There are many times when I question the legitimacy of my degree, and whether finishing my degree is worthwhile- I have spent 3 out of 4 years working on a degree that will ultimately get me nowhere unless I am extremely lucky. The odds are obviously not in my favour. As I type this, I am procrastinating on a working paper for one of my political science classes. It is one of those moods where you find yourself questioning your purpose and why you even bother with something that won’t get you anywhere. But why should I feel this? Because I am in the arts/humanities? Ugh. Has society been so cruel as to shape my mind to believe the very things I am passionate about are ultimately useless? I think not. It is exclusively among the goods of the mind that the value of anything is to be found, and only those who are not indifferent to these can be persuaded that the study of the arts is not a waste of time.
We often find ourselves being the focus of other faculty’s attacks, the victims of difficulty finding good employment. We spend costly years studying history, art, philosophy, poetry, drama, and then reach the job market and discover that no one has any use for our distinctive skills and interests. If we are one of the lucky ones, we might find a job but most likely it will have no connection with what we studied, or pay very much. It’s a sad reality that many arts graduates end up making coffee, while quietly resenting how the years they spent studying Nietzsche or Foucault have seem to gone absolutely nowhere. If someone wants to spend their time finding out about existential theory, reading old novels, deconstructing house films- these are all very nice, as a hobby. It’s hard to expect why anyone should be paid for doing so. We don’t get paid to go to the movies or to attend a party either.
The underemployment and misemployment of graduates in the humanities lies in a problem with modern society. It is pretty obvious we have no real clue as to what culture and art are really for, or what problems they could solve. At a societal level we don’t know what the humanities can do for us, and therefore declare how people trained in them should spend their days preparing Americanos and lattes.
But the humanities DO have a point- they are a storage of vitally important knowledge on how to lead our lives. Philosophy teaches us to think, political science to plan, history a catalogue of case studies into a number of personal and political scenarios, drama with experiences, and art to reframe our perspectives. The arts contain some of the biggest clue out there on how to fix “stuff.” Society is bad at a number of things that arts graduates could help with. People don’t know how to communicate, interpret emotions, making good choices, how to treat others to get the best out of each other, how to reform media and advertising, and a lot of the time people are just anxious and sad. People don’t only need material practical things like food and water, but also help with the bits some philosophers call our souls. This soul-related work deserves to become a bigger and legitimate part of the economy.
The fact that arts graduates are waiting tables and whipping up your frappuccino’s are not signs that they are lazy and self-indulgent, it’s just that society has yet to collectively wake up to what culture can really do for us.
Image by Jasper James