In keeping with our Welcome Week Education Special, Rebekah Scott, who is soon to join the University of Manchester, decries the common undercurrent of subject snobbery in academia.
Regardless of where you live, primary education has only been mandatory anywhere in the world since 1775, and its fruits include modern medicine, clean water, stunning increases in life expectancy, the Internet, birth control and takeaway delivery.
This rapid progress can be directly attributed to the increased valuation of educating all people, and not just those who won the chance-of-birth-lottery. No one can deny that the benefits are unequivocal.
Data to support the power of education is abundant, overwhelming and constantly being updated; the Office of National Statistics in 2013, for example, published research on the benefits of education, reporting that people educated above secondary school level can expect to live on average eight years longer than those with lower levels of education.
The research also found that graduates are between 70–80% more likely to have “excellent” health, compared with a similar individual educated to level two or below.
Cynicism towards education as an entity is pretty much unheard of. Everyone can see its value. But there is a real and profound tension that hides in our educational world, a glorification of the Sciences and Maths coinciding with the belittling of Literature, the Humanities, and the Arts; an unbalanced value between subjects. This is, of course, subject snobbery.
A teacher once described me as the “solid B+ student”, never dipping below a respectable B, but with my face perpetually squished against the glass of the A grade party, occasionally being allowed in.
It didn’t help that I compared myself to a friend, A grades being the peas to her pod. I thought this in spite of her taking, what I perceived to be, unbelievably hard subjects.
Then came my Year 13 Art deadline, the death of my slave like devotion to my sketchbook, and the birth of my friend’s statement of subject snobbery: “I don’t know why you’re so stressed. Art isn’t even a real subject, what do you actually learn?”
Considering that she had watched me stress and funnel all of my effort into my Art coursework, her opinion that “universities shouldn’t accept them as an A level,” felt like a slap in the face.
It was irritating and undermining her pretentious prejudice. Geography isn’t just colouring and English isn’t just story time—yet these stereotypes are perpetuated again and again.
With the surging cost of higher education it’s easy to be cynical over subjects that don’t lead you straight into a profession. It’s a question that I’ve had to deal with: “What, exactly, can you do with a Linguistics degree?”
Subject snobbery will have impacts; the inappropriate choice of subjects by people not suited to them because they fear leaving university without job prospects, or the belittling of the effort and enthusiasm you may have towards a subject, as happened to me.
Most people either view themselves as Literature or Maths people. Personally my pegs are firmly pitched in the Literature camp and have been from a very early age—scared by memories of trying not to cry in my Maths lessons.
I’m guilty too though of mocking Maths and pushing stereotypes onto its students, mainly to soothe my resentment of not being able to understand it.
Thanks to my bitterness perhaps, I subconsciously distanced myself from Maths into what I thought was its polar opposite—Linguistics: The study of language.
My logic was that Maths meant numbers, so its polar opposite must be words! How better to stick it to Maths than to study Language itself!
My theory imploded when I was told that Maths is the Language of the Universe, as at its most basic level everything has the potential to be described and understood through numbers, an ability that the spoken word can’t rival with the same precision.
The truth is that we tend to blindly and mistakenly view subjects on a continuum, with Maths and Literature at opposite ends—Literature helping us to question our place in the world, endless metaphors and allegorical works, then Maths with decisive answers backed up by numbers and data.
Its result is to ashamedly generalise both subjects and believing that there is only one correct answer in Maths or that every answer is equally correct and Literature is hogwash.
Thinking Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a novella instead of a novelise is wrong, and not recognising the difference undermines authorial intent. Yet ultimately the reasons for studying both ends and everything between on the subject continuum that I use to describe academia, whether you believe in it or not, are exactly the same!
To understand our place in the world, through the help of a language—mathematical or otherwise—is academia’s ultimate goal. All subjects are ways to raise and to solve the big questions that baffle us everyday, from History to Computer Science to Fashion.
If, in conclusion, subject snobbery confronts you, then you should understand that though we separate knowledge into different boxes, it does not and never will mean that one is inherently better than the other. These are ideas fed by times of insecurity. It should be up to you to find a subject that helps to answer your own questions.
We should value all choices and glorify none.