The “humanities versus science” debate has long been deliberated in the media, particularly in more recent years, with government investment being directed more towards scientific excellence as opposed to the promotion of creative industries.
While it is easy to state the pros and cons of a degree at either end of the spectrum, it is perhaps useful to assess the point of degree education in the first place – is its sole purpose to lead the student to a specific career, or is it more ambiguous than that? Many opt for a degree in a subject simply because they enjoy it, or because they want to prolong their education experience, or because they believe that a degree in any subject is valuable in some way or another.
The latter is certainly true – most, if not all degrees, strive to teach their students a particular set of skills that they can apply to the wider world when they graduate from university. While many invest more trust into degrees in the sciences due to a higher guarantee of a good job afterwards, the skills acquired while reading a humanities or arts degree should not be overlooked. Degrees such as English Literature, History or Philosophy teach you to be critical and analytical of texts, as well as promote free-thinking, whereas subjects such as Journalism, Economics and Politics enhance debating skills and broaden an individual’s understanding of current affairs. On the other hand, a degree such as Geography may strengthen vital research and data analysis skills. These proficiencies are useful in almost any sector – be it legal, business, or creative.
International firms such as Morgan Stanley have spoken out about the diversity of their employee’s backgrounds, and why this enhances the overall work force. They stress that a financial background is absolutely not essential; they hire graduates from scientific, financial and humanities backgrounds alike. More important to them, is the ability to transfer skills acquired in university into the world of work, even though these skills may not be directly linked with finance. One employee spoke about the importance of having a variation of graduates working in the firm in order to bring new perspectives and a sense of creativity. This just goes to show that creativity is invaluable in any career or industry, as it can only ever enrich an individual and their work.
A question often considered when choosing a degree subject is “is my degree good value for money?” With university expenses already high and expected to increase again, this is undoubtedly an important consideration for many. This is also why scientific degrees are often more appealing, especially to parents who want their children to pursue reliable or more “traditional” careers. Another argument for scientific or engineering degrees is that, overall, they have more quantifiable benefits to society. Doctors provide health care, engineers construct infrastructure, and scientists are forever furthering our knowledge of the world, which consequently allows us to have greater control over our health, environment and lifestyle choices. Through science we learn about our history and improve our future.
On the other hand, just because the impacts of a humanities degree are less quantifiable, this does not mean they should be dismissed. A world without arts and humanities would be devoid of culture, philosophy and literature, which ultimately bring greater significance to our existence. Additionally, arts and humanities degrees can produce intuitive and free-thinking individuals, who are adaptable to a wide range of careers and industries. For example, in the book “Rework”, written by the founders of the highly successful tech company 37 Signals, they stress the importance of hiring good writers. They offer two reasons for this; first, that communication is essential in every aspect of business, and second, that clear writing is an indication of clear thinking. A person may be highly introspective and intelligent, but if they lack quality communication skills, this intelligence counts for much less. Business is about much more than computer coding and spreadsheets – it is about effective communication and creative problem solving, too.
The way in which the media portrays humanities degrees is disheartening to those who study such subjects and leads them to think that their career path is narrow, when in actual fact it is the debate itself that is narrow and one-sided. Instead of promoting certain degrees and industries, the government should work to inform students about how to use their degree skills, regardless of what subject they choose to study. Teaching children to code and promoting mathematics and science in early education is of course vital to future society, but without promoting creativity, enterprise and business acumen, these skills will do little to strengthen global relationships and investment.
You only have to look to some of the most prominent CEOs in the business world to realise that humanities or arts graduates are far from being unemployable. For example, Michael Eisner, former CEO of Walt Disney Company, received a BA in English Literature and Theatre. Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO, studied a BA in Government at university, and Susan Wojcicki, Youtube CEO, received a BA in History and Literature. Perhaps most surprisingly, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, read Medieval History and Philosophy at Stanford University. Fiorina also worked as a receptionist, English teacher and secretary, before progressing to a sales representative job and quickly moving up in the IT industry.
The bottom line is, that it matters less what subject you do, and more what you do with the skills that you acquire from your degree. A subject cannot be “pointless” if it teaches an individual a set of skills they may not have otherwise acquired, and broadens their worldview, allowing them to progress to places they may not have previously considered pursuing.