Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Qualified in underwater basket-weaving

Simulated learning - see note below
That's how Mrs G sometimes jokingly describes her tertiary education experience.  Mine earned me "Bugger All".  In truth, we are both Bachelors of Arts (BA), mine in international politics, and while Mrs G has worked in her field of specialisation, the theatre/media industry, I've never been paid to use what's left of the knowledge I accumulated at university.

But when did a BA become a vocational course?  To insist that I should have been able to use that knowledge is to miss the point of a generalist degree.

This debate comes around periodically, and The Punch had a go today.  The comments under the story cover a pretty good range of opinions.  Some regurgitate the "useless arts degree" perspective, others try to defend the worth of three years spent learning to learn.  The most incisive comments identify the conflict between universities as keepers of wisdom and knowledge and universities as factories for producing professionals.  The modern commodification of tertiary education, by which I mean the investment of time and money in return for entry to a well-paid profession, tends to reinforce the idea that a degree which sets you up for no particular vocation is most certainly worth less than one that does.

I disagree.  At times over the nearly 20 years since I graduated I've been ambivalent about how worthwhile my study was.  With a bit more life experience under my belt, and an opportunity to reflect on it, now I'm more certain.

You don't necessarily need to have a detailed knowledge about something to be any good at it.  I'm not saying we should let high school drop-outs design bridges but, when death isn't on the line, having a good general knowledge is sometimes an excellent preparation for a job.  What is important is having acquired the skills to absorb information and to communicate it comprehensively and meaningfully to the right audience.  Having a BA means that your acquisition of such skills has been verified at a tertiary level.

I've done some pretty odd jobs from time to time, and I came to all of them without any specific training in the area concerned.  I've mentioned my role in honours policy before, and that's the stand-out example here.  There are no courses to teach you about the history, ethics, principles and practice of Australia's system of honours and awards - there are few enough people in Australia who want that knowledge, let alone people who need it to earn a crust.  So being an honours policy adviser required learning quickly and thoroughly, either through innate skill or the skills that a BA can deliver.  In my case it was the latter.

That situation can't be unique.  There are vocational niches and oddments all around us, jobs which rest on quite specialised knowledge for which nothing but on-the-job-training exists.  I would wager that the performance of many of those jobs could be enhanced by their incumbents having a generalist degree, and not just to help them get up to speed quickly.  The ability of employees to place their role within a broader social, political, philosophical, or religious context can improve the quality of their ouput.  It won't always be in ways that translate directly to better figures on a spreadsheet but, indirectly, those attributes allow deeper thinking to occur further down the food-chain and they allow better stakeholder relationships to develop.

So, why are people down on Arts degrees?  I think it comes back to the commodification of higher learning.  A comparison is made between Arts and, for example, science, or engineering, or commerce.  The members of those professions which require a degree for entry, and the multinational firms which gobble them up, can't understand why you would spend the equivalent time and money to end up with something that doesn't set you on the first rung of the ladder to power and riches.

I would counter that by saying that, without the Arts faculty, most universities would be glorified trade schools - the departments of history, philosophy, politics, etc, give universities the right to parade themselves as the guardians of capital K "Knowledge".  You can build all the buildings, test all the samples and count all the money you like, but society needs a common understanding of where it's been, where it's going, and why, in order for all the rest to have any meaning or value.

It's true that most Arts graduates will never earn a six-figure salary.  But, unlike an unsuccessful vocational graduate, they shouldn't waste much time wondering why.


It seems that, in the 1970s, students at Reed College (Oregon, USA) decided it would be fun to run an underwater basket weaving course to lampoon the growth of obscure, worthless or absurd tertiary courses.  It was done as a joke, but it has since been incorrectly cited as a genuine course.

Photo credit: Reed Magazine, Reed College, Oregon, USA


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