Over the last fifty years, global development has quickened in a frantic fashion. New technologies, breakthroughs in scientific research, and the digitalisation of the Western world have forced the labour market to adapt rapidly in order to optimise economic performance. Fresh-faced university graduates are often attracted to multinational tech giants offering secure jobs and the assurance of constant upskilling. Secondary school students poring over college prospectuses are encouraged by teachers and parents to lean heavily towards the STEM sector, and if not so inclined, then a traditional business or economics degree is deemed equally sufficient in the quest for financial success. Those with a penchant for the arts are dissuaded from fully exploiting their interests, often pushed gently in a different direction.
We live in a culture of connectivity, one which shifts direction on an almost-monthly basis. Considering my limited economic knowledge, I have little idea how the world of work shall develop over the next few decades. However only a cursory glance at our current societal playing field is necessary to understand that there is one constant amongst all these quick-fire advances - change. Considering the centrality of change to the job market, both for now and in the foreseeable future, I find it difficult to comprehend why educators and economists place such a militant emphasis on STEM degrees. This article is not intended as a launchpad to strike attack on disciplines outside of the arts. Rather I would simply like to raise the question of how anyone can be certain, when surrounded by adaptations and amendments, that industry will always remain focused on STEM?
In our parents’ time, getting to college was an achievement and obtaining a degree, in whatever subject, was the route to job stability. Nowadays, attending a third-level institution is almost an ingrained expectation for secondary school students - a 2013 Eurostat report showed that Ireland had the highest rate of students completing university. Although our thriving education sector is undoubtedly something to applaud, there exists an unspoken conflict between the expectation to go to college and the high pressure this places upon students who are not necessarily interested in or academically capable of further study. Low-points arts courses have provided a net for a number of these students to fall upon. The conversation around the lack of opportunity in Ireland for non-academic young people is not one I shall address here; rather my aim is to show that arts degrees have become inherently associated with low points and ease of access. Trinity College is an exception to this and its arts and humanities degrees often exceed the 500 point mark. In a more general sense, however, a perception exists in Irish society that studying the arts results in unemployability and economic insecurity. This then raises the question of what is the point? Why would one waste four years thumbing through books in the library when you could be learning about the scientific developments shaping today’s world?
As an English student, I have been quizzed time and time again about my reasons for choosing such a blatantly unemployable subject. Whilst chatting with another student on the train last week, he smirkingly joked that “you’ll be hard-pressed to find a job after you graduate”. I couldn’t rebuke him. Most arts students voyage into the realms of history, literature, and languages fully aware of the perils posed by our course choice. We know that we are not immediately presentable as tech geniuses or number lovers; however we still maintain a unique confidence in the skills amassed throughout our degrees. As literature lovers, the university arts provide ample time for us to soak up all the philosophy and poetry and plays we longed to study in school. An intellectual restlessness is encouraged, one which is not just useful for ourselves as individuals but can eventually come to benefit whole communities. We lose ourselves in the past, travelling through time and space, class and culture; thus are equipped to understand the powers and processes underlying society. After school, each of us are tipped out into the world, undercooked and incomplete. In the arts, our voices are developed to become articulate and informed. Every essay we write contributes to the creation of elegant and creative communicators; allowing us to fine-tune the opinions of others into a melody that suits our arguments and interests. We learn the value of rhetoric - of structuring a stance, supporting it with evidence, and forcing others to think again. The arts provide a wealth of lessons in objection, compassion, and judgment.
Although I have only recently forayed into the arts arena, this brief expedition has restored within me an energy and an excitement that I wholly believed the Leaving Cert had quenched. In place of the dull flatness of rote learning, I have encountered people and books, had conversations and listened to lectures in which I am reminded of the human vitality pouring through us all - the wonder of being alive. The arts lift students out of the monotony of targets, measurement, and obligations - providing instead empathy and understanding. Although it is of course important to comprehend the mechanics of our world, it is equally (if not more) valuable to recognise the emotional fabric out of which each of us is spun.