Stop apologising for your Arts degree

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Last week I was asked by a Sydney private school to speak at a careers night. Excited at the prospect of exciting others I immediately accepted the invitation. As the week went on and the weekend rolled by I began to feel a little nervous, knowing that this school was big on swanky titles. Being a researcher-cum-sociologist-cum-writer-cum-teacher-cum-postgrad-student-cum-chocoholic, my title is less swank more ADD meets existential crisis.

 

What would the rich parents think? Cue night sweats, mild anxiety attacks and involuntary recollections of my life as a closeted arts student.

 

See years ago, when I had fewer qualifications and even less dignity, I tutored high school English to meet the financial burdens of university life.  My eventual lack of enthusiasm wasn’t for want of trying. Having been inspired by the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds and Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers I was certain my perky attitude and tough love approach would inspire a generation.

 

Teaching proved to be harder than I’d expected but despite being pushed to within an inch of my sanity, I continued to think of creative ways to engage my students. I eventually reasoned that like all of us they needed goals. Big goals that would help them maintain focus. So in a clichéd attempt at salvaging what little hope I had left, I asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’. (I was taking my cue from Hollywood, what’d you expect?)

 

There was the usual chorus of lawyers, mechanics and journalists. But there were always the students who couldn’t tell you what they enjoyed and were certain they had zero passion for anything. Often these same students were bright, pensive and oozing with potential.

 

For these students, I would often suggest the infamous, ever-relevant (drum roll please) Arts degree. More often than not I would get a disgusted ‘NO WAY!’ in reply. I was told repeatedly (by students and parents alike) that Arts degrees were for people who didn’t want to do anything productive with their lives. That Arts students were the lazy, non-contributing, intellectual wastage of a modern society. I decided for my own safety and sanity I should remain a closeted as a graduate who had one back at home.

 

Over the years I’ve realized that the angst stems from the fact that Arts graduates don’t leave with a ‘title’ and in a world where what we do, not who we are defines us; this renders the title-less, somehow deficient. The fact that we can’t be pigeon-holed must be frustrating when the world is about speedy introductions and snazzy labels.

 

Since my days of denial I’ve come to understand that for myself an Arts degree was perfect. It taught me to think critically, it allowed me to explore my creative side and I got to take part in robust discussion on things I would have read on my own anyway. Most importantly an arts degree allowed me to invent myself in any which way I chose without restriction or restraint.

 

It isn’t for everyone. But for those considering the launch into the theoretical enlightenment of an arts degree don’t let being title-less keep you at bay. Arts students have a knack for bringing to the fore those issues people conveniently sideline. We’re taught to be analytical, thoughtful and observant. Whether it’s fluency in a language other than English, knowledge of 18th century French history or an understanding of the relationship between individuals and the state, it seems nonsensical to dismiss the range of skill an Arts degree offers when the world is clearly begging for new perspective.

 

Today we see a university education as vocational- a mere step in a long, focused, professional career. Yet research predicts Gen Y will experience up to 10 career changes in our lifetime. T-E-N. With knowledge of the fact we won’t end up where we begin it seems completely warranted to encourage education for education’s sake.

 

Education should inspire you; it should expand your knowledge base and open you up to the possibility of new experiences and for me an Arts degree did exactly that. The world is brimming with successful Arts graduates. Take Kevin Rudd who graduated with a major in Asian Studies, knowledge evidently useful in his stint as PM and later as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Consider JK Rowling who studied the classics before writing the Harry Potter series that sold over 375 million copies worldwide and translated into 64 different languages. Or Steve Jobs who credits his study of calligraphy as inspiring the typography for the first ever Mac, before he hit Silicon Valley with a force few of us will forget, even Stephen Colbert studied philosophy before moving into comedy. An Arts degree doesn’t reduce you to nothingness before your peers (unless you let it); it provides you with a springboard from which to dive into a sea of rewarding possibility.

