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October 12, 2014 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

In Defence of the Arts

“So what can you actually do with your degree? Will you become a historian? Or work in a library? That’s what you do if you study history, right?”

These questions are continually catapulted at me during family gatherings and parties.

There is nothing so demeaning as the cruel font of a ‘Where are you going with your BA?’ poster, or the labelling of my four-and-a-bit years of grinding work as “bugger-all” and a “soft degree”; or simply “useless”. I’ve finished school. I’ve finished my BA. Hell, I’ve even finished my Honours, and yet I am continually asked to predict my own future while simultaneously being told that it’ll probably be a bit shit.

Now, before you chalk this rant up to my inferiority complex (see last week’s  Salient), I don’t think my stance is completely unfounded. Why do people say “Oh, I only did a BA”, or “I’m doing a BA on the side of my Law/Commerce degree”? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why am I constantly told I’m not going to get a job? (You don’t even know me, man.) What other indication of value am I supposed to take when my school is constantly losing out to Science on the projected pay-scale graphs?

Yes, l acknowledge that I do not have my clerkship at Bell Gully secured, nor am I starting my headhunted job at PwC (and I don’t say this in a demeaning way: some of my best friends are Com/Law students), but I refuse to be belittled by the fact that I don’t have the letters BSc/BCom/LLB by my name. I knew after finishing the ill-fitting post-high-school panic that was my experience in first-year Law, when I felt compelled to tell everyone that “I’d passed and I CHOSE not to do it”, that I was pandering to a misguided value system in the University. Indeed, the notion that my work ethic, academic ability, drive, passion and intelligence is defined by the subjects I chose at Victoria is utter bullshit.

A ‘useless degree’ is only useless if you let it be. This so-called ‘useless degree’ produced some of the most powerful people in the world, whether you agree with their politics or not. You can thank those fuddy-duddy Humanities academics for the likes of US President Barack Obama, former NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark, British PM David Cameron and his Deputy Nick Clegg, or UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. You can give a nod to English Literature departments all over the world for the likes of Stephen Fry, Barbara Walters and Steven Spielberg. You can thank History for John F Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, Winston Churchill and Joe Biden.

Whether we like it or not, our education is part of our identity, and its what we’re betting on for our futures. I think its time we start recognising that diversity is helpful and all subjects have something to offer. Yes, I may have been watching a little too much Ken Robinson, but I feel there’s something deeply wrong with a person being stigmatised for being passionate about a subject that is dubbed impractical or ‘too niche’. The Humanities teach us how to appreciate the murky grey areas in life, and in art; they shouldn’t be undervalued under the unwavering iron hand that is the university hierarchy.

Humanities subjects allow people to truly experience art, whether it was the use of light in Monet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, Surrealist French cinema, or the very darkest moments of human history. We get to explore, learn, and develop too. A department should not be seen as unworthy because it’s popular. If you enjoy a subject, maybe you even find it easy, this does not necessarily assign it to the depths of intellectual inferiority. I think the fact that anyone is passionate about their degree, whatever that may be, should not preclude them of respect. What’s more worrying, I think, is the masochistic drive we as university students seem to have for choosing courses we think we should. Whether it’s toiling away at researching for LAWS297 or attempting to dissect the nuances of post-structuralist thought in HIST419, you have the right to be proud of yourself. To exert a fiery passion for your essays and talk about how important what you’re studying is.


Having said all this, I’m aware that I’m talking from the disembodied ivory towers of university. But if I was to start a discussion about elitism in general, I’d need a lot more than 800 words and we simply don’t have time for that. Because you know what? I take things like class, gender, race, age and ideology into consideration, thanks to my ‘useless’ degree.



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