The Value of the Arts and Humanities

With the arts and humanities under unprecedented threat, the perceived value of arts subjects has recently become a hot topic of discussion and debate.  Increasingly, arts and humanities subjects which were once considered prestigious are now labelled ‘soft’ subjects.  In response, academics, teachers and educators are coming forward to defend the arts and humanities, asserting the value of these disciplines and the benefits that they offer to students, both in school and at university level.

In recent years, I have noticed a trend towards the use of the label ‘creative subjects’ to refer to the arts and humanities; this expression is used widely by politicians, journalists and members of the public.  The primary function of the arts and humanities, we are told, is to promote creativity and encourage students to use their imaginations.  As a result, discussions about the value of the arts rarely extend beyond the limited notion of supposed ‘creativity’.

There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong with the use of the word ‘creative’ to describe the arts and humanities; arts subjects do indeed foster creativity, and many arts courses provide students with the practical skills needed to express themselves through the creation of artwork.  As someone who enjoys singing, playing musical instruments and writing, I believe that creative artistic practice is extremely valuable – for many people, engaging in artistic practices (such as fine art, craft, music and the performing arts) can be highly beneficial, therapeutic and life-affirming.  Creativity is also a hugely important skill for children to develop, particularly within the context of an education system which increasingly focuses on passing exams.

However, I can’t help but feel that the notion of creativity has become vastly overstated, and that the label ‘creative subjects’ (which is increasingly being used to lump together all arts and humanities subjects) has proved particularly unhelpful.  The constant reiteration of the idea that the arts are purely creative has constructed a dichotomy.  Within this binary, the arts and humanities are understood as artistic and expressive, whereas the sciences are thought to be logical and rational.  This notion arguably invokes further dichotomies which construct the arts and the sciences as polar opposites: artistic versus scientific, irrational versus rational, soft versus hard, feminine versus masculine…

Oddly, these dichotomies construct the sciences as somehow lacking in creativity.  This is, of course, ridiculous.  In my time at university, I have known many scientific researchers who conduct deeply creative, fascinating research.  If it weren’t for the creativity of scientists, engineers and mathematicians, many of science’s greatest breakthroughs would simply not have happened.  Equally, there are plenty of researchers in the arts and humanities who conduct empirical research which is both rigorous and academic.  The arts and humanities cannot simply be understood as creative, just as the sciences are not merely based on the exercise of logic and reason.

The idea that arts subjects are ‘creative subjects’ seems to derive from the belief that the arts and humanities are purely artistic and performance-based – in other words, that they simply involve learning creative practices, such as painting, writing poetry, playing musical instruments and writing music.  However, at university level, the arts and humanities go far beyond creative practice, and (in most arts courses) there is an emphasis on the study of culture within its social and historical contexts.

By reducing the arts and humanities to merely ‘creative subjects’, we are selling these disciplines incredibly short.  The arts and humanities promote a range of extremely valuable skills which go far beyond creativity, and which benefit students enormously, both in everyday life and in the world of work.  The arts and humanities teach us to explore the world around us, examining the systems of power and social factors which lead to specific events, ideas and cultural movements.  Without ever considering the social, cultural and political landscape which surrounds us, how can we hope to understand why people think and act in certain ways?  These subjects teach us to be critical, to question things and to look beyond generalizations and assumptions.  Another very important skill which they teach is the ability to write clearly and coherently, something which – for many graduates – proves to be extremely valuable when they enter the employment market.

I would question whether any of these skills are ‘soft skills’ (even creativity).  In an increasingly unpredictable, fragmented and confusing world, the need for the arts and humanities is ever more urgent.  Just as we must study the material world, we must also study society, history and culture in order to gain an understanding of the world around us and the events that led up to this particular point in time.  In fact, the sciences and the humanities are too closely interwoven to be truly understood as dichotomous – rather, they are complementary, both relying increasingly on each other.  As we gaze into an uncertain future, we owe it to future generations to protect the arts and humanities and promote a more holistic view of education, both for the benefit of individual students and society as a whole.

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