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You've probably heard the joke: What did the arts graduate say to the science graduate? "Would you like fries with that?"
The myths around the bachelor of arts degree are age-old, but they are just that: myths. The reality is that the BA provides an excellent foundation for a long, lucrative and meaningful career.
Here are some basic facts:
The average BA graduate will leave university with student debt of $20,000. It will take them eight years to pay it off. In that time they will earn over $100,000 more than someone without a degree. And that was the data before the Government introduced its first-year free-fees policy, which is likely to reduce student debt.
Over the course of their career BA graduates will earn $1.25million more than someone without a degree.
Well over 90% of University of Otago BA graduates are in employment or further training 18 months after they graduate, and the remainder may have their own reasons for not seeking employment.
Why do the myths persist in the face of this good news? Part of the answer is the particular psychology of the BA. If I train for one specific occupation, there is a comforting security in knowing exactly what job I will get when I graduate. Of course, that's not so helpful if it turns out I don't enjoy that occupation.
BA graduates can head off into any number of jobs but while they are studying they can't be sure exactly which one. That's a little bit unnerving, but it demonstrates how the BA sets up graduates for a career that is likely to involve many changes in occupation. Each time they move they can take their skills with them.
The kind of transferable skills I am talking about are adaptability, curiosity, judgement, empathy and communication. Arts students learn how to learn, how to write, how to think. They wrestle with what it means to be human. They see the world through the eyes of the other person. They see both sides of an argument. They interpret texts and data.
They gain these skills in numerous ways: by studying the 18th-century novel and placing themselves in the shoes of its characters; by studying history and encountering humans in times and places so different from our own; by studying sociology or anthropology and investigating what it means to be human in groups, societies and cultures.
These and all other BA subjects equip students to better understand their own world.
These skills enrich a graduate's life and bank balance over the long haul. Arts graduates tend to rise to the top and their earning potential expands as the decades go by. A graduate's first job is no measure by which to judge the value of the BA: it is only a beginning.
These skills make arts graduates more secure, not less, in an age of disruption and automation. The BA offers what I call human skills. These are skills a computer can never offer. We can't algorithm our way to an intuitive insight into human behaviour. A computer is not going to generate an original idea. Software can take care of the rote tasks but it can't replace the whole person. Big data can tell us what has happened, but it takes human insight to understand where the future might lead.
In 2018, the Royal Bank of Canada released a study called Humans Wanted that ranked 35 skills in order from least vulnerable to disruption to most vulnerable. Among the top 15 skills least vulnerable to disruption are many that are integral to the BA: critical thinking, reading comprehension, social perceptiveness, time management, judgement and decision making, active learning, complex problem solving, writing, and persuasion.
So the idea that a BA graduate won't get a job could not be further from the truth. The BA is ideal for our current economic moment. Other studies show that jobs in the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) are, if anything, in decline.
We certainly need STEM graduates. But ultimately the digital tools proliferating around us will need to work effectively in a human context if they are to work at all. That requires an understanding of humans. We need both STEM and the arts: to unleash the power of STEAM.
All of this is important for more than just jobs and money. Back in April the ODT ran an editorial called "The value of thinking", that highlighted the dramatic shifts that have occurred in the internet age. We have far more information at our disposal than ever before, but much less trust in that information.
"Are we teaching [our young people] the skills they need to sift the facts from the assumptions? Are they able to tell bias from objectivity? Are they even willing to try? If not, who is going to teach them the utter necessity of valuing accurate information over someone else's manipulation?"
These are excellent questions. The BA is an essential part of the answer.
BA graduates are far more than productive economic units. They are engaged citizens who can think for themselves. Through the art of essay writing they have learned the discipline of testing their own thinking, of weighing evidence, of employing logic that will stand up to scrutiny. They can evaluate their own arguments, and those of others.
More than that, the students we teach are eager to change the world for the better. They harness the skills of the BA to important social causes. They bring their disciplined intelligence to the challenges of government and society. They add clarity and value to the work of private enterprise.
Forget the fries. Arts students are an investment in the future of our society. We need them. We should give them all the nurturing and encouragement we can.
- Tim Cooper is Associate Professor of Church History and Head of the School of Arts in the Division of Humanities at the University of Otago.