Art thrives on struggle. It’s the reason some of the most celebrated musicians, writers and artists have emerged from disadvantaged backgrounds; Charles Dickens’ social commentary was inspired by his time working in a blacking warehouse (where mixtures used for polishing boots were produced), Andy Warhol’s formative years were marred by illness, and The Beatles gritty, northern upbringing put Liverpool on the map.
So, as a society, would it not be a concern if arts degrees were to become the playground of the wealthy? Would this not risk cutting out those sectors of society for whom a creative or humanities-based education could be most beneficial?
With ever-rising university fees, the dismantling of the welfare state and the obliteration of arts-college funding, students from working-class families are becoming less likely to access higher education at all, and for those who do, the more overtly practical and pragmatic subject choices seem to be winning out.
There has always been a correlation between the achievements of children and the social standing of their parents, and despite centuries of meritocratic philosophy it’s a trend that endures to this day.
Kim Weeden, a sociologist from Cornell, analysed data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which showed that the wealthier a student’s parents were, the more likely they were to choose a humanities or arts-based subject:
Weeden postulates that those with a more financially stable background feel less pressured to choose a subject with obvious career progression. Those without that parental safety-net tend to opt for more vocational routes.
This is consistent with Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of cultural reproduction, in which he suggests that people are more motivated by an aversion to lowering their social standing, than they are by a compulsion to improve it. Therefore, those from lower-income families aim for what they feel are ‘realistic’ goals, rather than channelling their ambition into uncharted waters.
He also argues that the social standing of our parents has a marked effect on our educational success. That those who are brought up frequenting art galleries, taking part in extra-curricular music lessons and having ready access to books and libraries, will be more likely to place value on those areas of study.
It’s a theory that’s hard to refute when you consider, for example, history of art degrees. With university alumni including the future queen, Kate Middleton, and only 32 state education providers in the UK offering an A-level in the subject, it’s unsurprising that 65% of The University of Cambridge’s 2014 intake were privately educated.
And it’s not just the US and UK, a 2013 study by the University of Copenhagen, found that those from working-class backgrounds in Denmark are more likely to choose subjects with clear career progression and a good income. Middle-class children, on the other hand, are more influenced by the perceived prestige of a degree. This is particularly revealing when you consider that higher education in Denmark is free for citizens of the EU/EEA, and that financial help is readily available for disadvantaged students. This suggests that the issue isn’t financially motivated, but a result of cultural background.
While there’s nothing implicitly wrong with students picking subjects which will guarantee them a job after they graduate, this educational drift is leading to the humanities and arts becoming the domain of the privileged. And that’s not good news for the creative industries. There’s a reason the most socially mobile period in history also gave us some of the most celebrated culture:
Conflict, be it generational, geographical or economic, is the turbine that drives art forward, the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl. At the risk of sounding like a classist gimp, grittiness is surely not the prevailing ambience at Bedales and Harrow.
The risk is severe losses to the creative population and, while STEM subjects are vital for a technological future, so too are artistic thinkers with the ability to design, connect and communicate.
More than that, the risk is of creating unrepresentative creative industries that are dominated by the middle and upper classes, where the Tracey Emins, the Patrick Stewarts and the Angry Young Men are relegated to the side-lines.
And nations in which only the wealthy possess the skills needed to analyse, decipher, contemplate and critique the structure of society sound far more Brave New World than cultural utopia.