by Laura Austin
“What are you going to do with an English Literature degree?” is a question my peers and I are often asked. The question is rarely fuelled by curiosity, but rather said with disdain, and the majority are of the opinion that my degree won’t get me far in life. This is a mantra applied to the majority of Arts subjects and degrees.
This stigma surrounding the arts is unavoidable. Sir Ken Robinson, an education and creativity expert, delivered the TED talk Do schools kill creativity?, he says ‘We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make.’ He highlights that the government, older generations, and our early education all deliver the same message: intelligence is measured by our ability to find the correct answer. This system bodes well for finding success in subjects where a correct answer exists, like mathematics or the sciences, but what about subjects that don’t have a correct answer?
My success in English Literature is not measured by my ability to find the correct answer, because usually there isn’t just one. It is measured by my ability to create an answer from the information I discover through teaching, conversations with my fellow students, and my own research- my essay is an answer to the ideas which surround me. The concept that ‘mistakes are the worst things you can make’ creates the need for a correct answer, making the subjects where more than one can flourish less academic.
This explains the funding cuts to art programmes in schools: a BBC survey found that nine out of ten schools that responded had made cuts to lesson time, staff or facilities for at least one creative arts subject. The introduction of the English Baccalaureate has resulted in a massive decline of students picking creative subjects at GCSE, with Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman stating that ‘academic subjects were the best routes to higher study.’
True, we apply to higher education to improve our job prospects, making us better off financially and in turn contributing more to our society. It is patently false, however, that taking ‘academic’ subjects is the best way to do this. The Gross Value Added of our creative industries was estimated at £101.5bn in 2017, with a growth rate that is almost double that of the UK’s average from 2010 to 2017. This proves that there is a demand for the arts, and that it is a successful and prosperous sector.
Not only do the arts form a massive part of our economy, but they are an inherent part of our culture. Art fills our museums, cinemas and theatres. It fills our bookshelves and fuels our imagination. It provides a place to escape, to express oneself and to communicate. My response to those questioning where my degree is going to take me is this: I am going to strive for the publication and translation of more global literature, and this journey is going to begin working in Spain. I would say that is a pretty fantastic place for my degree to take me, wouldn’t you?