A defence of the arts

a/Opinion by

Last week, the Arts Undergraduate Society (AUS) held “Work your BA Week” to orient soon-to-be graduates on their prospects after graduation. In contrast with other majors such as education, engineering or nursing which are occupation-based, the notion of being an “arts” student is often overcast with ambiguity, since there is no specific occupation associated with each field of study.

There are many indicators that the arts at McGill are valued less than other academic disciplines. In the admissions process, the faculty of arts has a lower cutoff grade than most. Faculty stereotypes established as early as frosh week stipulate that the management students be nicknamed “cubicles,” engineers “virgins for life,” and arts students “unemployed.”

What is the value of a BA then? Does a degree that teaches us, as the McGill website claims, how to “think critically, communicate effectively and be able to think and work across cultural and social contexts” actually help our chances in the real world? I would say “Yes,” for a few substantial reasons. A Bachelor of Arts at McGill follows a multi-track system, allowing each student to have considerable room for electives after fulfilling the requirements for their major. This prompts students to explore a wider range of academic disciplines, allowing them to be more well-rounded in multiple areas of social science.

Though some may say the labour market is becoming increasingly specialized, there are many indicators that society—at least in the North American context—is progressively more “right-brain” oriented. The surge of creative industries requires personnel who can draw links between a variety of academic fields to create products and services that meet the needs of the 21st century consumer. Have a look at the companies that make Fortune’s top lists of anything (top employers, most admired companies) such as Apple, Google, Procter & Gamble, Walt Disney, Nike, etc. All of these companies put an explicit internal emphasis on “thinking outside the box” and seeing connections that other people do not.

The arts approach to education is also notably different from other faculties. The degree does not focus so much on the ‘ends’ of your education, but rather the ‘means’ and the learning process. Students who enter medical school almost unanimously want to be doctors, but people who major in history do not necessarily want to be historians. The idea is that you start with an academic discipline that suits your passion, and see where your passion can take you. The degree is not another obstacle that stands between you and your desired profession. You pursue a degree in a field because you like it.

Finally, a BA is not as worthless in the labour market as some make it out to be. A report published by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce in January 2012 entitled Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal revealed statistics on university majors in relation to unemployment rates. According to the report, all recent university graduates (except for those in Education and Health services) hover around seven per cent unemployment, with arts-related majors at 9.4 per cent, science majors at 7.7 per cent and business at 7.4 per cent. Though arts students do lag behind in job placements, the problem of widespread unemployment is nowhere near as drastic as people make it out to be. Moreover, across the board, graduate school, work experience, and comprehensive networking are factors in improving career prospects for people in all majors.

As an English Cultural Studies student, I share the common experience of telling a new acquaintance about my major, only to be asked the million-dollar question: “What can you do with that?” As innocent as the question may seem, I find it somewhat humiliating, knowing that someone cannot see the value in my education. I would suggest reframing the question.

Ask these questions instead: “Why did you choose this major? Where do you hope your interest in this field will take you?” Regardless of your undergraduate major, as long as you have a clear sense of where your passion is and start from