I moved back to university this weekend, ready to start my final year next week, and one of the consequences of that was thinking about the value of my studies (a degree in English literature) in the context of what I want to do (producing theatre). Is it really worth my paying £9000 of fees and expensive living costs (my annual living costs come to around £7500) for a degree not directly related to my professional ambitions? I thought it was an interesting question, and I wanted to discuss it here. These are my own thoughts and feelings, but I’m really interested to hear your ideas and opinions in the comments!
I think there are several levels to the value of my degree. First and foremost is the innate value of knowledge and learning.
Degrees and further study are expensive, no doubt about it, but I think it’s dangerous to look at them as a purchase of direct employment skills. Some degrees are that – medical degrees, law degrees, directly vocational degrees, but there is huge value in academic degrees even regardless of direct employment possibilities they bring you. Knowledge is power, and learning is an experience which is worthwhile. This isn’t a recommendation to get into insurmountable debt purely for the sake of learning; but a few years interacting with academics who help you learn about thinking and ideas and how thinking has developed is worthwhile in and of itself.
Another valuable thing my degree brings me is, in the study of literature, study of art which includes theatre and also other art forms which are linked to it, and will hopefully help me put my future artistic work in context.
In terms of artistic aspirations, I think that, for an aspiring artist of any description, the study of art of any kind is valuable (and quite arguably all interaction and different experiences are good to help develop an understanding of the world). For me, art (and specifically theatre) is about people, and so meeting lots of people, and seeing them in different contexts, and learning about how others have depicted them in literature since 1300 is knowledge which, while I may never quote it directly, will inform my understanding of people and therefore my own theatre work.
I’m also doing a degree in which I can (this year at least) turn a lot of the focus of my studies to my own interests, and explore theatre and theatre-related ideas in an academic context, which I hope will help me inform later work, which I therefore feel are valuable.
I am writing two dissertations this year (stay tuned to hear more about these in future, as I intend to share my thoughts from them on this blog), both in some ways about theatre – one about contemporary performance of Shakespeare, and one about the plays of Caryl Churchill. I am also taking a module on visual culture, of which the film and theatre related elements will let me learn about academic visions and thoughts about things which I intend to contribute to the production of in future, and so are useful to know. The Cambridge English course is famed for its compulsory final year module on tragedy, which, again is tangentially linked to theatre and the evolution of certain kinds of plays, which are valuable things for me to know.
Finally, on top of all that, the transferable skills and other valuable experiences and contacts that the act of doing a degree for three years bring are valuable to me.
The English faculty in Cambridge publish an A4 word document of ‘transferable skills gained from our course’, which reads as a slightly jargon-heavy self-justification, but it is very true that doing a degree, any degree, does provide you with experience and skills which are transferable. Handing in an essay every week does enable me (force me, really) to know how to manage my time and meet deadlines. Juggling weekly reading, weekly essay writing, longer term coursework projects and extra-curricular commitments does hone my ability to prioritise and multi-task. Detailed analysis of literature does improve my comprehension and perception, and improve my writing by observing and dissecting the best writing.
The opportunities (in my case extra-curricular) offered by a university experience are a huge opportunity both to develop skills and gain experiences
All that said, the value of a degree and university experience is a deeply personal one. I think I’ve learned a lot about literature (all fascinating, some linked to theatre, and therefore more directly applicable to my professional aspirations), gained some incredibly valuable experience of things directly related to my aspirations, and not so linked, met lots of wonderful people, some of whom will be professional contacts, some of whom are friends, and I have developed a lot as a person. For me, the experience has been worth the expense so far, and I am looking forwards to this final year, and worth what I am spending. That may not be true for every one; it is obviously possible to learn alone by reading and thinking, and gain experience through work and other means, and personal development is certainly not reserved to students (I intend to continue to grow long after this academic year is over!). However, I am grateful for my experience, and for the fortunate position I am in of being able to afford it, and I intend to make the most of the year ahead!
What about you? Did you go to university? Do you think undergraduate studies are worthwhile? Are they too expensive? Let me know what you think in the comments! Also, do you have any thoughts about postgraduate studies? I haven’t done any, and am currently not intending to, but I’d love to hear what you think of them!
Thanks as always for reading, and I’ll see you on Friday for my next (and second-last!) update about my time at Fuel and then next week!