By Karen Lomas
I’ve been asked this question, 'Is an arts degree worth doing?' multiple times.
Parents do worry about the value of an arts degree. They feel concerned that, even though their child might be really strong in literacy, using verbal and written communication, an arts degree may not be a course that will lead to employment. I argue that this cannot possibly be true.
Full disclosure, I’m an arts graduate. But that doesn’t mean that I’m biased in favour of arts degrees broadly.
I did meet some arts students during my time at Monash University, in Melbourne, Victoria, who were floundering a bit. It’s fair to say that some students really do need more specialist training, or study. That means something specific to an occupation — acquiring skill sets such as how to build something, use specialist equipment, etc.
I’ll blog about this kind of study another time, but for now, I’m just going to talk about arts programs.
Why I benefited from studying arts
For a long time, I knew that I wanted to study for a bachelor’s degree. It was a 'bee in my bonnet' for me, as I wanted to prove to myself that I could 'do It'.
For others, there’s no such need. For me, it was a challenge I wanted to meet and complete since I’d opted out of that pathway after my A Levels (I studied in England).
The question, however, was, if I’m going to do a bachelor degree, what to study?
I’d been volunteering as a grief counsellor, for a not for profit organisation, and I found the work really rewarding. I felt that I wanted to do more, so I decided that I needed a qualification that would give me the right credentials.
Shopping around, which back in the day meant reading through a huge course guide that you used to be able to buy at news agencies, I found what I was looking for. It was an arts degree.
I quickly learned the language of higher education study. I had to choose units, a minor and ultimately there needed to be a choice of a single or even two 'majors'.
The training I had received to become a grief counsellor was carried out by a psychologist and that study was fascinating to me. So that was easy. I majored in psychology and then look at the other subjects, or units, that worked well for me from an interest point of view.
As soon as I commenced the program, I knew that I was going to have to learn how to write well — persuasively and with accuracy. So it was an easy decision to complete a sequence of two linking units from the School of English – Academic Writing and Professional Writing.
I would argue, indeed, that many graduating year-12s might benefit from such first-year study, so in commencing a degree such as arts, you have access to this training.
- responding to the prompt
- structure of the piece (essay, or other)
- word count
In the first place, if you cannot gain good grades across your bachelor degree, due to persistently losing grades for spelling and grammar, your Grade Point Average (GPA) will remain at pass or credit.
What does that mean?
It means a mediocre transcript.
A senior academic, at Monash University, stood in front of a class when I was in my first year of my own Arts degree and said to the lecture hall of eager students that if all you can gain is a pass or a credit average, it means one thing. Brutally, he stated that an undergraduate degree with a pass average is 'hardly worth the paper it’s written on!' For all graduates, the purpose is to gain employment.
What are recruiters looking for in graduates?
Once graduating, you’re out there amongst thousands looking for relevant employment. For sure, a 'relevant' degree looks good for specialist roles, but what if you simply have not learned to write?
If you write terrible resumes and cover letters, you will not be invited to an interview.
What is the point of several years of higher education study if you cannot get through the recruitment process? A sloppy, poorly written resume or cover letter will mean that your application will be binned at the first stage of the process.
Next, once you are successfully employed, you will be writing communications from emails to colleagues and clients, to reports for line managers and perhaps proposals for projects.
Even if written correspondence is rare, how about your verbal communication?
What if your command of vocabulary is such that you are misunderstanding instructions?
There are sometimes subtle nuances between what is asked of you. If you are also not articulating yourself in a professional way, to customers or other stakeholders, it will be an irritation at the very least and a potential cause of contention over time.
I am told by senior executives of the time they spend editing reports. This is a waste of their time and something that, if it persists, will likely be raised in a review session. Senior managers do not have the time to tolerate poor language, so a sequence of units in English at a higher education level is money and time well spent.
But what else, besides great verbal and written communication skills can an arts program give to students of arts degrees? It’s a lot to do with immersion in research and critical thinking.
Research, critical thinking and balanced analysisSome of my elective units were in sociology, anthropology and criminology. These were units from the School of Political and Social Enquiry. By the way, a 'School of…' sits under the umbrella of a faculty. So, political & social enquiry is an arts faculty school.
The units I studied focused on:
- the way in which we interact in society
- how other cultures function
- the systems that operated in the past and in the present
- their pitfalls and advantages
- the research that has gone into interrogating systems and processes.
If a graduate is well educated in historical, social and cultural precedents, we can show balance and empathy. Without this, we perhaps stick to what we have been told by a narrow section of our own community.
I recall a saying: 'If I walked in your shoes, I would think as you do.' I was learning more than simply the psychological perspective. I was finding out about the psycho-social, socio-economic, geo-political, historical and post-modern.
An arts graduate:
- is rounded
- argues with the research underpinning their argument
- recognises that there is more to find out and do by recognition of the work of others.
Majors and what they mean to your arts degree
I majored in behavioural studies. It combined post-modern studies (it’s a long story, but it’s short for psychology plus the aforementioned – culture, socio-political, philosophical, psycho-Social, etc).
The lead lecturer, Peter Kelly, was the amazing brain behind this field of study, and I felt privileged to learn from him.
Honestly, I thought he was speaking another language when I was my first year. I had to work very hard to understand some of that stuff.
But I feel that I’m a better, more confident, person for it. My arts degree actually changed me. That’s a profound statement, but true. I can converse so much more confidently now that I have immersed myself in critical analysis.
From this grounding, I felt quite sure that I could take my favourite study area and go deeper. This is what an honours year can do. It enriches your studies.
I did not complete an honours year, despite receiving an invitation from Peter Kelly to do so. Instead, I aimed for more specialist higher study and now hold two graduate certificates. These combine to give me specialist expertise in my fields of career development and adolescent counselling.
So much emphasis is placed upon specialist qualifications, such that high school students are pushed in the direction of STEM qualifications.
Science, technology, engineering and maths-related degree courses have been touted as the 'way to go', whereas I’d put an ‘A’ into that acronym, giving STEAM!
Arts teaches context. What are we doing this for? With hindsight and foresight, we make changes and advances. History gives us perspective. Values allow us to put the reins on what is possible but not advisable. Socio-political insight and cultural context teaches empathy.
So enough anecdotal 'evidence'.
I recently listened to a discussion with a senior academic from the University of Sydney. She spoke about the value of an arts degree. She too argued that arts degrees are valued highly for the acquisition of curiosity, compassion and critical thinking.
For example, the study of anthropology can engender an understanding of cultural context, and this is valued highly in the corporate sector.
A friend who works as a senior partner at one of the big four consulting firms stressed the importance of corporate responsibility in business and the need for people in organisations who can research and present balanced reporting.
Yes, the corporate sector does recruit arts Graduates, as do government departments, community and not-for-profit organisations.
Arts graduates can go on to do further study and excel in academia, or complete a masters program in a specialist area, such as education, health policy, etc.
Please, parents, if your child loves history, sociology or global politics, don’t be caught in the coffee club chatter that says, 'There’s no jobs for them'. It’s simply not true for a humanities student or a student who isn’t yet sure of a specialism so young as 18 years of age.