In Defence of Arts: Two Perspectives

PSA: It’s time to stop claiming that a Bachelor of Arts is “useless”.

Maeve Bannister

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a student who chooses to study an arts degree enrols themselves into three years (or more!) of being questioned about what exactly they are going to do with it. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked this, I would literally be able to pay off my HECS debt. Which, by the way, is nowhere near as high as people who study so-called ‘proper’ degrees like law, medicine or engineering.

I think the main problem that arts students have with people questioning their degree choice is that it really seems as though there is a lack of understanding about what studying arts involves. For example, my major is English literature and I have – on more than one occasion – been told that it must be great studying English because “every class is like a book club”. Um, that is some fake news! Not one of the English courses I’ve taken at ANU has involved sitting in someone’s lounge, drinking champagne and talking about everything but the book that was assigned for that month because nobody even read it. In actuality, the lecturer will often email everyone two weeks before semester starts with the reading list and encouragement to get started because all the books are quite lengthy.

Needless to say, there is an awful lot of reading that comes with an English major. “Wait just one second,” I hear you cry in objection, “all courses involve a lot of reading! How dare you suggest otherwise!” But seriously, is there anyone who can honestly tell me that they do every reading for every class?

*crickets chirping*

What makes studying English different is that your grades are based on your critical analysis of the set texts, as well as additional research about these texts. So, you really do have to read what’s been assigned, because you literally cannot make up what happens in a book that the lecturer has read. And no, Schmoop doesn’t cut it. Not only do you read books, you read books about books! And yes, I must admit that the texts we study are significantly more interesting than that 50-page law paper you’re supposed to have read for class tomorrow, but that’s precisely why I chose not to study law.

But enough about me – let’s look at some other subjects that are typically denigrated by people who don’t study them. Theatre, music, creative writing and fine art are all possible majors within an arts degree, if not stand-alone degrees themselves. Each one requires an incredible time commitment to excel, and no guarantee of a job upon completion. The main thing arts courses have in common? It takes creativity to truly do well, and that is one of the most difficult things about them. Yet, arts students are consistently labelled as the kids who didn’t know what they wanted to do, or couldn’t be bothered to do anything else.

The reality is that most of us who take these subjects do so because we are genuinely interested in them. We want to improve our expertise in whatever area it may be, and studying within this area at a tertiary level means that we have the opportunity to be taught by some of the most experienced and talented people in the field. A desire to study something that interests you is oftentimes looked down upon, particularly if it’s a subject that isn’t viewed as particularly ‘practical’ in the ‘real world’. Arts subjects often fall into this category.

So, we should start seeing formal education for what it is: a series of building blocks.

So, let’s take a look at the ‘real world’ then. Recently Mark Cuban, owner of Dallas Mavericks, shared his prediction that in the future, “as automation becomes the norm, free thinkers who excel in the arts will be in high-demand.” Why? Because people are building machines and computers that will eventually replace their own skills. Communication and critical thinking will become more important. After all, you can teach a computer to think, but you can’t teach a computer to think critically. And you know which people are taught critical thinking skills? Students in any and every arts course.

University degrees are changing. People are becoming more qualified than ever, and doing so at younger ages than ever before. So, we should start seeing formal education for what it is: a series of building blocks. An arts degree is probably one of the strongest foundations you can lay for yourself, since it gives you the opportunity to study a variety of subjects and learn a broad range of skills.

Please stop assuming that because I study arts I’m less hard-working, or disciplined, or likely to get a job. That joke’s already been made about a million times too many. At the end of the day, university is about being able to do what you want to do, possibly for the first time ever. What I want to do is study English – for you it might be economics, for another it might be science, for another it might be law. And that’s good for you. Just not for me.

***

Emily Faithfull

“What are you studying?”

“A Bachelor of Arts.”

“Good luck with the job hunt!” *deeply sarcastic tone*

Almost all arts students have experienced some variation of this interaction. Doing an arts degree myself (with a major in development studies and a double-minor in anthropology and middle eastern studies), I personally have had countless iterations of these conversations – most ending with the concession that I’ll probably be unemployed for the rest of my life. Arts degrees, and the humanities generally, are widely hailed as irrelevant in our increasingly technological, commerce-focused society. While an arts student acquires general knowledge, critical and analytical thinking, and communication and research skills, these are valued far less than the more specifically career-oriented knowledge one gains from such degrees as law or commerce. I am writing this article in an attempt to highlight the enormous benefits that can be gained from doing ‘just’ an arts degree.

Choosing a degree is hard, particularly when – like most high school students – you have almost no idea what you actually want to do with your life. Many choose (and I’m by no means suggesting that there is anything wrong with this) to begin a degree that will lead them into a certain field – law, for example – with clear career prospects, and a narrower field of study. The advantages of this are obvious – but on the other hand, it is entirely possible that you might begin your degree only to decide that this field isn’t the one you wish to work in. You’ve just wasted months or years and a huge amount of money (or, more likely, accrued a debt you’ll have to deal with later), and you’re no closer to a career path that appeals to you. Doing arts gives you the chance to study subjects from a broad range of disciplines, and find the area that interests and suits you the most, while acquiring useful general knowledge along the way. You can then explore career options – of which there are many, contrary to most public opinion – based on your interests, rather than choosing your career to begin with and working backwards. There is also the option to do a master’s degree if you want to specify your studies later on, once you have discovered this area of interest.

The broad nature of the study one undertakes during an arts degree also fosters something which I will defend to the very end: the opportunity to learn simply for the sake of learning.

I’d like to take this chance to debunk the argument (which comes up painfully often) that an arts degree makes you utterly unemployable. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, entitled”Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities”, the author points to the capacity for complex or unconventional analytical thinking – acquired during an arts degree – as highly attractive to employers. A Forbes article on the value of liberal arts degrees commends the “multi-faceted view of the world” arts students develop, as well as their ability to see beyond one perspective and engage in productive debate. Gail Kelly, former CEO of Westpac (and the first female CEO of an Australian bank) was an arts graduate. In an interview with ABC, she acclaimed her liberal arts background as “fabulous, because you learn how to think, and you learn how to read, and you learn how to analyse situations, and you learn that there’s not necessarily one right answer, but to think clearly about things – you learn to communicate.” A quick bit of research should reassure any arts student that the skills they are acquiring remain both employable and desirable.

The broad nature of the study one undertakes during an arts degree also fosters something which I will defend to the very end: the opportunity to learn simply for the sake of learning. Knowledge is a privilege, not merely a means to an end, and this is something we ought not to forget. So, if you’re an arts student, make the most of your opportunity to learn about the world, to learn what you really find interesting, and to acquire a highly employable set of skills.

Allow me to leave you with this delightfully sexist and ill-informed (not to mention grammatically lacking) post on ANU Confessions, decrying arts degrees and women in general – which I hope to have proven wrong in every way!

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PS If anyone knows what “laminating misogyny” involves, do let me know – I’m intrigued.