A decline of students reading the arts and humanities at university could have a grave impact on our society.
“Why did you choose to get your BA in theology? Are you planning on becoming a priest?”
Take this question, one I’ve received innumerable times, and rephrase it as you will.
“Philosophy — do you want to be stuck in a library for the rest of your life?
History of art — are you going to become a museum curator?
Classics — dreaming of spending countless evenings marking schoolkids’ translations?”
Deciding to read any one of the humanities at university always elicits a certain kind of cynical curiosity — that polite disdain, poorly disguised as perplexity, which unsubtly reads “what’s the point of studying such a ‘useless’ subject?”
It’s this kind of “curiosity” which often succeeds in putting off aspiring students from applying for humanities degrees, often opting for the safer comfort found in STEM. What is more, with tuition fees in this country at an all-time high, people are especially discouraged from pursuing academic programmes which are perceived to be “irrelevant”. This is clear in A-Level statistics from 2018, where Ofqal reports a noticeable decline in students taking English and other humanities subjects.
The reality is the world is in a desperate need for humanities graduates, people who have built their skills on critical thinking, pattern-observing and problem solving, but above all who could be the very people who find solutions to the immense difficulties we are facing at this moment in time.
If we begin by looking at things more pragmatically, the UK offers pretty decent employment prospects for humanities students, especially relative to other countries. For my specific degree, UK statistics show that only 5.2% of theology and religious studies graduates are unemployed within six months of finishing their studies, which is even lower than the rate for economics students (6.7%). A humanities degree doesn’t limit one’s choices too drastically either — a 2013 study of Oxford humanities graduates from 1960–89 shows how 19.8% went on to work in management and 10.4% in finance. This should provide a modicum of relief for those planning on steering from STEM’s well-trodden path, which is undeniably necessary given our increasingly tough job market.
Nevertheless, looking beyond this, it is time we fully embrace the sacrosanct value which humanities subjects offer in the world, especially that of today. The West finds itself in a crisis. The backdrop of Recession and austerity has harmed working communities, the far-right has exploited economic difficulties to rise in power and scapegoat minorities, the environment is under increasing threat, and governments have yet to find adequate solutions to global religious and ethnic conflicts. The outlook seems bleak, and the answers frugal.
Yet, when I think of what I studied in my course, some of the answers seem clearer. Learning about the history of religious fundamentalism, its birth in US in the early 20th century, and close relationship with economic and national forces, gave me a greater insight into the phenomenon behind the rise of the American “religious right” in the 1980s and how this would ultimately lead us to Trump’s victory two years ago. Similarly, reading feminist theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether or Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza opened my eyes to the quick eradication of women’s voices within Christianity, which would subsequently lead to many of the debates in the Church today.
Looking at the mistakes of the past and observing the patterns of human behaviour could teach us the lessons we need for the future. Any historian could see that the recent rise of right-wing populism closely mirrors that of the 1930s, where the Great Depression led to a climate of jingoism and racism. Geography shows us how many of the political disputes of today are closely linked to environmental issues leading to population displacement. Art teaches us how centuries of cultural development have relied upon the interaction of people from all over the world, which is why the isolationist tendencies taken up by the West are immensely detrimental to the creative process. Perhaps, if the world had paid more attention to the humanities, we would not be in the dire socio-economic and political situation we find ourselves in. After all, the answer lies in the etymology of the word itself — from the Latin humanitas, the humanities are nothing but the study of what makes us human.
And so we return to the original question. “Do you want to become a priest?” No. I’m agnostic. “Why did you choose to study theology then?” Because, aside from being deeply fascinated by the study of religions, their historical development, and the philosophical questions which arise from spiritual concerns, I believe that being able to be a fully-fledged citizen today also requires a profound understanding of the way humans relate to each other. Sure, we’ll always need doctors, engineers, accountants, economists — but we also need poets, journalists, sociologists, and artists.
Above all, there should be no competition between sciences and the humanities, as each should serve to complement and improve the other. Aspiring bankers, don’t be afraid to get a bachelor’s degree in English literature — learning about Shakespeare and Donne may not teach you how to process data on Excel, but it can give you a lesson on timeless values (as the bard himself wrote in The Taming of the Shrew, “no profit grows where no pleasure is ta’en”). What is more, let’s continually push for a job market where the humanities are increasingly valued and where the elusive divide between STEM and the arts is finally bridged.