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Arts degrees teach you much more than how to think

What is the 'value' of an arts degree? Here, Professor Phil Cardew, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic), discusses why an arts degree goes beyond teaching students 'how to think'.

A great deal has been written, about the ‘value’ of a degree. In the main, this is perceived as either a calculation based on the additional income a graduate can earn in her working life, as a result of having a degree; otherwise, it is seen as the perception of a degree as an entity that passes on useful knowledge, or a set of professional, technical or personal skills to the graduate. In both respects, there is much focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics as disciplines which ‘teach you useful things’ and fit you for a working life that adds value to your society.

So, in this context, what is the value of an arts or humanities degree?

All degrees hold a value which is greater than the sum of the knowledge they impart. This resides within the effect that graduate education has upon all of those who are lucky enough to go to University. It is a value dependent upon active engagement, with your course, your tutors, and your fellow students, and which emanates from a growing confidence in your subject, a critical engagement with your education and an understanding that your education, professional and personal development result as much from your own learning, as from those who teach you.

Nowhere is this more true than in arts and humanities subjects, where engagement with your subject sets you on a path of enquiry which confronts some of the greatest questions of all societies. Why do we think about ourselves in the way we do? How does our self-conception affect our engagement with each other, as well as with our environment? Why do we organise society as we do, and how do cultural differences affect this organisation? Why do we represent ourselves in so many different ways?

If all degrees, to some extent, teach you ‘to think’, arts and humanities degrees teach you to ‘think about thinking’ and to research the many and varied ways in which human thought and creativity have, themselves, influenced human society. It is all very well to know that we have an internal combustion engine, and to know how it works (and why it works, on a scientific level). It is, however, just as important to understand how the internal combustion engine has influenced our development, how we talk about it, represent it and perceive its impact on our daily lives. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics do, indeed, play an important part in our lives, but this part is only truly realised with the understanding we gather from arts and humanities.

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Professor Phil Cardew

Professor Phil Cardew joined Leeds Beckett University in March 2015 as Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academic. Phil’s role encompasses leadership of quality and standards, as well as all student-facing services: The Centre for Learning and Teaching, the Distance Learning Unit, Libraries & Learning Innovation, Quality Assurance Services and Services for Students.

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