Don’t throw down Voltaire for Voltage: A student’s defense of humanities

Hugh Coates

The year before I began my university career studying a BA in History, it was reported that A Level students were shunning humanities subjects. This downturn has largely been blamed on the much advertised uncertainty of the economy, with prospective students adapting to this climate by choosing vocational courses with clear gateways into the working world.

As a member of  the imprecisely labelled demographic of ‘young people’, from the age of 16 to the present day, I have been fed the bitter cocktail of how foreboding and unforgiving the modern-day job market is. Competition is rife for graduate jobs and my school, college and university were not at all out of line advertising this. The career guidance I received was fairly one-dimensional: do law to become a lawyer, do medicine to become a doctor, study surveying to become a surveyor. For many people under the cloud of such uncertain times, in pursuit of some sort of reassurance, the clearest path to a job, is often the best path.

I was lucky…

I have always been glued to some sort of historical book. Horrible Histories occupied me when I was younger and marching through Max Hasting’s brilliant volumes, as I am older. However, interest, as is the case in many things, does not always translate into grade performance. On the back of some fairly uninspiring grade predictions for my AS History paper, I set out to look for a University where I could study Psychology, realizing that if my attained grades for History matched my predictions, I would be better served looking to do a different course at a ‘better’ university.

I continued to work at History, with Biology taking my focus during my A-levels, as my required science subject to apply to the Psychology course. When visiting universities I would only casually visit the history departments, with a passing interest but without any real conviction. I did this largely to humour my mother – whose study of history at A-level had not marked the end point of her enjoyment of the subject.

It was on one open day, on the south coast, that it all just clicked. The University in question had a respectable looking humanities campus – not the run down, out of sight department that I had seen elsewhere, on other visits. I thought to myself, ‘this University respects this discipline’, it got me thinking and, after some very positive results in my History AS-Level, I chose to, and luckily was accepted into, said University. I had blindly gone for the subject I loved unquestionably.

To many students, this approach is uncomfortable and illogical. I was going for a humanities subject, one that could branch into many fields of work, but one that does not select it for you.

Classifying the value of degree in this way is the first mistake students make. Yes, as consumers, this can be viewed simply as a transaction. The fee-paying student seeks to obtain the skills that will get them into the most agreeable jobs for the modest price of £9000 a year. But ‘transferable skills’ is only one part of this transaction. For a humanities degree, it is only a small part. Cultural enrichment is a term that would probably cause many to cringe. It is probably a term you would find in a fictional dystopian Orwellian novel, whereby an unfortunate protagonist is ‘encouraged’ to reacquaint themselves with the values of their ‘mother’ country. Label it however you wish, it is the study of humanity that provides this knowledge and awareness, which encourages us to adopt an open-minded free-thinking approach to solving life’s may conundrums. It is within the field of Law, by all accounts a career which avoids that all too familiar situation at that family drinks party where one well-oiled guest decides to question your entire future, that the value of humanities is arguably understood the most. Maths graduates are considered desirable for their logical approach to problem solving and humanities students for their cultural awareness and creativity. This is not a skill, this is quality of personality and mind, nurtured over the course of a humanities degree.

The world needs logical thinkers and it needs creativity. Science degrees will certainly provide the latter, simply by virtue of the material being consulted and the way it is assessed. Humanities students are pushed to think creatively and outside the box. No one group is more important than the other. Steve Jobs’ vision would have been nothing without the insurmountable talent at his disposable, but without Job’s anthropological and sociological background, it would equally have been wasted. Rarely in history have individuals been truly gifted with both of these things. When they have, they have gone on to do great things, Albert Einstein and Steven Hawking, but to name a few. And yet, the world cannot rely on these rare instances. Creativity must be fostered and the place this begins is at University.

The stigma from within Universities, against humanities students, as an irrelevant luxury must go. Not for the sake of those studying there, they know why they’re there, but for those who are making the almost life changing decision on what degree course to embark upon. Schools must be more creative and enthusiastic about the opportunities presented by taking a humanities degree. Faculties have argued that the solution lies in the graduates of humanities degrees sharing their experiences so as to encourage others to follow in their footsteps. For the lecturers of empire and feminist history alike to expect this, for them to attract the most promising, they too must be realistic. Students may often omit an aura of peaceful ignorance to their long-term prospects, but in reality, we worry, we worry a lot. History, English, and Philosophy departments across the land, must accept that they will lose some of their best young thinkers to industry and elsewhere. They must be more active and forceful in promoting the utility of a humanities degree for a career outside of academia, instead of limply repeating the term ‘transferable skills’, without any real additional direction.

We live in concerning times, where from a young age, setting a course for a job is top of the agenda. We are encouraged to assess what we are good at, and what we are are not. To dust off the careers book and plot the course of our entire adult life in but a few years. A humanities degree does not hold you back on this path to employment. It allows you to become a more rounded individual with a skill-set and more importantly, a mindset, that is of just as much importance to the job sector and indeed humanity itself.

‘Should have done Medicine’…Or Should I?

Hugh Coates

I write this with a tear in my eye as Mike Skinner’s lachrymose song about heartbreak and rejection trundles along in the background. Don’t be mistaken, my current melancholy has not been caused by a female, but by a more pressing issue, that of my career.

I am more than half way through a BA in History. I have thoroughly enjoyed the degree thus far (I haven’t started the dissertation yet…). Delving into the debauchery of Henry VIII was both enlightening and well, saddening, what good times they were…if you were king. Equally pleasurable were the occasional skirmishes with sanctimonious pacifists who had somehow found themselves in a module entirely dedicated to war.

What I am trying to say is that you will struggle to find a more stimulating degree. Passion for a subject, for myself and others like me, has resulted in many taking up a humanities degree without even considering how this will fit into their career. While this is admirable, when you consider that paying £27K+ is fairly large financial burden to place on anyone, let alone a 21 year old, for pursuing an ‘interest’, it is not enough to cling to. Eventually, we must all board the train of life and find the carriage for us, whatever career that may be (unless you are a benefits cheating scum-bag ARRRRRRGHHHHH!)

It is now July, a fair amount of time before I throw my mortarboard to the sky. It is at this time where I face that common question, ‘what do I do now?’ I petulantly whine to anyone that will listen, usually whichever unfortunate parent is around, about how I should have chosen a degree with a more defined career path. ‘Why didn’t I do medicine!” I cry (the fact that I was/am academically incapable to enroll in such a course has been politely ignored by myself and my family so far). Why hadn’t I thought about this when I was applying through the torturous UCAS process instead of trying to procure a fake ID? I curse myself for choosing a humanities degree, I brought this upon myself.

Ignoring my behavior on this matter, there is actually a lot out there for us humanities students – not that we knew this when we submitted that final personal statement about how much we adore history a few years back.

Many of the top graduate schemes are not degree specific at all. It has even been suggested that to practice law, a ‘proper’ career, it is actually preferable to have a grounding in another academic field, like history, before converting. I could be here all day saying we are all going to be alright etc. God knows the careers advisers at university have tried.

The unreasonable 20-year-old of a few months ago is a victim of his own decision to choose a degree that allowed him to pursue an interest while, unknowingly, preparing him for the workplace.

Humanities students must not complain about a lack of clarity in their career path, after all, they chose their degree. And while I am saying we mustn’t feel sorry for ourselves, we must also must relish the rich choice available to us.