In Defense of the Dark Arts


‘What are you studying?’

‘Oh, just a Bachelor of Arts.’

This is the way I bashfully introduced what degree I was doing at the start of this year. Conscious of the common derogatory and mocking attitude surrounding BA’s, I felt embarrassed to admit that all I was doing was the tertiary equivalent of a bum subject at high school. While my friends doing health science and law complained about the difficulty of their assignments, I felt like any stress I admitted from my degree paled in comparison to the workload of ‘real’ subjects. I had a nagging sense that I was taking the easy road, which stung as I’d always been a bit of an over achiever at high school. One semester in however, and I now proudly state; ‘I’m doing a BA majoring in politics and sociology’. Never again will I say ‘just’ before saying what I do, because that detracts from the value of a 3 year degree at the University of Auckland, in an internationally known and respected course of study. I’m confident that if I work hard, get good grades and grab any extra-curricular opportunities with both hands I’ll get an amazing job at the end of it.

The liberal arts degree, or ‘artes liberales’ as conceived in the 14th century meant the seven attainments directed to intellectual enlargement with no immediate practical purpose, and thus deemed
worthy of a free man. In this sense, liberal was meant as opposed to servile or mechanical.

Don’t let them bring you down

If you’re starting university this semester in an arts degree, prepare to get a lot of shit for it. Not hate or anything – more like people not taking you seriously. As the undergraduate degree with the lowest GPA entry requirement, it is easy to mentally discard any student doing philosophy papers as one of the blunter tools in the shed. Just a few of the many negative stereotypes surrounding arts students are that we’re lazy, naive about the modern day workforce, or had no idea what we wanted to do after high school – so picked any random degree.
McDonalds, retail, hospitality, another degree, teaching, a shit or totally unrelated job seem to be the perceived outcome for anyone undertaking the classic ‘liberal arts’ degree. It’s an opinion I’m frequently exposed to in the condescending undertone of an ‘oh’ in reply to the question ‘what do you study?’A depressing destiny of destituteness and disappointment seems to be decided by your decision to undertake the doomed arts degree. My experience at University so far (all one semester of it), has taught me that you have to combine these subjects with Law, Business or some other respectable course to be considered smart, or likely to get a decent career in the future. But quite frankly, I think that’s very short sighted and simply not true.

Not every arts student is a lazy stoner

Obviously, there is some truth to every stereotype, and many in the ever-popular Bachelor of Arts degree will half arse the 3 years. However, many students including myself take it very seriously. We have chosen it not because it was the only course we could get into, rather because it looked too intriguing and exciting to forsake for the short sighted goal of a ‘guaranteed’ job in something like commerce.

Whatever happened to chasing your dreams?

I want to argue that we should all give arts students a little more respect; it takes guts to follow your heart and do what you’re passionate about, rather than a safer industry focused route that is so often encouraged by parents and teachers. In my humble opinion, someone who is determined to do what they love, no matter what the monetary rewards at the end of it are, is much more likely to be good at what they do. Not to mention that they’ll probably be happier with their life in general. The arts road is one well travelled, and as a result you get a mix of those who are doing it for the sake of getting a university degree, and others who want to shake the planet up with it. As my grandma loves to say; it takes all sorts to make a world. Artsy, creative types are responsible for the books and newspapers we read, movies we watch, preservation of history, music we listen to, and general fostering of the culture that makes a country enjoyable to live in. The creative arts allow us to express our character as a nation, and to put it in economic terms, our market differentiation. Humans are not money making machines; it would be no world I would want to live in without different societies, histories and art forms to learn about and appreciate.

The economy needs arts students

For innovation in our country’s infrastructure and economy, we obviously need students studying science, technology, agriculture, engineering and maths. But New Zealand (and every other nation) also needs creative arts students and graduates to keep the economy growing. Instead of seeing the disciplines of arts and science as strictly divided – in competition for government funding, we need to acknowledge and encourage the many successful collaborations between the two that together can add substantial added value to any business venture. People who are encouraged to think outside the box, as opposed to people who learn set formulas and ‘the way things are’ generate the ideas that propel growth.

