Stop apologising for your Arts degree


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.