An arts degree isn’t a waste of time. But neither is an apprenticeship

28 February 2014

A friend and I joke that there are two types of jobs: fun ones, and school fees ones. We (penurious journalists) say this to our friends (pecunious lawyers, bankers, consultants), and find immense comfort in it.

Perhaps I should have sacked off my History of Art degree, and done something vocational – ergo ‘worthwhile’ as Katie Hopkins will no doubt argue at the Spectator’s debate on Tuesday, ‘An arts degree is a waste of time and money’. I’d be raking it in by now. But then I apply the intellectual faculties developed while studying my degree, and realise that this is, of course, poppycock. After all, most of my friends who are now raking it in as lawyers, bankers and consultants didn’t study these subjects at university. They studied History, Philosophy, Classics. They’ve done well because of their liberal arts degrees, not in spite of them. Studying a course at university that sounds exactly like the job title you’ll have for the next 40 years seriously misses the point of university.

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In reality, there is no such thing as a ‘non-vocational’ degree – all degrees are vocational in one way or another, even liberal arts degrees. But in the wake of Blair’s dictum that 50% of people should go onto higher education, we’ve lost sight of how important other avenues can be. At my old school, almost everyone was expected to go onto university; you were a peculiar fish if you didn’t. This is counterproductive – we must encourage young people to be open-minded about what might suit them best: a university degree, a vocational course, an apprenticeship. We shouldn’t be snooty about it though – a university degree doesn’t suit everyone, and doesn’t suit every career choice. But let’s not use the mistakes of the past few decades as a stick to bash the arts with. A liberal arts degree is still important – more so when it’s offered up alongside a range of other options.

The next Spectator debate: ‘An arts degree is a waste of time and money.’ Katie Hopkins, Will Self, Anthony Seldon and Julia Hobsbawm will go head-to-head on 4 March. Click here to book tickets.

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Show comments
  • Roy

    How can you compare apprenticeships with art degrees? It’s not in the same league. Apprenticeships are the learning that goes into the building and maintenance work for the modern world.

  • Gary Walker

    Having met some people who lecture on soft degrees at universities and having read articles by such people, I am of the opinion that “a waste of time and money” might just be the least harm a young person might inflict on themselves by attending university. Many academics have never left the womb of education and at the same time have strong political opinions, the flavour of which is always the same. I shudder to think what a lifetime’s harm some of these clueless (but convincing) Marxists could inflict on the more impressionable students, at such a formative stage in their lives.

  • disqus_KdiRmsUO4U

    Surely the truth is that all forms of education SHOULD be worthwhlle.


    as far as I know the country is/has been managed by those with ‘arts’ degrees and since the country is in an asymptotic (hehehe heducatted iyam) terminal mess it seems to me that not ALL education IS worthwhile.

    Lets not even consider the enormous increase in educational cost since the 1950’s

  • Ricky Strong

    “After all, most of my friends who are now raking it in as lawyers, bankers and consultants didn’t study these subjects at university. They studied History, Philosophy, Classics. They’ve done well because of their liberal arts degrees, not in spite of them”.

    I can only speak for the Lawyers in saying that they would have had to go on to do a conversion course (Graduate Diploma in Law). It would have been their latter degree, not the former, that enabled them to ‘rake it in’.

  • paulme

    An arts degree might be a waste of time and money but what is definitely a waste of time and money is a three year vocational degree for something which, twenty years ago, you could accomplish with three or four years of night school or day-release.

  • Andrew Parke

    Frankly, your many friends probably did well because Daddy knew somebody.
    Those of us who were born on the lower rungs have to recognise and apply ourselves to skills that will genuinely be useful- as opposed to the art of bullsh*t…

    • Kitty MLB

      Such eloquence, and grace little man, with a big chip on his shoulder.
      Someone with ” useful skills, ” some have the ability for both
      as well as rational thinking.

  • Kitty MLB

    Well obviously your friends would be doing well as lawyers and bankers
    because of their degrees in history, philosophy and the classics
    and not despite them, not a Darwinist degree as some insultingly say.
    Although my soul sank at the thought such empty money driven careers
    after studying such beautiful subjects.
    I also absolutely agree there is nothing wrong with apprenticeships,
    as you say that rogue Blair decided everyone should have a degree regardless
    of being academically suited to study, so therefore lowered standards,
    and created some very odd degrees.
    he also did this to help minorities as we know, so yes,
    I agree with apprenticeships and will not insult the degrees you mentioned.
    Waiting for the Science degree obsessives to appear unto this article.

    • rtj1211

      I’m afraid that the quickest way to make a bank go bankrupt is to assume that dry intellectual analysis is any substitute for knowledge of the risks and opportunities in investment management.

      You cannot possibly make wise investment decisions using the ancient Greek texts. You need detailed knowledge of finance and, in several cases, intellectual property. You need to understand how businesses work.

      Of course, if you are just a speculator, then maybe a knowledge of all the bubbles of history might help. You need to recognise the arts of swindling after all and the history we are all taught at school or in adult life is about three things and three things alone: killing people, swindling people and subordinating people.

      • Kitty MLB

        ‘Killing people, swindling people and subordinating people’
        Sophocles long ago heard it on the Aegean and it
        brought into his mind the ebb and flow of human misery-which
        is what you have described.
        To study such a subject is much more then those words.
        we are more then that, Plato, Hippocrates, and Draco
        as we know built the foundations for mathematics , biology,
        astrology and the rule of law, as well as to appreciate
        art, music ,languages, and beautiful writings-
        all those are ageless, and produce foundations for the modern
        If you wish to pursue non- academic career, a spot of
        extra study may be helpful, and to have studied a difficult subject
        you will have a reasonable ability to learn, common sense and ‘experts’ around you should help with those financial issues.

