Sorry if my title tricked you into thinking this was yet another narrow-minded jab at the liberal arts. But I think there is a very good reason to distinguish between the piece of paper you receive from a man in a silly hat at the end of your long four (or five or six) years at university and what you actually get out of it.
It didn’t used to be that way, of course — a bachelor’s degree used to be like the golden ticket into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, except instead of a lifetime supply of chocolate and a psychedelic factory tour, you got to reproduce a comfortable middle-class existence in a sterile, white-collar office job. But those days are over.
As I near the end of my undergraduate career here at SFU, the frequency of belligerent questioning I receive has increased proportionally. In different forms, they invariably ask, “What the hell kind of job are you going to get with a sociology degree!?”
It didn’t start out this way. These same people were perfectly happy when I was a bright-eyed UVic engineering freshman with a clearly-defined path to a well-paying job. But that discourse shifted significantly when I decided to walk my own path into the SFU sociology department.
I get similar responses when I tell other arts students I’m a sociology major, but an arts degree isn’t about the grades you get, it’s about how you develop as a person. It’s about the things you learn, and the people who help you learn them. This all sounds cheesy, but bear with me.
The things I’ve gained aren’t exclusively job skills. They are life skills that produce better, more critical citizens who engage with society in both the public sphere and in their everyday life.
I hear people enjoy lists, so let’s give that a try. Here are the top four things I’ve gained from my liberal arts education:
1. Critical thinking skills
There’s an often-quoted saying that anthropology is about “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange” — but I want to extend that to the arts as a whole. An arts education pushes the boundaries of possibility. Instead of stopping at questions of “what?” and “how much?,” I’ve learned to ask the big question: “why?”
The academic questions I explore everyday tend not to be instrumental. They aren’t aimed at market-rationalized goals of profit, or even to accomplish a specific, defined outcome.
Of course, society needs people like that. We need scientists to discover the empirical nature of existence, engineers to build things based on those discoveries, and environmental scientists to study the effects. But we also need people to question what’s behind those innovations.
2. Peer engagement
The only way I actually got better at thinking critically was by being critiqued myself. In fact, I hope you use our Facebook comments section after you finish reading to do the same.
Arts students have their own comments section: each other. Upper-level arts courses tend to be small and discussion-based. This has been ripe terrain for engagement with wildly different perspectives than my own.
The only way I’ve developed critical thought has been through the ruthless critique from my fellow classmates. These are people who grapple with the same questions I do, yet produce radically different conclusions. Simply put, my peer groups have made me a better thinker than I ever could have been alone.
3. An interdisciplinary perspective
Most arts courses I’ve taken overlap. A communications course might discuss Marx, while a history class might invoke hegemony. Instead of staying isolated within our respective disciplines, arts has allowed me to draw upon multiple perspectives to understand the world.
Arts are the venn diagram of university studies. In my degree I’ve been able to explore the intersections of history, the human mind, rhetoric, society, culture, and ethics. Only by bringing these all together have I been able better understand the world around me.
4. Reading and writing
I read a lot. Pages and pages every day. Some of it’s fun, some not so much. But it’s almost always challenging, and that’s fantastic. Being able to read a vast amount of text, understand it fully, pick out the important concepts, and write something actually worthwhile about is something I do almost every day.
Being able to articulate my thoughts, feelings, and desires fully has been the most liberating experience of my life. And I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
I’m aware that this is an incredibly privileged position to take on higher education. Most people I know are buried under mountains of student loan debt, and don’t have the luxury to pay $7,000+ a year in tuition to simply become better thinkers — myself included.
While most arts degrees do not have specific, defined career paths built into them, that’s not really the point. Rather, they create a foundation to build their lives upon. And in the age of precarious neoliberal ‘flexible’ labour, maybe this is a good thing.
Labour market demands change constantly, and many technical skills become obsolete overnight with parallel technical advancements. Instead of specialized vocational training good for working one specific job in one specific industry, an arts education has allowed me to develop an adaptable skill-base of writing, researching, communications, and analytic skills that can applied to a plethora of contexts. So far, I’ve applied them to education and digital communications analysis, benefiting enormously from these skills.
And while I may not graduate to a six-figure salary immediately, I know I’ll be okay in the long run.
But even beyond that, my education has allowed me to interrogate the market logic ideology that pervades our culture — instead of asking “how much can I make?,” I instead ask “how can I make a difference in society?” Ultimately, the track laid out by my arts education is not clear-cut. It’s a twisted path of curiosity, questioning, and exploration. But I’ve learned that that’s the best way for me to develop as a person. I have embraced the chaos. I recommend you do the same.