not doing it right. The examples I cited above of valuable things an arts degree can teach are things I actually did learn as part of my degree – while I was on Erasmus in Barcelona. Too often, I think, what we are learning in the stuffy (in both senses of the world) classrooms of the Arts Block can feel worlds away from the busy Nassau St outside. I really believe Trinity needs to change its approach and to make a concerted effort to relate degrees in the arts and social sciences to real life. The focus should be not only on what students must learn, but how they can use their real-life experience to engage with and illuminate that learning.

I wonder, too, can we not also ask students what and how they would actually like to learn in line with what’s relevant to them? And how they would like to present that learning? The now-compulsory dissertation might allow students to choose their own topic, but it doesn’t actually allow them to choose how they present it. Why not allow a dissertation in the form of a radio documentary? Or forego the epic boredom of endless referencing in favour of a musical satire? These don’t have to displace the traditional ways of learning and collecting knowledge: they can coexist alongside them, and they can anchor our university learning to our real, lived lives.

One person who would agree with these arguments is popular philosopher Alain de Botton who would have us actually use the insights and information that the arts open up to us. He would have us redirect our attention: instead of studying what John Keats thought of love, he would have us try to understand the concept of love by using Keats’s poetry as a tool to do so. De Botton thinks using culture in this way can help us grapple with “our most pressing personal and professional issues”, can actually help us live our “best life”.

Is it worth going to university then – especially if going isn’t really going to teach you how to make a living? I think that’s probably something everyone is going to feel differently about, depending on what’s important to them in life, and whether they are willing to pay a hefty price for the privilege.

The Fresh Meat students would say it is worthwhile. The episode I mentioned above closes with the group in jubilant spirits after stealing a keg from a local pub and decanting it in the bath. “We’ve got a bath of booze on our hands here”, one says. “This is what being at university is all about.”

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