Some question the value of an arts degree, others defend it

Calgary universities say that art degrees will lead to jobs, despite prominent claims to the contrary.

THE FACTS

In a recent article published by The Walrus magazine, Canada research chair Ken Coates and professor Bill Morrison stated that many arts graduates are destined to remain in debt and underemployed.

Arts students exercise their critical thinking skills within text.

Photo by Jessica RyanElsewhere, a 2009 survey by the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission found that, two years after graduation, only 45 per cent of employed arts graduates held jobs that required a university education. By comparison, 77 per cent of applied arts and sciences graduates held jobs that required a university education.

That kind of evidence is the reason Coates and Morrison argue that Canadians should question their belief that “personal choice trumps all other considerations when students apply to university.”

A CASE FOR BOTH SIDES

Nevertheless, universities routinely entice prospective students with the promise that an arts education will give them the skills they need to succeed.

On Mount Royal University’s Faculty of Arts webpage, Dean Jeffrey Keshen wrote a message to prospective students: “Employers seek arts graduates because of their broad knowledge and extraordinary ability to synthesize and clearly explain patterns drawn from vast amounts of information.”

University of Calgary Faculty of Arts Dean Richard Sigurdson was unable to comment on this article.

As for Keshen, he rejects Coates and Morrison’s argument as too practical an approach to choosing a career path.

He says: “I heard it when I was going into university: ‘Make sure you take a practical degree.’ You know what a practical degree is? A practical degree is one that you feel passionate about; because if you feel passionate about something you’re going to do really well at it,” he says.

“The worst thing is to tailor your career to what you think the job market’s going to be demanding of you because, I can tell you, the job market’s always going to change.”

THE VALUE OF AN ARTS DEGREE

Keshen says it is the responsibility of universities to reach out to employers and “make them better aware of the qualities that arts students bring, which is the ability to adapt to situations with that type of skill set and flexible thinking that we encourage.”

Karim Dharamsi, the chair of Mount Royal University’s general education department, objects to the suggestion that critical thinking skills are the domain of the arts alone.

Instead, he says that critical thought “belongs to every discipline” and that the specialty of arts graduates is their “ability to work with text,” as well as “make sense of really complex ideas.”

Nevertheless, Simon Fraser University marketing professor Dr. Lindsay Meredith believes universities are justified in emphasizing the value of the critical thinking skills gained with an arts degree.

He says: “That variation in the subject material gives [arts students] a different perspective, a wider perspective, and that helps people become much more flexible in how they approach the problem, and getting away from, ‘Gee, I’m a hammer and I’ll define every problem to be a nail because that’s what I know how to do.’”

However, Meredith argues an arts degree needs to be supplemented with business courses, additional degrees or experience to have currency in the corporate world.

“If the student has no training in any kind of managerial skills like marketing, accounting, a little bit of finance, HR, then clearly they have no skill level to take into the organization.”

Whether arts students are aware of the need to acquire these extra skills is difficult to measure.

PLANNING AHEAD

University of Calgary career services director Colleen Bangs says that students benefit most from their services if the students themselves are actively planning for the future.

“Oftentimes the biggest challenge for grads of bachelor of arts programs is just that they’re not quite sure exactly what they want to do and how they can apply their skills.”

Moreover, Mount Royal’s career and employment development supervisor Patsy Valenzuela warns students, “It’s not good enough to say that you’re a great critical thinker.”

“You have to have really clear examples of how you can apply that in the world of work,” she said.

As for Bangs, who holds an arts degree herself, she says: “Something I often tell students here is you have to be willing to start entry level. My first professional job I worked as a receptionist.”

“I had to be willing to put in my time learning about organizations, and the degree seemed to open doors as I got more experience.”

jryan@cjournal.ca