Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Would you like fries with that? In defence of a liberal education

Yes, yes. I've heard the jokes and nasty jibes:

"Arts students are just the people who are too dumb to get into a better degree."
"Arts? Don't you mean a Bachelor of Marriage?"
"I've got a Bachelor of Arts; would you like fries with that?"

I've been spared some of the nastier barbs thanks to the (Communication) I'm able to tack onto my Arts degree but the sentiment is the same: Arts students don't do real work and, even if they do, they certainly don't work hard at it. With disciplines such as film studies, gender studies, philosophy, and classics, how could you possibly take them seriously?

Please allow a former Arts student a seemingly random digression...

During the Middle Ages, humanity was suffering from the threefold blight of ignorance, neophobia and intellectual persecution (hey, that sounds a little familiar). Led by a few brave individuals that "prized free thought and the open pursuit of knowledge", humanity moved out of medieval times and into the Renaissance or, literally, a 'rebirth' (hey, look what I learned in French 101). A Renaissance man became synonymous with broadened horizons, an open mind and talent across a range of areas. In Shakespeare's terms the Renaissance man had "the courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword" (that there's English 101).

This idea of an 'all-rounder' was taken up by the United States where all undergraduates are encouraged to complete two years of 'liberal' studies in areas such as history, literature and social sciences before specialising in their chosen field. Why? Because, it turns out, the qualities of a Renaissance (wo)man, achieved through an Arts degree and liberal education, are highly sought after by employers. Openness to new ideas, innovation, an ability to accept positive criticism and the pursuit of general knowledge as intrinsically valuable are just some of the general qualities employers are seeking, especially for managerial positions. For that reason, Arts students generally have an advantage when applying for higher ranking positions over many other graduates.

Would you like fries with that?

In January, the Association of American Colleges and Universities in conjunction with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems released a report comparing the earnings and employment trajectories for liberal arts majors compared with those of science, engineering, mathematics and other professional and preprofessional majors. Based on Census Bureau surveys, the report's key findings include:

  • Liberal arts majors earn more than professional majors at peak earning ages (56-60);
  • Unemployment rates for liberal arts graduates are low and decrease over time, with the unemployment rate for mature workers with a liberal arts degree only 0.04% higher than those with a professional degree;
  • Liberal arts graduates disproportionately pursue social services professions such as social work and counselling;
  • Fewer liberal arts graduates pursue a graduate degree or further studies than science or maths majors;
  • Median salaries are highest for engineering graduates but ALL college/university degrees lead to increased earnings over time and offer increased protection against unemployment.

Liberal arts degrees do prepare graduates for successful careers - and sometimes do it better than the other degrees on offer. So let's not assume that we all end up working at McDonalds, okay?

Too dumb to get into a better degree?

Entrance to a degree is determined primarily by an ATAR of Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (except of course in Queensland, because they're special). In 2013, the ATAR for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne was 91.4, at Monash University 85.05, at University of Sydney 81.10 - although if you want to specialise in languages at USyd, you better work your butt off because the ATAR for a Bachelor of Arts (Languages) is 99.95. To study Arts at Macquarie or University of NSW you'll need an ATAR between 75 and 78. Almost all of these Arts degrees have a higher ATAR cut off than Bachelors of Business, Information Science, Commerce, Engineering, Nursing, Science, etc at universities across the country.

A bachelor of marriage?

Okay, so I met my future Lovely Husband while in my first year of a Bachelor of Arts degree. And we married later while I was doing my PhD. I'm not sure what that means or that it's a particularly awful outcome or a crushing blow for feminism, etc. A 2013 study in the UK found relationships that start in the office are more likely to end in marriage than relationships that start in any other way. Interpret that how you will, just lay off the old BA.

The old arts versus sciences dichotomy is still very much alive and well, certainly alive and well in our institutions, our funding bodies and the governments that administer them. Arts degrees have their value but those on the other side of the fence rarely see that. There is value in knowledge and learning, in the pursuit of knowledge and learning; there is value in well-rounded individuals and generalists as well as the specialists that other degrees produce.

Are you from an arts or science background? Did you meet your spouse at uni?


  1. Obtained my degree in Theatre and went out into the world to work as an admin in offices... EVENTUALLY married my college sweetheart (Film degree) and when I am not unemployed, I work in film and television production. Not sure my stats help your case, but I wouldn't have been happy with the accounting degree my father so desperately wanted me to gain.

    1. No matter what kind of degree you got, I think choosing to work in a creative industry like film and TV immediately puts you in a different category in terms of pay scale and unemployment. I think longer and more periods of unemployment are so much more common across the board in fields like that and publishing, music, dance, theatre, etc. I suspect the stats I found were biased towards those folks with arts degrees who had slotted themselves into other industries in management type positions. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I actually dont have any degrees - I have diplomas in business, and marketing and vert nursing lol. I have to admit though as a parent those ATARs freak me out. They are so high and so much pressure for our kids xx


Thanks for taking the time to respond to what you have read here at Lilybett and Boy. I love reading through all your comments.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...