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September 11, 2013, 1:32pm PDT

It’s not about the piece of paper: why Arts is worth it

By Miriam Mortimer
Arts Feature Interior

“Oh, you like English? So you want to be a teacher.”

I’ve heard this line so many times that now I just nod — despite it not being true. Sometimes I don’t say English, though. Sometimes I say history. Sometimes I say geography. (I’ve never taken a geography class in my life.) But the response is generally the same. I don’t, in fact, want to teach. My real interest lies in the field of political science, but it doesn’t help much to tell people that.

“Oh! So you want to work for the UN?”

While intriguing, the UN is, to best of my knowledge, not the primary employer of poli sci majors. But when it comes to studying in the Arts faculty, people seem to be under the impression that you’ll either be forced to teach, shoehorned into a narrow line of work — analyst at a think tank? novelist? Egyptologist? — or labour under a heavy burden of debt at Starbucks.

Arts students get more than a little ribbing over our faculty’s salary-to-tuition ratio post-graduation, which is often admittedly less desirable than that of other faculties. Given the assumption that we won’t be able to enjoy sprawling estates and swimming pools in our future residences, and that we won’t be able to fill said pools with Robert Borden-adorned polymer notes, many folks ask whether a Bachelor of Arts is worth much of anything at all.

But occasional condescension aside, I’ve realized that far from defending their degree’s value, many Arts students don’t understand themselves what the utility of an Arts degree is in today’s world.

It’s hard to escape one reality of university: it’s incredibly expensive. Some UBC students can expect to graduate with upwards of $30,000 in debt, and much more for international students, so it’s easy to see why there’s an expectation that graduates should rush out and secure jobs to repay their loans as quickly as possible.

These expectations can weigh heavily on students, especially those who aren’t on a path to being doctors or corporate consultants. Arts students generally understand that the experiences and knowledge we gain during our time in university is altruistic in the most basic sense, because it fosters a more educated citizenry, and because our education provides a window in a wide range of humanity — far more than, say, studying engineering would do. But despite our confidence that we’re doing something good, we often fall into one of two problematic mindsets regarding our post-grad opportunities.

The first is that our BA will provide a conventional path to a decent career. The second is that an Arts degree will weigh us down, ensuring that the only house we will ever own will be made of Lego.

Currently, a BA is an undergraduate degree that exists to give you options, not to set you up for a particular vocation or trade. The advantage to this is that the skills and knowledge you gain from your education will, as a result, be much more transferable. The reason we study liberal arts at all is because we gain a better perspective of the individual and collective human experience through it.

“Liberal arts education helps to produce individuals who are masterful communicators, keen analysts, sophisticated researchers and innovative thinkers,” said Gage Averill, dean of the Arts faculty at UBC.

This view of the liberal arts extends beyond the Arts dean’s office, where it’s only reasonable to expect to find spirited defenses of the faculty.

Darren Dahl, senior associate dean of Commerce, echoed Averill’s sentiments.

“It’s about leveraging the process of the education,” he said. “It’s about what you went through to get your degree, not the degree itself.”

Notably, everyone I spoke to for this article sees society as the primary beneficiary of liberal arts-trained students. Who knew that an informed, aware citizenship would be conducive to a high-functioning society?

Another common refrain was that students of all faculties should carry with them into the world the knowledge they’ve obtained during their studies. Dean of Applied Sciences Marc Parlange emphasized the importance of possessing such knowledge, particularly for those in positions of power.

“Today’s graduates will likely hold several different jobs over the course of their careers. What will help you the most, in any job in any sector, is the ability to be creative and persistent,” he said.

Of course, if you are in Arts, one would hope that you’re in it because you love what you’re studying, and your studies should inspire dedication. But while your passion may not lead you to the most obvious job, it will open unexpected doors.

"“What will help you the most, in any job in any sector, is the ability to be creative and persistent."
— Marc Parlange, Dean of Applied Sciences

Averill shared an interesting example of a student who grew up reading National Geographic and fell in love with maps. He said it was unlikely that if that student went into geography, he or she would become a mapmaker. While conceivable, there just aren’t that many jobs out there for cartographers.

“But,” Averill explained, “their interest in geographic information might lead them to a career involving the application of global information systems or to work on demographics for Stats Canada, or as an entrepreneur in a global business, perhaps combined with a business degree and utilizing their knowledge of a foreign language learned while at [university]. This is closer to the kind of student we are seeing emerge from our programs: self-motivated, creative in career choices and ready for a challenge.”

However, many of these career paths require additional training. A degree in Arts is formational in these kinds of arrangements, rather than specific training for a particular vocation or trade.

With that in mind, it’s no secret that those who attempt to enter the workforce immediately upon finishing their BA do often struggle to find meaningful work. This doesn’t lessen the value of a BA, but it does mean that connections and the work you do during your time as an undergrad matter.

Daniel Maki is a recent UBC alum who majored in political science who now works for a media agency. During his time at university, he did volunteer work with non-profits, eventually rising to be on the board of a health organization. That coupled with internships set him up to succeed with his Arts degree post-graduation.

“Ultimately, that extracurricular work, and the networking I was doing throughout it, was what led to me finding work,” said Maki. But many of his friends haven’t been as lucky.

“I have many friends and classmates who graduated and spent months or even years before they were able to find a job.”

That difficulty in finding work might be why many of the people I talked with stressed the complimentary aspects of an Arts degree.

"“I think an Arts degree in and of itself doesn’t lead to many jobs. This was something I was painfully aware of upon graduation. What it does do is open up doors for postgraduate education that can lead to rewarding careers."
— Neil Shapiro

As useful as an Arts student’s skills are, they fare significantly better outside of university when paired with technical certificates and second-entry professional programs. This doesn’t make an Arts degree less valuable, though — just different from what many people expect of it.

Neil Shapiro, the associate creative director at DDB, one of Canada’s most awarded creative agencies, was one such Arts major who decided to further his education after completing his undergrad.

Having previously considered law school, an MBA and, yes, work at UN, Shapiro ultimately chose to do a postgraduate program at Humber College in copywriting.

“I think an Arts degree in and of itself doesn’t lead to many jobs,” Shapiro said. “This was something I was painfully aware of upon graduation. What it does do is open up doors for postgraduate education that can lead to rewarding careers. I had a number of career paths open that wouldn’t have been possible without having completed a BA first.”

What’s important to remember is that university does not entitle you to a job in the sense that you — or your parents — might think. Most people in Arts don’t get jobs directly related to their degrees because the way our complex, shifting job market is structured means in-depth knowledge of medieval England is just not a highly sought skill. But that doesn’t mean such a degree has no practical use. Arts is about having improved decision-making skills, an expanse of unique knowledge and, for most, a myriad of possibilities for further postgraduate education.

I don’t think it’s desperately important that Arts students defend what we study, because it should be evident that an Arts degree does hold weight in the real world. It’s just that people think Arts should only act as a quick vocational trainer when that simply is not feasible. For all the Arts students out there: remember that it’s still the beginning of the school year. Continue to cultivate your interests, get involved, participate in a co-op progrom, try an internship or a tri-mentoring information session. Don’t like what you’re offered? Then search elsewhere. But don’t look for something exciting expecting to find a conventional path forward.

This is article is the first in a series about different faculties at UBC.
Photo at top: Ceri Richards / The Ubyssey