An open letter to people who think arts degrees are useless

(Repost from a blog that doesn’t exist anymore…)

Hello, my name is Emily. I have a joint Honours degree in History and Politics, and a Bachelor of Arts, also with a major in History and Politics. I did quite well in both degrees, and I have absolutely no doubts that, because of the broad liberal arts education I received, I am now more aware of how the world works at a basic human level and how to express my ideas in ways that are persuasive and influential. While I was studying, I never doubted that what I was doing at university was worthwhile, that is until I caught up with friends or saw their Facebook posts.

A lot of people I know are currently studying or have recently completed science based degrees (in engineering, medicine, mathematics, etc.), a significant number of which also like to take every opportunity they can to snipe at arts students and their breezy timetables, ‘easy’ classes and lack of definite and relevant career outcomes. A favourite joke is to ask whether the arts student is looking forward to working at McDonalds once they graduate.

Sometimes the arts student hate can get pretty visceral. As I recall, one particularly angry med student Facebook friend posted: “God I hate bachelor of arts students!!!”. I wonder where the animosity comes from. Is it pure jealously, considering a BA student can get away with 12 contact hours a week, probably putting in half the study hours, pay half as much for a degree program, and still come out with a piece of paper? Is the first lecture in every first year Bachelor of Science course just a powerpoint entitled “Introduction to uni: why we rule and arts students suck”? Or is this feeling of superiority institutionalised and perhaps even encouraged by university culture and funding models, not just at my university, but at alluniversities across Australia?

As a graduate of an Arts degree, with Honours, and as someone who does not presently work in a fast food institution, I would briefly like to take the time to respond to these criticisms.

Dear science/medical/engineering students,

Sorry to be presumptuous, but I’m just making a calculated guess that if you’re hating on arts and humanities students, then your own discipline is probably based in some kind of complicated medical or scientific jargon. Props to you, man. That’s hard stuff right there. I know I sure as heck wouldn’t be able to do those complicated equations or memorise the entire periodic table of the elements. That’s just not how my brain works.

Funnily enough, that leads pretty neatly into the first point I want to make to you guys. Not everyone is cut out for the world of calculus and chemistry. Not everyone’s brain works in the same way. For instance, I’m a really fast reader and I can spot a typo at 15 feet. Ask me to do a math problem in my head, though, and I might get there, but it’ll probably take me a while. My brain isn’t a numbers brain. Everyone can probably think of something that they are really good at, and then something that they are maybe not so good at. I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all that every IT person or network administrator I’ve ever met has had pretty appalling spelling and grammar.

With this knowledge at hand, it just wouldn’t make sense for me to go into an engineering degree. I just wouldn’t be good at it. Still, I hear all these criticisms that arts students shouldn’t be doing Arts degrees. They should be doing something with tangible outcomes and a decent starting salary after graduation.

I think this is why many people find Arts degrees so scary and, some would argue, useless. There is no one set path to a career from an Arts degree. In fact, there are many, possibly limitless, places an Arts degree can take you. The idea that there is more than one correct solution to a given problem, and that something’s inherent value is subjective rather than objective, can be incomprehensible to some people who are geared more towards math and science.

I’ll give an example. I mentioned to a friend, who is an engineering student, that I didn’t particularly like the second Indiana Jones film, The Temple of Doom. (Let’s be honest, it just doesn’t stand up to Raiders of the Lost Ark.) He replied instantaneously, “Lucas is God.” In other words, do not criticise George Lucas’ film because I am a massive Star Wars fanboy and I firmly believe that he shits gold. I told him, “you’re not thinking critically.” He repeated, “Lucas is God.” We left it at that.

I guess it’s a matter of taste and personal value. Why do you guys so badly want us arts students to have chosen a ‘better’, more ‘useful’ degree? Surely you know that not everyone can be a doctor or an engineer. Is that a valid reason to hate, because I chose an alternative career path to you?

In any case, I don’t accept your premise. Arts degrees are in fact very useful and do lead to fulfilling careers. Perhaps in terms of starting salaries directly out of university, an arts grad’s salary might not match up to an engineering grad’s salary. In fact, they’ll probably even struggle to find work that even relates to the things they studied. Talk about kicking while they’re down. Gosh.

While you go on to your medical internship or land an entry level engineering job, arts grads might struggle in the job market for a while before they realise that the key to starting their career does not lie in what specific knowledge they obtained while they were at uni, but in the transferrable skills that they learned and cultivated. I’m talking about communication, persuasion, research, critical thinking and creative problem solving.

For the arts graduates that do succeed post-tertiary education, I think you might be surprised to the extent that they actually run your life. Engineering grads can run off to their highly specialised, highly paid jobs and enjoy their piles of money. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here, writing what you read in the newspaper, what you hear on the radio, what you watch on television. I’ll be in your schools educating your children. I’ll be in your parliament deciding what is and is not legal and whether to save the environment or not. I’ll be in your art galleries and museums taking care of the priceless artefacts and paintings that make up the fabric of our culture and history. What’s more, I’ll be writing that history, too. How we remember our history and culture is dependent on how it is immortalised by being written down. Who do you think does the writing?

I might also be in your Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, deciding which countries we’re mates with and which ones we’re not. I could be at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival signing the front page of a novel that you read, that I wrote. I might be in your local charity advocating for underprivileged children, or refugees, or the disabled, or minorities, or people with incurable diseases. I might be your Prime Minister. Kevin Rudd was an Arts graduate.

Soon after I submitted my thesis for my Honours year, I was offered a casual position as a Hansard reporter at the Parliament of South Australia. It’s not permanent and the hours are not stable. However, my moment of vindication came when I informed my Lucas-loving engineering pal that I had obtained a job that was not only pretty cool and interesting, but that was also indisputably relevant to the degree I had studied. I know he was kidding when he curled up into the foetal position and rocked back and forth, but I think at least a little part of him probably realised: maybe an Arts degree isn’t so useless after all.

Kind Regards,

Emily Farrer, BA (Hons)


Originally published at arielcoverage.ca on August 28, 2013.