Flat caps, more about ask manicured fingers and student union memories. That heady brew of smiles and tears- graduation season is upon us. It’s an exciting time, approved visit this the ‘future’ seems closer than ever before and beams down like the summer sun. Yet even at a time like this, page a cloud looms. An unrelenting relic of closed minds and one-track visions of job security that creeps up every so often. Roll your eyes and say it with me: “Arts and humanities degrees are worthless.”
Now, I don’t know how much you’ve read about this subject, but as an anxiety-prone student, I can tell you that I’ve read a lot. But the more I look around, the more I begin to see that it simply isn’t true, and if we take stock of our world, maybe you’ll agree.
There are innumerable issues facing humanity today. According to the UN Global Issues Overview, these include peace and security, health, atomic energy, democracy, food and climate change. All these issues doubtlessly have technical aspects; the science behind the atomic bomb, the mathematics of democracy, the engineering of green energy, the institution of medicine. These disciplines, based on facts and figures, are objective realities, and are essential for our survival. Without them we’d probably still be living in primitive conditions, being wiped out by famines or the flu.
I don’t think that anyone in their right mind would doubt that human progress has been driven forward by science, engineering, medicine and mathematics. But I do believe that it would be untrue to claim that this is the only narrative, or even the most valuable one. The arts and humanities are just as relevant in the story of our world, and they deserve to be studied as such. I say this because our world is not built by objective reality alone- our beliefs, politics, religions and ideas really do lie at the heart of it all. As Yuval Noah Harari says in the bestseller Homo Deus: “Cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”
Fictions and ideologies formed in the minds of men have arguably been the most powerful forces in human society- from religion to communism, colonialism to neoliberalism- people have always shaped reality into what they wanted it to be, and revolutionised society accordingly. Eugenicists used scientific racism to legitimate colonialism and genocide based on beliefs of racial superiority, presidents enlist militaries and fund astounding engineering based on ideas about power and nationality, liberal economists spin a beautiful web of facts and myths to construct the free market, medicine is constantly manipulated by the politics of insurance and healthcare, and by beliefs about the sanctity of human life. There’s a reason why people sing battle songs or governments spend millions on propaganda. No hypothesis is created in a vacuum, we are all influenced by what we see and hear, by our songs and stories and beliefs about others and ourselves, and this is why the arts and humanities will always be fundamental to our existence.
It is true that wars can be won and lost based on technical expertise, but science is not what inspires men into battle, or negotiates peace. Climate change can be solved through engineering and innovation, but only when the ideas of the powerful align with these realities. We have enough food to feed the world, yet people are still dying of hunger- this isn’t a scientific issue, it’s a political one. If we all studied maths and science, who would teach us about power and belief? Which historians would point us to the mistakes of the past as warnings for what might come tomorrow? Which artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers would inspire us, who would tell us about ourselves?
Our ideas are fundamental to who we are, our subjective realities are just as important as our objective ones. Give the arts and humanities the respect they deserve, study them and value the knowledge. Because ultimately science may build the most powerful atomic bomb, but it is the ideas of people that loom over the button.
Written by Cynthia Mbuthia