In defence of arts degrees

The focus on STEM courses produces graduates who can’t think as critically about society

Photo Credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

The Arts Block/Hamilton divide is evident here in Trinity. These two main sections of campus give rise to two totally different cultures: the fashionable, eccentric Arts Block versus the practical, grounded Hamilton. Just last week, I, a humble student of history and politics, made a rare venture into the Hamilton to collect a friend of mine.

The Hamilton is largely uncharted territory for me, as I pretty much never have a reason to go there. Some observations, from an outsider looking in: the students value comfort and practicality over fashion, value the health of their lungs over the desire to look cool while smoking outside (making the air much cleaner), and the bathrooms are noticeably nicer and less crowded than those in the Arts Block. I was equal parts fascinated and confused, to say the least. (And, to be fully honest, a little envious. Those bathrooms are seriously beautiful.)

In this day and age, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are widely celebrated. With our society becoming more technologically advanced and reliant, STEM graduates are highly sought after by employers. The demand for people to work in these fields is high, and increasing amounts of young students are being persuaded to pursue STEM courses, mostly because of the money and prestige a career in STEM would bring.

Without a doubt, the decision to take on a STEM course is definitely an honourable one. Hearing tales from my friends on the other side about the hours upon hours of labs and lectures that they have to do and attend has made me aware that these fields are intense and require a very particular type of thinking that I am completely incapable of.

My brain is not wired to think mathematically, it never has been, and it never will be. I’ll never fully understand STEM students, but they definitely have my full respect and admiration.

A STEM degree usually leads to a specific career. For example, an engineering student is pretty much guaranteed a job as an engineer, a medicine student would go on to become a doctor, and a computer science student would be destined to work in computers.

The career paths for STEM graduates are much more linear and clear cut than, say, those of arts students. Those arts degrees sure are useless, right? This is a common sentiment expressed among those who do STEM, and something often joked about among arts students themselves.

The arts are a much more malleable group of subjects when compared to mathematics and the hard sciences. For example, in a typical math exam, there is only one right answer, and that’s the end of it. On the other hand, in the humanities and social sciences, there is rarely one right answer. Rather, the answers to questions are much more up to interpretation and there is more room for discussion.

I’ll focus on the one subject that I hold dearly above all else: history. From my childhood obsession with ancient Egypt to my current status studying this great subject here in Trinity, my love of history has been a lifelong obsession.

Those who don’t understand may question why such a subject is even worth studying at all. After all, a history degree doesn’t tend to lead to a particularly lucrative career, and that seems to be the be all, end all of a course to many people.

Having a knowledge of history is essential to understanding the current state of the world today. As we dig deep into the past, we come to understand humanity’s mistakes, as well as triumphs. We learn from our past mistakes, while also celebrating the progress that we have made along the way. It is a deeply enriching and rewarding discipline that I am proud to study.

Studying history, as well as other arts subjects, opens up endless discussions and engages us to think critically about the societies we live in, as well as the larger world around us.  Ireland’s – and the rest of the world’s – obsession with STEM education is not only risky, it’s dangerous. Sure, STEM education is useful, with these degrees leading the way on a clear path to stable careers. But the overarching essence of STEM is methodical, systematic, and precise.

These courses may train for particular careers, but do not give way to any form of self-expression or creativity in the way that arts degrees do. In a world full of scientists, technicians, engineers, and mathematicians we might live in a more efficient, practical society.

But without historians, writers, artists, musicians, poets, and the like, who would record and tell humanity’s stories, and who would keep the world entertained? The world would without a doubt be a dreary place.

To compare the two rival faculties in an analogy, I will compare them to the human body (perhaps about as scientific as I’ll ever get). STEM is the head. It is the brain, the chief operating system. It keeps the rest of the body in line and relays through nerve paths what it has to do. It is mathematical, precise.

The arts, however, are the heart. The arts represent the very essence and soul of humanity, what it means to be a person, what it means to be alive. Arts courses might not be as practical as STEM courses, but they enable us to think about the world and humanity in ways that STEM courses simply do not allow for.

Both faculties are equally important in different ways, and if one were to disappear, humanity would be severely lacking in one way or another.

The arts are being pushed further and further to the side, and we must do all that is possible to prove that they are still worth studying. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that a world without the arts is not a world I want to live in, and whatever faculty you associate yourself with, if you think about it, you probably feel the same way.

Bridget Maloney

Bridget Maloney is a staff writer for Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh History and Politics student.