Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Are Arts and Humanities Degrees Worthless?

Do not go $50,000 in debt and waste four years of your youth pursuing a degree that just isn't worth it. Take the time to buy and read "Worthless." It may prove to be a better investment than college itself.
The above, the premise of Aaron Clarey's book 'Worthless' got me thinking...

From personal experience I can't say that arts and humanities degees are entirely worthless. I did a joint BA in art and history, and some years later went back to get an MA in Crusader Studies, a rather niche area of medieval history. I have had two careers, as a historian and as an artist. I wrote a couple of books on the Knights Templar, but am now concentrating on a freelance illustration career, mostly with historical and fantasy themes. I daresay I am in quite a minority in having had some modest success in areas relating to degrees like the ones I did. These sort of courses are interesting, and good for the contacts you make while doing them, but in hindsight I see them as something of an indulgence. I don't know many other people on these courses who are still in related fields. (Someone from the Crusader course is now driving trains for a living, which in the scheme of things, is undoubtedly more useful and honourable as a thing to do, since people need to get to work more than they need to know about Zenghi of Aleppo's motives for attacking Edessa in 1144).

Although it was good and interesting to have contact and interaction with scholars in the field, in truth I daresay I could have learned everything I did during my historical studies from private study in libraries and online, and spent much less money in the process. So that is something to think about if you are considering doing a course like this.

Regarding art courses, I can't say that I learned much during my art degree that was of vital use as regards my present illustration work. It was a good time, though, and perhaps looks good on the CV, (and I grew as a person and learned a great many things unconnected to my coursework) but I'm not sure that I would recommend doing a general art degree rather than teaching yourself while avoiding costly tuition fees and  incurring student loan debts.

In general terms I would advise people to seek out courses that teach practical skills and knowledge. Avoid anything with a lot of critical theory or psychobabble. If you want to be a figurative artist/illustrator, seek out an institution that teaches technique, draftsmanship and composition. Seek out an institution that has churned out artists of the sort you want to be.

A degree should have a useful product. If the only thing you can do with the specialist knowledge is teach it to others then some might call the whole discipline essentially parasitic. Books that inform and interest the general public might be considered a product of the academic discipline of history. Thus the area of endeavour thus just escapes the stigma of being something without an end-product desirable or useful to society. As for art, the teaching should  be as practical and technical in nature as that which would be on offer on an engineering course. Artistic vision can't be taught, whereas no artist's work has ever suffered because the artist had an excess of technical ability to express their vision.


  1. Forgive me a moment of verbose contemplation of what you've written here. I just noticed your signature blog link on DA and decided to check it out, and I'm glad I did.

    I think this entry addresses the issue at hand quite well even by my own experience. I ultimately graduated with a BS in Mathematics Education, which gave me a very practical set of skills that were in demand and allowed me to quickly draw a modest/meager income doing something I appreciate. But before I settled on that program I pursued several different programs including one in Fine Art for a number of years.

    My pursuit of Fine Arts in college gave me a lot of experience drawing and painting in various media and provided the opportunity to broaden my artistic horizons and come to know a number of different, insightful people from the past and present. While it didn't give me a vast storehouse of marketable Fine Art knowledge, I did learn a few, basic compositional strategies and rendering techniques that I've explored and continued to develop on my own.

    But far and away, the most important thing I learned about my own art while pursuing a Fine Arts degree was that my pursuit of art was "for me," and that to do art for a grade, a paycheck, public acceptance/approval, etc. was all going to be fairly frustrating for me, no matter how beautifully any specific piece turned out or however much someone else paid me for it. When viewed from a perspective of "Higher Education = Better Job and More Earning Power," my Fine Arts college pursuit aided me by convincing me to get out of pursuing Fine Art in college, which does indeed seem to support what you've said here.

    Back to the specifics of your post, however, I do want to point out how much your art and your writing are "uniquely you." Your style and approach are easily recognizable for me, and admirable. I could be wrong, but if it were a matter of earning money, you are easily intelligent enough to get some practical training in a "more marketable skill," but in fact you are currently maintaining a career in illustration, concentrating on the subjects and themes that you are strong with and enjoy the most. I'd think that your placement of those priorities so highly in your life (high enough to pursue the degrees you obtained) would have some galvanizing effect on your work somewhere along the way, and it might even be some kind of counter motivation to get you where you are right now. Regardless, it is a pleasure to know you, and to enjoy your art as much as I do. So, for good or ill, your past experience with pursuing degrees in art and history have produced a Gordon Napier I appreciate.


  2. Hi Jeff, thanks for the comment. You are fortunate to have a head for figures...

    Oddly enough although I always drew, I had no burning ambition to be a professional artist, and some of the studies I did were almost accidental. For example when I was in six form I was only there to do A-Level qualifications in history and a vocational course in 'business studies', and there just happened to be an adult education group not really related to the school but in the same building. Fortunately for me a teacher who knew about my habit of doodling all over text books got me on this art course, even though I was joining it when it was half-way through. (I only went to sixth form in the first place because there was an Extremely Nice girl that I was besotted with at the time...) My first choice for a university course, following that time, would have been History of Art, which probably would have been useless. Fortunately for me I ended up elsewhere doing History AND Art, which set things up nicely for my dual career, such as it has been, since then.

    The idea of keeping art as the thing you do for yourself has much merit, since it never becomes a chore that way, you only have your own sensibility to please, and you don't have deadlines other than ones you impose on yourself. When it comes to freelancing, generally I've found clients to be pleased enough with my visions, maybe wanting the odd minor modification to submissions here or there. Often they come because they like something of mine that they've seen. Another good bit of advice that I've heard is not to have anything in your portfolio that you didn't like doing, no matter how well it turned out, because you don't want to be being approached too often for the type of thing that isn't up your street.