      • Major_Eyeswater

        Knowledge of finance, intellectual property, business, yes the nuts and bolts – entry level really. Knowledge of history, politics, humanity – that’s what lifts investment insight from the mundane to the inspired.

        • Kitty MLB

          Well put Major.
          ‘From the mundane to the inspired’,
          I am inclined to believe the mundane in
          life(those without zing) where not the
          ones who were inspired towards greatness,
          those we will always remember, such
          as Galileo.

          • Major_Eyeswater

            You are quite right, and most kind, as usual Kitty.

        • terence patrick hewett

          The inspired investment that had to be bailed out by the taxpayer? The inspired investment that has saddled us with how many trillions of debt? Perhaps you should read Martin Wolf’s piece in the FT on failed elites.

          • Major_Eyeswater

            You’ve got the wrong guy. I spent nearly two years telling all who would listen that the CMBS market was a bust. Went net short Aug 4 2007.

            Understanding the history of market bubbles, the psychology of groupthink, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias helped me kick aside the risk models others were using as a crutch. My I-bank boss called me “a walking premature ejaculation”.

            Yes, some investments were inspired – what inspired me was highly subjective, fragmentary evidence that contradicted what we saw in our quantitative risk modelling. The sort of analytical framework you learn from a history degree.

            Outside of my own anecdote, in general I agree with your summary. Those errors were largely from the high priesthood of quants who ran the show. A bit like climate change modelling…

            • terence patrick hewett

              Just got home Major: I will reply with extreme consideration, for I am also a History Man (be of good cheer no lectures, just observation): I have talked to living, walking history. It was humbling.

              • terence patrick hewett

                Oh Gor-Blimey what a horrible way to die-Oh Gor-Blimey what a horrible way to die: Oh Gor-blimey what a horrible way to to die and we ain’t gonna work no more. Free beer for all the workers; free beer for all the workers; free beer for all the workers, when Red Revolution comes. We’ll make Winston Churchill scrub the steps of Transport House.We’ll make Winston Churchill scrub the steps of Transport House. We’ll make Winston Churchill scrub the steps of Transport House; when the Red Revolution comes. Free beer for all the workers. I really like this stuff.

    • terence patrick hewett

      We are not obsessives: it is just that we think that those only educated in the Humanities have only half an education.

      • Major_Eyeswater

        I do (I’m a history chap). Once I’d nailed a decent bit of maths I saw the beauty in that too. Life is so much more interesting with an understanding of both. I worked in finance and it often seemed that the winners tended to be those best able to synthesise and communicate knowledge and they were frequently the arty types. Nerdy quants were two-a-penny. People and personalities connect all businesses to each other so ultimately good character was as important as a good brain.

        As for your point about humanities students only having half an education, can we agree that that also applies to pure scientists? True polymaths are very rare; too many scientists make too much of a mere acquaintance with literature, history and the arts. Alas, a lifetime of studying them is just a sip of the cup.

        • terence patrick hewett

          Well up to a point Lord Copper! There is wisdom in much of what you say. Although the sciences have more than its fair share of mono-manics (whom we all know and love!); there is still a strong tendency towards polymathy. My old maths tutor was such a good pianist that he could have become a significant virtuoso if he had so desired. Another German academic of my acquaintance, now deceased, was such good tenor he could have put not a few professional singers in opera that I have seen to shame. The list is long.

          One is tempted to postulate that if all those arts graduates in finance had knowledge of mathematics then a great deal of pain would have been avoided. They would have realised that software based on financial models using the Black-Scholes formula and the Gaussian copula function, have their limitations in that they merely give us a better understanding of random behaviour and that they do not predict the future.

          The real hotsy-totsy example is of course: We’re All Going to be Murdered in Our Beds Millennium Bug. Everybody in the universities and industry knew it was tosh since all the hardware and software that it was likely to affect had been replaced donkeys years before. We in academe and industry managed to abstract £50 billion out of the back pockets of the gullible before the cut off point. The only government who never fell for it was the Italian, who just shrugged and said that if anything went wrong, they’d fix it. As for climate change models; no one enters that nest of scorpions unless they are mad, bad or dangerous to know.

          Modesty forfends: but in my experience, to paraphrase Solzhenitsyn “if you have one skill you can learn another 50 quite easily” practical or academic. A knowledge of first principles leads one to all sorts of places

          • Major_Eyeswater

            Thank you for your considered reply. I completely agree with your points on the Millennium Fraud and on the CAGW scam. Your comment about arts graduates in finance is wide of the mark – I can’t remember working with any other arts grads in the areas of risk management and structured products that detonated so spectacularly in 2007/8. They were all quants – or worse – MSc economists. Lets hope they went on to find gainful employment elsewhere, poor lambs. Perhaps they used their redundancy downtime to pick up a book or two?

  • La Fold

    SO when I studied Mechanical engineering I missed the point of university? Now I look back at it, 35 hours of lectures a week, loads of course works and labs and 1 woman in my class? You just may be right.

    • LiamNewcastle

      Likewise I think I may have missed the point in studying Computer Science with a view to IT consultancy.

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