Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why study? and Why study arts and humanities subjects?

Students in most countries today pay tuition fees. Even countries that took great pride in their public universities (like Australia, Germany and the UK)started quietly with smallish top-up fees, higher education contribution schemes or whatever their euphemism for charging higher education students for their education might have been. Fees went up and up and up ever since. It goes without saying that people from poorer families face ever higher hurdles in their attempts at accessing higher education. They'll either often be unable to afford steep up-front fees, or the thought of gigantic student debts will put them off higher education forever. There are all sorts of rationales, some less rational than others, for why these fees were and are supposedly necessary.

It's probably worth noting that in each of the countries mentioned they were introduced by a generation of politicians that themselves benefited from tuition free access to university. Probably a phenomenon similar to that miserable little black man on the US Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas. A beneficiary of affirmative action policies if there ever was one, he now spends most of his time on turning back the clock on affirmative action (as well as civil rights like reproductive rights of women). I digress, I apologize.

Now, given that students pay ever more and more, and end up with ever higher debts when they graduate - let's ignore those scholarship receiving students attending investment banks with a little bit of education attached to them, like Harvard University, Princeton and other elitist outfits - it seems worth asking, why students continue to study for degrees in the arts and humanities, given that such degrees are not exactly leading to straightforward money-printing-press-equivalent degrees as law and medicine degrees , or even engineering degrees do.

Well, and here is the surprising finding from Great Britain: It is so, because only 35% of students polled in the UK declared that their primary reason for studying what they studied was the job prospects. 38% declared that they studied what they studied because of their love for the subject of their course. (This, of course includes people for whom their choice of study subject is both a subject that they love, and a subject that they chose because of job prospects.) That I find surprisingly reassuring.

Despite various governments' efforts to eliminate anything to do with culture from universities (by starving the arts and humanities of funding for research and teaching), our new 'customers' voted with their feet and elected to study arts and humanities subjects anyway. Many young people seem to have decided that universities are not merely educational factories designed to offer glorified vocational training and pseudo-academic degrees like Master's degrees in jeans design and similar such nonsense.

It is fair to say that academics have failed in most countries pretty miserably in defending the academy against the onslaughts of those aiming to transform universities into vocational training outfits. Students' love for the subjects they choose are probably one of the reasons for why arts and humanities continue to thrive these days, despite all the dooms-day sayers.

1 comment:

  1. I think this might be going a bit far. While it is certainly the case that many arts students love what they study (of course, myself included), many if not most arts students did not choose to study it out of love. At least in my experience, virtually none of my (philosophy undergraduate) peers knew what philosophy was when the signed up for their arts degree out of high school. I think it should also be noted how students rarely go to class when attendance no longer benefits their final grades. For instance, when professors post complete lecture notes online, the students simply didn’t show up. Of course there is more to studying than attending lectures, but I think my point still stands. To a great many arts students, their degree is but a piece of paper that will (sort of) help them get a job, or into law school, or whatever.

    I believe the primary reason why students enrol in the arts is a lack of alternatives. Many students (and parents) feel vocational training is too ‘low-brow’. So if the student didn’t enjoy (or excel in) math and science in high school, then there really aren’t many alternatives.

    I believe – and I know many of my peers believe – that studying the arts is wholly invaluable. But I do not see how anyone could come to that conviction before studying the arts! Their love, then, cannot really play into their decision to enrol. In fact, the Canadian education system (that I went through) forces its students to choose between arts or science/engineering degrees in the summer before grade 11 (at 15 years old). Things could be better in Europe, or wherever.