Inventions don’t exist in a social vacuum

Science and innovation may lead to giant leaps for technology and things like new medicine that can greatly increase our quality of life. However, too often these disciplines are missing the vital component of considering the social repercussions of these inventions. When food was made to last longer and taste better, we didn’t think about or foresee an obesity epidemic. Or, when we all moved to the cities, we didn’t consider rising rates of depression and isolation. Big so-called ‘improvements’ in society are always accompanied by unintended consequences – some of which are inevitably negative. Instead of focusing solely on a narrow discipline, the arts takes into account the big picture. The Renaissance, Romanticism and Reformation were such successful movements because science and arts complemented each other as they simultaneously sought out new and better ways to do things.

“Technology alone is not enough… It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that make our hearts sing.” 
– Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple

Creative thinking + dedication = success

Nothing is set in the stone when we’re all spewed out by Auckland University into the real world at the end of our study. So, my logic is that we may as well be equipped with knowledge and skills that will make us resilient and critical members of society. New industries are being created all the time and creative people are inevitably at the forefront of any fresh innovation. The power and incredible reach of online business makes entrepreneurial activity increasingly accessible, meaning that if you have enough drive and passion, it’s by no means an impossible feat to turn your interest into a profitable enterprise.

Like anything, you get out what you put in, and someone who cruises through an arts degree doing the bare minimum to pass will be a far inferior employee than someone who put their all into it. Doing extra reading, extensive research for assignments you’re passionate about, and asking a lot of questions will improve you as a person and prove that you’re a hard worker. Creative industries may be competitive, but there is a place for anyone who is at the top end of the spectrum at what they do. Don’t think you can slack off just because others around you may not be taking the course seriously; it’s important to keep in mind the end result of your degree is getting a job. Employees will take into account your work ethic – whether you’re someone who will go above and beyond expectations, and bring a valuable skill set to their company.

Even if it is true that it’s harder to find jobs in the area you’re passionate about, don’t let that deter you. Study and work hard to be the best in your field, and you’ll get there. Even if you end up doing something unrelated, good grades show you’re dedicated and passionate when you set your mind to something; a valuable trait in any employee. To further add to your employability; an arts degree is broad, allows you to expand your perspective on many topics, and is undeniably interesting. It fosters analytical and observation skills, as well as thoughtfulness – making it challenging, yet rewarding to learn about. All of this makes you a great person to have in the workplace.

A different perspective

Yeah, I can give some credit to the notion that there is a bit of an excess of theories in the papers I’m doing, and a lot of the time I’m left with more questions than answers. Something really hard for me this last semester was realising that there is really no right or wrong response, and I’ve also noticed that lecturers can be opinionated and have politically slanted content. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s important to learn about different ways the world has been and is viewed by people. One of the most valuable things I’ve learnt in politics, my major subject this year is; how we see the world changes it. We all have our own biases (that we’re often unaware of), and arts degrees really help strip that back and see where other people are coming from. The insights and understandings I’ve gained regarding events, or groups of people I previously felt totally disconnected from, confused about – even scared of have been absolutely eye-opening. It’s easy to see actions of a nation or group as abhorrent and incomprehensible. However, when you delve into the deeper reasons, it’s much harder to recognise your mutual humanity and the potential for evil within yourself.

Some people are just born to be arts students

You don’t need to be a psychologist to know that people are born with diverse personalities and strengths. They will naturally take to different hobbies, school subjects and jobs. Of course; upbringing and the opportunities you are provided in childhood play a large part of this. However, as we get older, we all discover that we are good at and enjoy certain things, while we detest and are terrible at things others may find easy. It can be infuriating, but people do have somewhat unchangeable personalities and consequently, abilities.

From an early age, I discovered I couldn’t win a running race to save my life, and that no matter how hard I tried I stayed firmly stuck in the lowest math group. Contrastingly, I took to spelling and writing like a duck to water, and so focused my energies on where I found my natural talents to be. Perhaps if you go to a private school where being an all-rounder is highly promoted, this would be (almost) nullified. It is true that by playing team sports for years and having a maths tutor that I became a lot less hopeless in these areas. However, I chose to study writing related subjects at university, because it is what I love to do. I will never be in the Black Sticks, or become the next Albert Einstein, and more importantly I wouldn’t enjoy a vocation related to science or sport in the same way I love working with words. Any fair democracy needs a range of skill sets, opinions and views; if the arts were considered dumb, then we’d be fascist. People who shine in literary or theoretical fields such as the arts should not be snobbed for following their gut feeling and doing what they know they have the best chance of being successful in.

