On June 28th a mellifluous baritone snaked through the air in the auditorium I was sat in. I turned around and saw a handsome young man with an elderly companion. They accommodated themselves in their allocated leathery residence and continued their tête-à-tête.
“So what did you study?” asked the lady
“I will say what I say to everyone: I studied a multidisciplinary Arts degree.” he replied.
The dialogue that ensued was something that I heard countless times before, something in the vein of he had commenced his Arts degree, selected a fairly broad range of courses which culminated majoring in Art history. Today, exclaimed, he is yet to find a job.
It has been reported for years now that enrolments in Bachelor of Arts have decreased, a simple chat to any student frequently yields the same opinion: arts degrees are broad degrees which result in very few career options. This, in fact, is a broad notion, which, to be frank lacks a substantial and intricate understanding that how the arts degree is actually structured does indeed provide great future value to those studying it.
First of all the arts degree teaches how to extract relevant information from a broad range of topics, i.e what tools are necessary to use to extract that information, and how to use those tools properly. For example: analysing Chaucer’s tales in Middle English, conducting research for a paper on Copyright Infringement or composing an essay on world literatures in English prepares its tutee with a vital skill which is indispensable for many employers — parsing diverse information. In other words, students are imbued with knowledge which pertains to multiple disciplines, taught how to parse and analyse that information, to let it germinate through a conscious and speedy thought process which culminates in eloquent discoveries, thoughts and ideas. Today, these advanced comprehension skills are imperative. Talking the talk, so to speak is one thing, but without the ability to convey even basic ideas through written communications — that is a definite black mark against anyone’s name.
Secondly, if tailored strategically, an arts degree holds the same acumen as other humanities subjects, so long as you fight for those internships and work experience. Essentially, if the argument goes that an arts degree lacks practical experience, then go after it. Employers mainly want to see that you are doing work that is relevant to them. From a writing point of view, they would therefore want to see that you can write and that you actively write. Have a portfolio ready, have a website or blog. Aim to find and write for publications in print or online. The moral of the story is that you need to showcase your work because not having that portfolio of work is the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Additionally, if you are taking up subjects like english literature and poetry, then seek experience in places where these subjects might be relevant such as bookstores, publishers and so on. Your knowledge is valuable to them, but you need to package and sell that knowledge in practical ways. For example you know about poetry, why not evangelise it through social media and content curation? Dream jobs or perfect jobs don’t just appear. They don’t exist in neat little packages most of the time. They occur after hard work and an understanding that perfection is never what you initially thought it would be; it’s a combination of things you like and don’t like. It’s not just about the work you produce, it’s the processes, the raison d’être and the environment also. No job is perfect.
One of the biggest problems that I see with the arts degree, however, is that it does tend to fill people with the idea that life experience, or “expanding your mind” is more relevant than practical work experience. It is not. It is easy to fall into that trap as arts degrees are very good at advertising and selling whimsy. It has happened to me when I was so engrossed with one of my courses World Literatures In English and felt that I had to travel the world to absorb diverse cultures and customs, as if that would somehow make me “wiser” and therefore more employable. However, unfortunately “appreciation of Van Gogh” does not, and will never have any value on a resume. Expanding your mind can also happen after working hours. There is no need to pack your suitcases and travel around the world “expanding” anything because the irony is that you end up contracting financial reserves and delay real-world practical experience.
As students are increasingly told to focus on academic pathways which can lead them straight to opportunities and snazzy titles like JD and CPA the arts degree gets left ignored. Jane Doe Analyst of Gothic Literature maybe doesn’t have the same charm as Jane Doe Mechanical Engineer, but Jane the Gothic Literature Analyst has critical, higher order thinking skills, has a knack of exploring her creative side and can commence a robust discussion, whether written or verbal. Liberal arts degrees let those studying them curate skills which can be applicable to wherever you want them to be. The trick is to be strategic about it. Perhaps it’s with a laundry list of internships, or with some complementing post-graduate degrees tacked on to the BA — the point is that an arts degree is only as useless as you make it. Leave a plant to rot and it will.
Featured Image: Brian Donovan / Flickr CC