Why students planning to do the easy subjects should do something more interesting instead

by Simon Henry @simlington

It’s exam time again. Students all over the country are cramming their heads full of quotes, dates and cliches.

Now then, many students of the soft subjects are nice, I’m sure.

Some are well-spoken, a smattering are pleasant to look at and a small proportion study hard and even care a little about their ‘subject’.

Ceramics attract dust - just like the history departments of the ancient universities.

Ceramics attract dust – just like the history departments of the ancient universities.

But should young people really be wasting their precious youth on history, English and ceramics?

Couldn’t they – and society – benefit from them doing something else with their late teens and early 20s?

The answer is Yes.

This is from someone who spent his early adulthood studying for a History BA and MA at UCL and a Politics MPhil at Oxford.

Look where it got me – writing this.

Here’s why the answer to the question above is ‘yes’.

1. Most arts subjects are better treated as ‘interests’.

Languages, politics, sociology, ceramics. the history of art, pottery. All very lovely.

But they’re not exactly medicine, engineering or the law, are they?

If you need a broken leg fixing or a broken contract resolving you go to a professional who has been suitably trained.

If you need a bridge, a website or a tank building, you need someone who has practical skills.

If you want to know who won the Battle of Waterloo, you can read a book or look on the internet and find the answer within seconds.

If you want to buy an ice cream in Madrid you learn the Spanish word for it (helado).

If you want a nice pot, you go to a garden centre.

Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect - a cracking ITV drama, but surely academics have better things to think about.

Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect – a cracking ITV drama, but surely academics have better things to think about.

And if you really want to know what Helen Mirren’s character in Prime Suspect represents in a post-industrial, post-ironic, post-feminist society, you’d better ask a tutor in Cultural Studies, because I’m not prepared to answer such drivel.

2. Some ‘subjects’ are just an absolute disgrace – they hardly even deserve the term ‘interest’.

Media studies (watching telly), theology (studying mentally ill people’s opinions about a speculative omnipotent being) and philosophy (mental masturbation) fit into this category.

3. People expect you to know things if you do these subjects at university

If you studied an ‘interest’ at university, it’s often really embarrassing when people who didn’t study that subject know more about it than you do.

I have several friends who know far more history than I do, despite them being doctors, vets and lawyers.

This is because they have an interest in it, whereas I studied it for want of anything else to do.

If the history course hadn’t existed, I would have done something different – and avoided these awkward situations.

4. Even worse, perhaps, people expect you to be interested in the subject you studied

In a year like 2014 with the World War One centenary and fraught European elections, conversations can get a bit hairy.

I don't like UKIP mainly because I like getting into Spain on my holidays without queuing at immigration control.

I don’t like UKIP mainly because I like getting into Spain on my holidays without queuing at immigration control.

People (perhaps naturally) expect me to have opinions about these things.

They seem genuinely bemused when I don’t really show much interest in their questions about the Western Front, or tactical voting.

And no I don’t really know if history repeats itself and I’m not sure if a referendum about Europe would be an affront to democracy.

5. If you want proof of the appalling results of studying these soft subjects, just look at the Cabinet

It’s full of arts and social science graduates – silver-tongued fools.

The Prime Minister recently – and seriously – started talking about what Christ means to him on a spiritual level.

It’s only a matter of time before the Secretary of State for Health starts on about the benefits of homeopathy and crystals.

No-one wants to be like that.

Follow me @simlington on Twitter for more laughs.
And why not read some of my other blogs while you’re here? There’s a Defence of Three letter acronyms, A warning about running marathons and an A-Z of horrible office jargon to get you smiling among many others.

Copyright Simon Henry @simlington 2014

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2 thoughts on “Why students planning to do the easy subjects should do something more interesting instead

  1. Jolly

    It would be a problem if there were too many history graduates. If there isn’t, I don’t think it’s a problem. I am an engineer, but I think there should be professional historians (as many as can find work), there should be professional philosophers, translators, graphics designers and film directors – as many as society needs and not more than that. Just because you don’t find history interesting despite studying it doesn’t mean everyone’s the same. I find my profession fascinating and useful, but I also think I could never be a film director, something my friend studied and is extremely good at.

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  2. Andy

    Great blog, interesting opinion. I’m a Doctor and don’t actually agree with it. I have lots of interests but think there is a place for professional historians, philosophers etc.. These people have a very important role as do the arts in general in supporting humanity and developing and extending creative thinking. It is not necessary for a subject to be of any practical physical use for it to be important if it gives people enjoyment/pleasure (e.g. fine art, music) or helps people think or live more constructively or creatively (philosophy, theology). The “studying mentally ill people’s opinions about a speculative omnipotent being” is an extremely useful thing to do whether you want to be a vicar, seek to understand how those views have come to be, seek to control and render such people harmless or even just out of interest. Having said all that I welcome politically incorrect and brash opinions and particularly the sort of opinions that may cause offence!

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