Are arts degrees a waste of time?

Margaret E. Ward and Norah Casey debate whether or not an arts degree is a waste of time.

Absolutely not, says Margaret E Ward. You can’t be a smart decision-maker unless you can apply critical and logical thinking

What I find consistently throughout my career is that an arts degree gives me an ability to use critical and logical thinking to solve problems. When you’re studying literature and creative writing, as I did, you’re looking at what the underlying structure of something is. It’s like being a scientist. What’s its essence? What does it mean? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve?

In business, I’m able to logically construct an argument and have a debate because I have read a great deal and I learned about the arts. It also means I have more context for solving problems.

If we’re only learning to specialise in one thing, if we’re only learning to be a computer programmer, and all we know is about computer programming, we don’t have the context for the problem we’re trying to solve because we haven’t looked at the rest of the world. The whole world isn’t business; the whole world isn’t computer programming. With an arts degree, you get the context of what is going on in the world. You can’t be a smart decision-maker unless you have the structure of critical and logical thinking.

Why did I found both my businesses? I have Clear Ink that is 10 years old and a global brand communications agency. We work with the biggest organisations in the world – the European Central Bank, Google, Twitter, Kellogg’s, Accenture, all the big law firms, all the banks, all the professional services companies. You know why they use us? Because the vast majority of people who work for them don’t know how to write effectively. Every day of the week, I’m going into the offices of these people who are highly educated and I’m teaching them how to write, how to outline their thoughts, which is a critical and logical thinking thing. Every day of the week, I see the problem and employers are bringing me in to fix it.

Why did my company Broadly Speaking come about? Because people have difficultly communicating verbally. Broadly Speaking teaches people about effective public speaking, how to pitch, how to speak at conferences, how to participate in a conference panel or on a radio or television panel, how to get your point across clearly, using clear language and examples and storytelling techniques to bring people along with you. All of these things are communication skills. That ability to argue and think critically and logically are down to the brain training given to you largely by arts degrees.

Margaret E Ward is an entrepreneur, broadcaster and journalist


Are arts degrees a waste of time?

Yes, yes, yes says Norah Casey. I’m a great believer in “the 10,000-hour rule”— that IQ isn’t as important as practice

As an employer, an arts degree wouldn’t get you in the door in my company. Not when you’re up against people who have gone off and specialised. It’s nothing. It’s a three-year foundation. Can young people afford to do that now? I would argue not. Studying for the sake of studying is something you can do the whole of your life. You don’t have to do it as soon as you leave school.

I’m not arguing against all degrees, I’m for the more applicable ones, especially if they’re combined with practical elements which make young people ready for work. During the recession, employers couldn’t afford to take graduates on because they weren’t work-ready. In the boom days, you’d six months to prepare them for work and train them in. Not now

If you’re in the position where you’re very wealthy and you can afford to fund your children to do arts degrees and Masters that have no applicability to their lives, by all means, do. It’s a lovely luxury, but since 2008 we’ve seen 250,000 people leave this country. The biggest chunk has been amongst graduates. I don’t think we can afford to tell our young people it’s OK to go off and study for another three years with no focus in terms of what they’re going to do. Once you leave school, the first thing you need to do is learn how to earn your living for the first period of your life.

I meet people in their twenties who don’t know what they want to be when they grow up, but I often think that’s because we allow them the luxury of prevaricating, of not making a decision. You hear parents constantly saying to their 23-year-olds, “There’s time enough yet to make the decision.” Meanwhile, they’re the kids who are on the dole.

I’m a great believer in “the 10,000-hour rule” – that IQ isn’t as important as practice. You should push your kids to do what they’re naturally inclined to do. Every time I go into a classroom or talk to a group of transition year students I say, “You don’t have to be good at everything, but the one thing that you think you want to be, be good at that. Work hard at that.” The more broad-based we continue their education the less likely they are to develop their natural inclinations and their natural talents.

What do you say to a philosophy graduate? You know the answer is: “A Big Mac and chips.”

Norah Casey is owner & chair of Harmonia publishing and a broadcaster.


What do you think? Is an arts degree a waste of time?

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