The Validity of A Liberal Arts Degree

Saturday, November 15, 2014


Written by Caroline Elworthy

As the semester begins to dwindle and draw to a close, there is the flurry of semester-end activity. Finding a seat in McLaughlin library becomes nothing less than impossible and coffee lines become longer and longer. The semester is indeed drawing to a close and as we run ourselves to the bone on the exam and paper treadmill of the final few months, many burnt out students seem to be thinking the same thing: is it all really worth it?

The marathon of University can seem exhausting to some, invigorating to others. Yet we all hold the same vision of some unidentifiable light at the end of the tunnel that fuels us. So, what is it exactly that keeps us going? What exactly makes a Bachelors degree--an arts degree in particular--worthwhile?

As Ontario students currently pay the highest tuition in all of Canada, the desire to justify exactly what we are spending our money on and how it will improve our future quality of life has become more imperative.  The pool of liberal arts can quickly become an ocean for hesitant first years who have freshly arrived to university with the fresh anticipation of change and innovation, without the articulation of means of achieving this. With high tuition rates and a dismal job market to greet us, it has become more relevant now to justify shelling out over $12000 a year.

After the market crash of 2008, university graduate students unemployment rates rose from 4.7 per cent in 2008 to a grim 6.6 per cent in 2010. As Canada slowly began to recover, the unemployment rate for recent university graduates eventually fell back to more stable 5.8 per cent in in 2010. However, a pessimistic gloom still hangs over the dwindling job market in Canada. This past week, the Bank of Canada’s Governor Stephen Poloz expressed his concern for the static economy, as he says there is not a stable picture of growth in Canada at the moment. The Harper government stands meekly by their empty promises of creating “a million” new jobs since the 2008 recession, while over 1.4 million Canadians currently remain unemployed.

Recent graduates are greeted on their graduation day with the driving desire to proves themselves and put their four-year,  $40000 education to use, many opting to continue to pursue a Graduate Degree to increase their chances of employability, job security and salary. There has been much recent evidence which starkly points to the notion that pursuing even higher education in the form of a master’s degree won’t always secure you the rewards that one might expect. Data was released in 2011 which showed that Canadians with a master’s degree had higher unemployment rate of 5.7 per cent than those with only a bachelor’s degree with a 4.7 per cent unemployment rate.

Specifically at the University of Guelph, where administration is currently attempting to implement a Program Prioritization Program, and  a desire to cut $24.5 million worth of academic and non-academic programs, the field of liberal arts is under close examination and heavy scrutiny. Furthermore, the university’s dismissal and under-funding of various arts programs suggests the attitude that the administration deems these disciplines as unimportant, sending a careless attitude of negligence to the student community. Just recently, the University has announced the cutting of 21 courses for the upcoming academic year. Out of those 21 courses, 13 of them were in the arts disciplinary, including the cutting of three Woman’s studies courses and multiple Art History and Italian courses.

As a Studio Art and English major myself, a degree which epitomizes the arts, there have been far too many occurrences at family gatherings and first introductions, where once my degree is stated people will stare blankly and offer up the standard question of “What are you going to do with that degree?”

While well-thought advice and moderate parental guidance can always be an asset in the turbulent hesitation of one’s twenties, it is important to remember that you are not required to justify your passions, interests or how you spend your money to anyone. If you are pursuing a degree that genuinely makes you excited to start you day, frustrates but challenges you and makes you feel a sense of pride with every hurdle you accomplish- then those around you should applause with encouragement rather than scarf their noses in disdain.  Anyone who disregards a passion as no way to “pay the bills” has simply never experienced the raw energy and satisfaction one reaps from dedicating time to what truly makes one feel alive.

With our societies over-stimulated sense of entertainment and rapidly paced culture of social media and increasing globalization, the slow and gradual process of studying classical drawing, or pouring over ancient philosophical texts for hours on end can sometimes feel irrelevant and impractical. However, that being said our culture obsessive relationship with social media and ever evolving pop culture has created over 300,000 jobs in the creative industry in Ontario alone, creating a competitive yet ever expanding job market for arts degree graduates.

One of the major roles of an educational institution is to create a society of well thought, like-minded individuals, who can think critically about the issues relevant to our culture and who are aware of various environmental, societal and political issues. In terms of a generation defining, the education system plays a huge role in determining what kind of society will begin to overtake the last. The true root of education is do exactly that; to create a society of critical thinkers who have been shown the accomplishments of humankind, and can now respond to those accomplishments in a highly responsive and innovative manner

While the liberal arts degree is constantly under siege, it can be helpful to step back from a intimidatingly competitive job market and reflect upon what truly matters within one’s life cycle. Education does not simply equal a high-paying job, nor should it. A Bachelor’s degree does not guarantee students anything in life- that is their job. What it will do however is equip individuals with the transferable ability to completely finish something, and solid communication skills and the knowledge needed to critically engage with their surroundings. 

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