Spectator Sport: In Defence of the Liberal Arts
XWHY columnist James Barton muses on his own existence (again), falls for Will Self and ignores Katy Hopkins entirely…
A recent debate, hosted by British conservative rag The Spectator, was fuel to James Barton’s existentialist fire…not least because he came fact to face with his philosophical counterpart, a few decades apart.
If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what you’re doing with your life.
I graduated a year after the Credit Crunch happened, and the newspapers were keen to assure me that this was the worst possible year I could have graduated in. The job market would be awash with graduates; all of us qualified, yet inexperienced, blinkered by our years of entitled schooling and bloated by our gap yahs, kicked out to fend for ourselves after three years of skiving, boozing and eating cheese toasties.
Blair had pledged in the ’90s that everyone in the country had the right to good education, which was fair enough. He’d also claimed that everyone ought to be going to university, which was perhaps less fair. Teenagers were convinced that university was the answer to everything, and that they should no longer be the exclusive preserve of egg-headed academic types. The term ‘Mickey Mouse degree’ was coined shortly thereafter.
It’s hardly breaking new ground to say that I believe that not everyone needs to go to university, and that not every job should require a degree from one. However, I also don’t believe that the proliferation of much-derided vocational courses is a bastardisation of the spirit of academia, providing unpromising students with a free pass to fuck around for three years followed by an easy qualification. Fuck it, if you want to study Events Management, go ahead. I can’t even manage a Facebook event, and at least you’ve got some idea of what you want to do with your life.
Knocking specific courses is low hanging fruit. The point is, vocational study of any kind serves a bloody obvious purpose, and it demonstrates a hell of a commitment. I mean, one of my closest friends recently decided that she wanted to become an occupational therapist. To that end, she was willing to sacrifice a comfortable living situation, her income and a lot of her time and money, all to study something that she thinks she might be comfortable doing for the foreseeable future, or if not, at least the next few years.
Christ, some of my best friends are doctors; they by definition must have had a clear idea of where they wanted their career to go from before the age of 16.
Everything about this level of commitment terrifies me. I wash along in life like a bottle on an ocean wave, if the bottle contained a cynical yet delightfully written letter. As a teenager, I agonised more over whether I would be mocked for openly acknowledging my love of The Offspring than over the direction my academic life should take. I studied Italian at university because I was good at it, and people don’t study languages anymore so you get ridiculously easy acceptance offers. It was obvious and I didn’t have to think about it.
And here I am now. With a job that doesn’t involve speaking Italian at all.
So, was it a waste of my time and money?
That was the question put to me by a recent debate organised by The Spectator, chaired by Andrew Neil. The argument was that studying anything that won’t advance your career is indulgent and pointless. Despite the fact that I studied just such a degree – and the fact that Katie Hopkins was arguing for the motion – I went in open-minded, possibly even ready to be convinced.
In case you hadn’t guessed, my career involves writing. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, it does not require Italian, but since that counts as a plus point on my CV we’ll list those as the two professional skills that I gained from my degree. I could have learnt how to write on a journalism course. I could have learnt how to speak Italian by living and working there, or studying an intensive language course. There were other, more efficient ways to obtain these skills.
So, all the other stuff I learnt – all that shit about literature, poetry, art and history – was evidently filler; pointless fluff to momentarily delight my opulent, lazy brain while industrious scientists beavered away in the background. This seemed to be what Julia Hobsbawm, founder of Editorial Intelligence, was trying to argue. The problem was, she didn’t seem too convinced herself. She claimed that, from an economic standpoint, with an increasingly tough and impenetrable job market, it didn’t make sense to pour money into studying something that wouldn’t benefit an undergrad’s employment prospects.
While this may ring true to the current crop of jobless Arts graduates, her own enthusiasm for culture was too difficult for her to conceal. She was forced into making concessions, claiming that languages didn’t count as Arts subjects when she clearly acknowledged that they provided a cultural rather than a scientific education. Here was a woman who obviously adored the arts, yet was trying to argue that studying them made less sense than inviting Katie Hopkins to an intelligent debate about something serious.
You probably don’t even need to be at all familiar with me to know how I feel about Katie Hopkins, because for once the general public seems to share my utter disdain for her. I won’t waste time insulting her intelligence, because frankly everything she said took care of that for me. On to the next ‘for’ panellist then – a rather odious contributor to the Spectator named Harry Cole. He had all the Bullingdon-esque bluster of a man who fancied himself as the next Boris Johnson, if you can believe anyone would wish that upon himself.Katy Hopkins starts talking, opposition panelists hang on her every word…
He claimed that he had wasted his time with a Social Anthropology degree, messing about and drinking excessively, just as many students are wont to do and gaining “an MA in sweet FA.” Interesting.
Plenty of us go to university without a clear roadmap of where we want our degree to take us, but I found it dubious that he could so callously dismiss the knowledge that must have somehow been imparted to him. Had it not moved or touched him in any way? Had it not broadened his horizons at all? Had he really not absorbed any of it?
Despite his catchy but rather self-aggrandising sound bites –wouldn’t it have been a BA? – he was swiftly undermined when opposition panellist Doug Richard noted that perhaps if Cole had been obliged to cover the full cost of his degree, he might have paid more attention. Considering Richard is best known for throwing money about on Dragon’s Den, he’d have little difficulty financing a degree today – but, he observed, the value of education is not the same thing as its price.
Richard trumpeted the importance of creativity in business, arguing that the innovation fostered by Arts degrees is a truly precious resource. He had a point, but unfortunately the artistic and the industrious are typically not one and the same. I’d be overflowing with creativity if it could be arsed to flow out of me.
So what then? Art as a contrast to the clinical rigidity of science? This seemed to be the angle explored by Wellington College headmaster Anthony Seldon, who argued in an amusing, but slightly flustered manner that the disciplines can be considered as two sides of the same coin. Science is how we understand things, he argued, but art is how we feel them – and it is through our feelings that we can interpret the world.
Again, Seldon makes a valid point, but he didn’t really explain what it was that makes studying an Arts degree as worthwhile as a Science degree. Feelings are nice and all, but if science is just as valid and more likely to find you employment, then why wouldn’t you?
And then, the answer – as it usually does with XWHY – poured forth from the mouth of a tall, lugubrious man with a deep voice and a cynical attitude.
The similarities between Will Self and my…self do not end there, as it would seem that despite his Eeyor-like demeanour, his outlook on life is ultimately optimistic. I am firmly of the belief that the general awfulness of everything around us – international politics, humanitarian crises, the tube during rush hour – can be offset by beauty, by love. You could argue that the need to compensate for the horror of existence is what drives us to create beautiful things in the first place.
Or perhaps, argued Self, we create art because the emotion that it stirs within us makes us feel more truly alive than any reasonable understanding of the world ever could. PPE – Philosophy, Politics and Economics – could be considered a triumvirate of disciplines through which we might try to make logical sense of the world around us, yet Self dismissed it as “the edifice of an ideology that makes your life feel like cardboard. And,” he added, “the only thing that makes life worth living is love.”
If studying the arts can help you to understand, to interpet, to feel, how could it ever really be pointless?
I mentioned earlier that I have friends who are enjoying the careers they studied for. Well, I also have friends who ditched humanities to go into a profession and complain to me bitterly about how work is bleeding the life out of them. I can understand why. When you feel that life erodes you on a daily basis, the ability to appreciate beauty, to notice it and interpret it and to apply it where it is needed, can go a long way towards making it seem worthwhile.
Describing his own students, Self noted that many of them were wasters, but that it was his job to engage their hearts, their minds, and their souls. And, he noted, there is nothing wasteful about that.