I’ve talked about arts degrees before. When you have an arts degree, you are allowed be slightly mocking about it, the same way you’re allowed make fun of your own siblings.
But if you genuinely seriously suggest that an arts degree is a waste of time – that a three- or four-year course of academic study involving research and study and writing and learning is a waste of time – then. Oh. Then I get grumpy.
There are two pieces in the Irish Times today that I’ve been ranting about over on the twitters. One is about the uses of an arts degree, which has lots of statistics and figures (useful information to have, certainly), but seems to entirely leave out the question of whether liking (or even, not hating) your study and work actually matters. The other is a piece by a concerned parent of a college student who thinks her daughter, who’s doing a degree involving 15-20 contact hours, needs more structure (and, oh, that lecturers are very well paid and have lots of holidays and sure what else are they doing).
Breathe in, breathe out.
I guess I’ll start with the lecturers, first, because it’s an extension of the ‘teachers do nothing!’ attitude that so many people misguidedly have. Classroom hours, or lecture hall hours, are the result of a lot of work, and result in more work, and this work doesn’t magically disappear once the students go on their holidays. (At both levels there’s also a huge amount of admin work, often some pastoral care stuff, and your own ongoing professional development. Academics are also, of course, engaging in their own research.)
So when you go to college, you’re not sitting there being spoonfed. You’re getting an intense hour or two hours; everyone in the room should have put in additional work and/or need to do so afterwards. Yes, yes, arts students can sit around drinking coffee in between lectures if they like (and indeed I did a fair bit of this myself), but they’re also going to find themselves working late into the night or at weekends. It’s the system – there is just so much of the stuff that you have to go away and read yourself or discover for yourself or process for yourself. And it’s often less outwardly visible than being in a classroom or lab from 9-6.
I think that side of it is why there can be a lot of disdain for arts degrees (the piece in question is about a law student, but it tends to follow a similar structure – lots of independent work – even though we tend to see law as more worthwhile). No one is making you suffer (at designated times in designated places). You have both great freedom and great responsibility, to misquote Spiderman. There seems to be a mistrust – which carries over into the working world – of this, a sense that you can’t love something or find it satisfying and yet have it also be hard work. It’s an either/or situation – except it really isn’t. You can love your degree and still have it be stressful and difficult and sometimes a struggle to work at; you can love your job and still have a sense that it is work and have many aspects of it that you wouldn’t do were it ‘just’ for fun.
The piece about the uses of arts degrees really doesn’t address the issue of liking your course or even future employment; the idea seems to be that all third-level education is good for is getting you a job in an area that is looking for people at any given point. College degrees are, by and large, broader qualifications than ‘this person can do this job’, particularly at the arts and humanities end of things, and this is no bad thing – three or four years is a long time to devote to intensive study of something with only a single pathway at the end of it. But arts degrees aren’t a way of killing time, either; I do think they’re training. Training for managing your own time, meeting deadlines, working independently, getting to grips with complex new (to you) ideas, analysing and criticising texts of various sorts, engaging with what experts have said on a particular subject, arguing your case in what is hopefully an intelligent and clear fashion. They’re not an easy option, certainly not if you want your 2:1 or first. But I would argue they’re a far better option for many people than studying something simply because Corporation X or Research Lab Y has said it wants more people in this field and look they’ll give you a job!
(Not to mention the fact that despite that article’s claim about employers wanting science and engineering types, it also includes figures that indicate arts, humanities and social sciences types have lower unemployment rates than the science-y folks.)
What do you do with a BA? Well. You learn. Isn’t that what colleges are for?