But I don’t want to work at McDonalds!

As I’ve discovered, getting an A+ is actually really tough (yes, even in sociology). Leaving assignments last minute won’t fly, like it did in high school and you have to put in time to really understand what the markers are looking for. C’s get degrees, but I doubt they get the lucrative, more competitive jobs that many of us see as the light at the end of our Weber-infused tunnels. In regard to salaries for arts students, it seems that the belief graduates are condemned to be poor is an unfounded one. As chairman of arts at the University of Waikato, Dr Adrian Athique says; if everybody single-mindedly pursued a high salary and flooded a particular field with this aspiration, demand would inevitably outstrip supply, as the most outstanding professionals are usually not in their career solely in pursuit of a salary target. He advises young people to ‘pursue their own interests, back their own talents and seek opportunities to make those skills count for themselves and for the rest of us’.

Any 3 year degree completed at the University of Auckland shows you’ve stuck at something, at a world recognised university. An arts degree especially, is broad enough to give you the flexibility to find out what you like doing at the end of that time frame. Like in the early days of liberal arts study, it will lead you to become more enlightened about the world and your place in it – if nothing else. What 17 year old really knows what they want to be doing in 10, 20 years time? Even if they don’t know what career they want at the end, it’s better than working in a shitty minimum wage job, which seems to be the inevitable fate for anyone without a degree. At the end of the day, it’s a legitimate course of study, at the level of difficulty that tertiary study demands.

No more apologising

So, fellow BA students; don’t be disheartened by those snobby Law kids. We’re learning how to think critically about the whole entire world and our place in it, not just how to do calculations in one specific area, or memorise mind numbing sections of legislation. General education is a good start in encouraging people to step outside their comfort zones and learn about something unrelated to their planned field of work. However, more value needs to be placed on general knowledge and well-rounded citizens – not just graduates who have a good memory for case studies.

Just to prove I’m not talking smack, here are just a few examples of successful Arts Graduates:

  • The CEO of pay-pal majored in Philosophy
  • Helen Clark graduated from the University of Auckland with a BA in Politics
  • The CEO of American Express majored in History
  • Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court Justice during George Bush Senior’s Presidency was an English Major
  • Ted Turner, the founder of CNN was a classics major
  • Jane Campion, Margaret Mahy and Eleanor Catton all have BAs
  • Kevin Rudd, PM and later Minister for Foreign Affairs graduated with a major in Asian Studies
  • JK Rowling studied the classics before writing the Harry Potter series
  • New Zealand Journalist and Presenter of Current Affairs Show ‘Campbell Live’ John Campbell graduated from Victoria University with an honours degree in English literature
  • Philippa Boyens graduate with a BA in History and Literature – she was the principal script-writer alongside Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings trilogy. She has received an Oscar and a BAFTA for her work.

After researching many university and academic sites on the topic, I am cemented in my original belief that an arts degree is a very valuable thing to have. There is no shortage of articles by successful people encouraging the next generation to follow their passion, rather than the lucrative scent of money, or what your parents tell you.

Funding for science departments at the cost of cutting several arts papers at the University of Auckland signifies our government doesn’t believe arts degrees graduateare worthwhile, further entrenching the stigma surrounding arts students. Changing attitudes in any generatiion starts at the top; politicians, the media and business people need to spread the message that creative thinkers are people we need in society. If not, our world will lose out on potential agents for the change it is crying out for. Inequality, war, environmental problems, health epidemics and recessions show no sign of ending, and obviously we need to look at new ways of doing things. With their skills in innovation, research and analytical thinking; arts students will be part of that solution – including me.

In just a few short months, I’ve gone from feeling ashamed of what I’m studying, to proud of and inspired by my papers. Just one semester has expanded my knowledge base massively, and countless new experiences have been opened up for me through and because of my study. I have had time to attend Amnesty International meetings, do an Internship at MiNDFOOD Magazine over my holidays, and write for the student magazine, all of which have been amazing and priceless experiences.

Society needs arts graduates in the workforce, especially smart ones. Constantly bringing down people who choose to study History, English, Anthropology and other such subjects could be putting intelligent people off taking it, which is a loss for the world. I hope I haven’t waffled on too much in typical arts student style and reinforced your prejudices against us, but made you rethink your assumptions and appreciate us a bit more.


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