Long considered a form of intellectual indulgence or a convenient option for those unsure of what discipline they’d like to pursue at the undergraduate level, an arts degree has traditionally been discounted as a genuine pathway to a vibrant and varied career. However, with Australia facing a glut of accounting, commerce and engineering graduates amongst other fields, not to mention a crucial period of transition in our national economic history, the benefits of a well-rounded, critically based arts and humanities degree cannot be overlooked. As this article explores, there’s more than meets the eye to an arts education, and with Australia hosting six to eight of the world’s top 100 institutions for the study of history, linguistics and philosophy, respectively, there is little to lose and much to be gained.
Overlooked & Undervalued
As a rather action-oriented, sports-loving nation, Australian employers have tended to reflect the values of the public at large in favouring graduates from practice-based degrees such as those in accounting, commerce, law and medicine over other disciplines; a fact reflected in the figures which show enrolments for commerce-related degrees at a full 25% of the entire tertiary student population, whilst 21% of all male students are completing an engineering-related degree. The figures for arts and humanities-related degrees are considerably lower. These practice-based degrees also attract starting salaries higher than the average but tend to require higher up-front fees and considerably longer durations of study.
However, whilst study of the arts in the Australia of 2013 may appear to be both overlooked and undervalued, a browse through the history of some of our more prominent national figures reveals a litany of arts graduates who have used their well-rounded humanities education as a springboard to great personal achievement at later stages of their lives. From firebrand feminist and author Germaine Greer, to humanitarian Tim Costello, to eccentric musician Nick Cave, to Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett, to renowned historian and ‘National Living Treasure’ Professor Geoffrey Blainey, to Prime Ministers Bob Hawke, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. All share a common bond through their study of the humanities, which allowed them to make sense of their world in the formative years of their lives, with the benefit of a breadth and academic freedom often lacking in the more technical degrees.
Well Rounded Degrees for Well Rounded Individuals
So what’s the value in studying a degree seemingly so overlooked and undervalued in contemporary Australian society, you may ask? The truth is that whilst a talented and ambitious arts graduate may achieve just as much success as a commerce graduate, for instance, (albeit with a longer lead-time,) the value of studying the arts and humanities lies in the experience of learning itself. Unlike their practice-based counterparts, the arts form essentially a blank canvass giving the student unprecedented opportunities to shape a degree to match their own particular interests. Which brings me to the very point of the humanities themselves – the pursuit and appreciation of knowledge for its own sake, coupled with the development of research and writing skills so flexible they may be applied to virtually any endeavor the individual wishes to pursue in future.
A Passport to a Global World
With the benefits of breadth well established and the cadres of prominent arts graduates as testament to this breadth’s potential, we now focus upon the final frontier of a humanities education – the enduring appreciation it fosters for the colour and complexities of the world beyond one’s own borders. Whether supplementing your arts degree with a foreign language or two, an economics or politics unit or partaking in an overseas exchange program, a humanities education is a passport to our increasingly globalised world both figuratively and literally.
And with the complexities of the early 21st century cutting across traditional boundaries of industry and professions, the motivated and open-minded arts graduate will be uniquely placed to make sense and order out of ambiguity in a manner which even the most ardent rationalist could not fail to appreciate. So, with a changing world at your feet, now is a time of great promise to write your own story with a globally-recognised, well-rounded arts and humanities degree from a word-class Australian university.
by Michael Reardon