The details are hazy; I forget the reason for the party or how the conversation had turned to my education, but what I remember is the interruption – or at least the gist of it. From across the room came the semi-inebriated voice, “well what good is an English degree?”
The speaker, a law student whose mouth would share its last load of bile with the toilet, continued: “All I ever see English students doing is reading books.”
Just one reply occurred to me, “and what did anyone ever learn from those?”
In hindsight, only a bad or hypocritical law student could have made the criticism in the first place, but the original point – however clumsily made – is not an uncommon one: that some educations are not worth having.
This week, Nigel Farage has announced a new UKIP policy. If elected, his party would ensure those studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) do not pay tuition fees.
One could argue that students of these subjects have all the financial incentive they need. Popular perception says that they go into gold-plated careers while those in humanities become starving artists, unhappy teachers or McDonald’s employees.
This view is, of course, wrong – most UK leaders were students of humanities, the arts or social sciences – but even if it wasn’t that wouldn’t make it wise to value STEM subjects more highly.
Asked to assess the worth of William Wordsworth or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you would be thought to have missed the point if your first concern was with how many copies of Lyrical Ballads they had shifted.
The worth of these works – or of Shakespeare or Beethoven – is not measured in dollars and cents, but through their contributions to world culture. If we are to disparage the artistic endeavours of failed painters, penniless hacks or graduates we should at least apply the same standard.
Good creative work has a real and lasting value all its own. Name some ancient philosophers and odds are you’ll come up with a few names whose ideas are still being discussed today. Try and do the same with ancient engineers and the average person would have a tougher time.
I don’t say this to trivialise the importance of STEM subjects, but to ask why we encourage one over the other. Can you name a healthy state where culture is forsaken in the name of science or maths?
How much poorer would we be if every playwright, poet and composer without immediate or apparent commercial prospects moved on to a more realistic career?
The loss isn’t just one of the mind, but one with real world implications. Look at Zola and J’accuse or Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. These works, as governments knew, had explosive power.
The irony of all this is that the cultural exports of the UK are worth their weight in gold anyway. We are punching well above our weight here.
At time of writing, three of the top ten places in the American Billboard Chart (including numbers one and two) are held by British acts. Authors like the inescapable J.K. Rowling are read by paying readers the world over. Are these exports of so little value at home?
It’s true to say that great works aren’t dependent on a university education, but the whole field of culture is cheapened for those trying to find their direction when a state shows it will only invest in other fields of learning.