Art for art’s sake… apparently

This week the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, spoke at the launch of the Your Life campaign, which encourages young people to think about choosing maths and science subjects as a route to their future.

The rationale behind this is that what the government calls STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects will give young people an easier and more fruitful route into employment and career. In her speech, Morgan stated this:

“Even a decade ago, young people were told that maths and the sciences were simply the subjects you took if you wanted to go into a mathematical or scientific career, if you wanted to be a doctor, or a pharmacist, or an engineer.

But if you wanted to do something different, or even if you didn’t know what you wanted to do, and let’s be honest – it takes a pretty confident 16-year-old to have their whole life mapped out ahead of them – then the arts and humanities were what you chose. Because they were useful for all kinds of jobs.

Of course now we know that couldn’t be further from the truth, that the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the  STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths.”

As someone with an arts degree, who has forged a long and successful career in a creative industry, I take serious issue with Morgan’s assessment of the reason why people choose arts subjects to study.

At a young age, I will concede, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. But let’s face it – who does?

An arts degree was going to be my route

However, I was very clear that I wanted to study literature at a higher level, because the written word had been my passion and lifeblood since childhood. There was absolutely no question that an arts degree was going to be my educational route, and I was more than prepared to do everything in my power to make that happen.

Far from being the airy-fairy type of youngster that Morgan portrays arts-inclined teenagers to be, I beg to differ. At the time I did my degree, English was the toughest course to get a place at university, and it required higher A-level grades than maths and sciences. Jobs in publishing were equally tough to get into afterwards: hundreds of graduates were vying for entry-level positions such as editorial or production assistant. I achieved both.

I don’t call that unfocused or a ‘well, an arts degree can be applied to anything, can’t it?’ scenario.

I call that hard graft and total commitment.

It’s regrettable that some people (and sadly, some in government who have the power to promote a more constructive view of the arts) retain a misguided view of this sector as vague, generalised and even non-valid.

Many have built strong businesses from their arts degrees

Many have built strong track records and solid businesses on the backs of their arts degrees. Those degrees have turned out educated, informed, intellectual people who contribute to the economy just as much as any scientist, engineer or technologist. Why? because creatives know not only how to question and analyse, but how to think outside the box.  Imagination, innovation and inspiration are the additional qualities that people with arts degrees bring to market.

There is also one final thing to consider. Many people with arts degrees have followed their subject because it is their calling. They might be very good at science or technical subjects, but it is not their purpose in life to follow that path. Is the government seriously suggesting that people abandon their personal aspirations – what will make them really happy in life – purely for material gain, or the good of the economy?

We have seen this reflected already in many students’ choice of degree because it will guarantee them a job at the end of three years. I know people from my own university days who did this. Quite a few of them either didn’t go into the professions they had chosen in the end, such as accountancy and law; or they did, then gave it up a few years later because they found themselves staring into the void.

Everyone is faced with a big choice when they consider their future career. Many people in their lifetimes will change their careers once, twice – maybe even several times. Others will have portfolio careers, combining different workstreams into a viable livelihood.

No one should be denigrated for choosing the work they love

Most importantly, everyone has an individual lifecourse to follow. No one should be denigrated for choosing the work they love.

I agree with Nick Williams, founder of Inspired Entrepreneur, when he says that if you deprive yourself of pursuing your gifts and talents, if you view doing the work you love as selfish or wrong, you are literally doing the world a disservice.

Moreover, the arts should not be downgraded as a career option. Creatives not only contribute to the great art, writing and teaching of our time, but to our cultural heart and soul as a nation – and that is something we must continue to protect and encourage.

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