 

The expectations of polite society, our parents and the lady at the bus stop might unconsciously steer us toward a stable job in a noble profession, but remember this; rarely does a degree guarantee you a job no matter how specialised it is. So I’ll tell you what I tell all my students and that is, for the love of any deity in which you believe, if any at all, follow your passion and the rest will come. And as for the title, well it doesn’t really matter how swanky it is here, it won’t appear on your tombstone.

 

76 comments

  • Good defence which should not be needed. I recall quite some years ago a radio story of BHP recruiting historians for their analytical abilities.

    Commenter
    Royd Fissure
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 9:14AM
    • The BHP (and others) attitude and program changed quickly. Anderson Consulting went out of their way to employ Philosophy majors at one point. And they weren't worth a cracker. Sure they could do nice presentations and talk wonderfully as they waxed lyrical about the existential nature of business, but ask them to do anything and that was either beyond or beneath them.

      If only Arts DID encourage critical thinking I would agree with the author. The problem is that what was once university, with genuine critical thinking, has now become an exercise in reciting whatever the current politically correct flavour is.

      Shame on our University structure and shame on our Govt for letting this happen.

      Commenter
      Rob
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 3:00PM
  • I did my BSc in Physics for the love of the education I recieved. I'm never going to use it except to correct people when they use science buzzwords like "relativity" or "dimentions" or "dark matter" wrong, which is very often I'm afraid. That and maybe to write some hard core sci fi!

    Commenter
    Alexis
    Date and time
    August 22, 2012, 9:18AM
    • I totally agree with the advice you gave those students, Arts degrees are a great way to enter the university system, find out what you enjoy learning and either pursue that major or use your subject credits to transfer to a "real" degree. I actually started Arts with the intent on transferring courses, but soon realised that there's plenty of career opportunities after speaking with other graduates. Not to mention the postgraduate potential.
      I think others like to discriminate because we have lower hours at uni and the content is actually interesting, there's definitely a degree of jealousy there. Why do people have to carry on about it, what is it to them?

      Commenter
      BM
      Date and time
      August 22, 2012, 9:27AM
      • They're probably jealous and tainted. They have to study long and hard for boring left brain garbage and were told that performance and picking up a pint brush every once in a while is a waste of time ... IF only they had disobeyed...

        Commenter
        Snezzle
        Location
        Newcastle
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 11:16AM
      • I don't entirely understand your response, but your reference to a "pint brush" is confusing. Are you referring to a Bachelor of Visual Arts? It is in no way related.

        Commenter
        BM
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 11:57AM
      • BM, why do you say a Bachelor of Visual Arts is in no way related?

        Commenter
        Kat
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 2:18PM
      • Well a BSc is just as good a way to "enter the university system." That's how I did it.

        After I graduated and worked for a few years I decided I wanted a real education. So I returned to read for my Arts degree in History.

        Commenter
        James
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 2:47PM
      • @ BM

        I like how you question discrimination against arts students and immediately follow this with a sweeping and "difinitive" assumption about others being jealous; humorous.

        I was a very much a floater at high school and had no idea what I wanted to do at the end of it. I'd done units in psychology, art, social studies, biology, chemistry, literature...nothing particularly grabbed me.

        So I worked full-time for ten years. I did an apprenticeship and courses for certificates 2, 3, and 4, and eventually I found something that I was interested enough in, and that I was willing to commit to, to apply for a place at a uni.

        I now have a Batchelor of Biological science, with a major in microbiology, which, you might be interested to know BM, I found increadibly interesting and not boring in the slightest. I also loved studying genetics, archaeology and philosophy (and got some of my best marks in the later two).

        I didn't do the course for the sole purpose of getting a job at the end of it. I did it for exactly the same reasons as many people do arts degrees: because I was interested in a particular field and I enjoy learning.

        Commenter
        Professor Bollocks
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 3:08PM
      • I did an Engineering degree and was always jealous of Arts students!! So few contact hours, only 3 years and the tutes sounded wonderful and full of interesting discussion. But Eng was great for me, I couldn't have given up maths and problem solving so easily. Actually I'm not sure I would have done well or passed Arts, but that didn't stop me being envious.

        Commenter
        Deb
        Date and time
        August 22, 2012, 3:15PM

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