Arts & Culture, Economics

Is An Arts Education Money Well Spent?

With housing costs creeping beyond the means of most graduates, Masters degrees becoming mandatory for many entry level positions, and reports of universities imposing limits on acceptable discourse, debating the value of an arts education is an especially timely, if not worthwhile, exercise. In this installation of the The Liffey Accord, the For side argues the critical thinking skills gained from an arts eduction are essential to modern careers, while the against side argues such pursuits are mostly unaffordable and broadly impractical.  

Yes. An Arts Education
is as Valuable as it is Edifying.

Once upon a time in high school far, far away, the value of a Liberal Arts education was explained to a gathering of young grungelings by a hard-boiled guidance counsellor thusly:

“You go to university to learn how to think. You go to college to get a job.”

For the non-Northernmost North Americans in the audience, college described third level institutions offering practical, technical instruction and diplomas in trades such as graphic design, auto mechanics, electrical engineering and early childhood education.  University described degree-conferring halls of academia where youth learned to construct convoluted semantic arguments on epistemological matters of ontological importance and confuse their opponents into submission or slumber, whichever came last.    

In other words, clever went to University, smart went to College. 

Four years later, the relative value of each type of education announced itself in the daily routines of their respective alumni: The college grads went to work every day; the university kids (having paid several thousand shekels to be indoctrinated into the cult of critical theory) battled crushing ennui, communist tendencies and cognitive dissonance while trying to apply their critical thinking skills to forge careers at the coalface of a cold and indifferent capitalism.

In other words, the wealthy took internships, went to work at NGOs, applied for grad school, or set off travelling, like self-styled dharma bums, to find themselves.  The working class asked their college friends for jobs.

All of this is not to say that a liberal arts education is a waste of money.  It’s just to say that its value may not necessarily manifest in terms of cold, hard cash or material comfort.  To illustrate this is the simple existence of the phrase “student debt crisis.” As for getting bang for your buck, a recent report found that over 50% of American grads said their degree is irrelevant to their work.  This isn’t difficult to understand when you consider how many of this cohort’s clients would be interested in discussing cultural impact of The Sorrows of Young Werther.  Frankly, they probably just want their beer.  Hold the tears, please and thanks. 

Be that as it may, the value in being able to think and formulate cogent arguments is clearly immeasurable, and indubitably necessary to modern careers.  Consider the challenges facing those in today’s most popular liberal arts grad professions and you’d scarcely find a Change Agent, Disruptionist, YouTube Philosopher, Twitter Pundit, Entrepreneur or Pornographer who could succeed if they didn’t have a way with werds.  How else would they craft compelling pitch copy for their Patreon page?

In conclusion, there is no money better spent than money spent on a liberal arts education.  Especially considering it can be got for no more than a buck fifty in late charges from the local library.


Now scroll down to read the opposing viewpoint …

No. For All but a Privileged Few, An Arts Education is an Unaffordable Luxury

By some twist of fate, I found myself reading Karl Deeter’s column in the Sunday Independent one Sunday a few years ago. 

For the benefit of the unfamiliar, Karl Deeter dispenses financial advice in his weekly column in Ireland’s most popular (and populist!) newspaper. It’s generally filled with the sort of tricks of the trade to which people known as ‘independent financial advisor’ are privy. 

Now there’s an oxymoron if ever I read one. 

Anyway, in this particular column, Karl opined that an Arts education was a waste of money, on the basis that it failed to prepare young people for the jobs of the present let alone those of the future.

Filled with righteous indignation, I immediately wrote a stinker of a riposte to the paper which was, to my evident surprise, published as ‘letter of the week’ the following Sunday.

‘If only there had been a bit of critical thinking and a few Liberal Arts graduates in the (Irish) Banks 10 years ago’ thundered Mr. Indignant of Dublin 18, ‘the rest of us wouldn’t have been saddled with debt for the rest of our natural lives’.

So there!

Except now I’m not so sure and I think Karl may have had a point. 

A vocational education (any course designed to deliver a well-defined set of skills to a person that lead to a specific career outcome) at least has the benefit of giving that person a leg up the job ladder, early on in their lives. 

They can become computer programmers, architects or, even, God help us, lawyers or accountants (in extremis!). Or they can become electricians, plumbers or car mechanics i.e the sort of person who’s actually useful in a crisis. Either way, with a bit of luck, they can start earning reasonably early in their lives, building the financial foundations of a successful future, while there is still plenty of time to do so.

By contrast, the typical Arts graduate is all too likely to spend a further five plus years after leaving College trying to find the path of vocational righteousness (sometimes via a Gap Year in the Far East) – if they ever locate it.  That’s a lot of earning time foregone, a lot of time wasted.

So, unless one is born into a family of considerable means, maybe an Arts education is a distraction too far, unless and until they can afford to pursue education for its own sake.  It is unlikely to pay the rent, raise a deposit, or buy a car.  Or fund a decent social life.

Mature students and the children of the 1% can certainly afford to spend their time studying early modern History, Celtic Folklore, or the Philosophy of the ages.  It’s enlightening and it broadens the mind.

However, if you’re one of the 99% with bills to pay and lives to lead, it’s ‘show me the money’, no? 

For the typical person, an Arts degree may be a luxury they simply can’t afford.