Robert Greenberg: BA just the job - you can Be Anything

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The government focus is on science in tertiary education, but the arts degree doesn’t deserve its bad press.

Apple founder Steve Jobs recognised the value of the BA degree in business. Photo / AP
Apple founder Steve Jobs recognised the value of the BA degree in business. Photo / AP

As a Jewish boy growing up in New York, I heard many of my parents' friends bragging about their son or daughter becoming a successful lawyer or doctor and asking why anyone would want a penniless future after earning degrees in sociology or art history.

In high school, I excelled in mathematics, chemistry and biology. It seemed I was destined to fulfil the parental dream and pursue a career in medicine or, at the very least, in the natural sciences.

All that changed when, as a first-year student at UCLA, I took a Russian language class and fell in love with the musicality and exotic consonants and vowels. I followed my passion, majored in Russian and later earned a doctorate in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale University.

Last February I joined the other deans of arts, humanities, and social sciences at New Zealand universities to discuss promoting the value of the Bachelor of Arts degree. We felt that it was important to address the misconception that students graduating with a BA degree would have limited career prospects.

The argument used to discourage students from pursuing the BA is that it seems not to prepare students adequately for a specific job. This perception reflects a profound lack of understanding about the value of the BA degree and the humanities and social sciences.

Last month the Government announced an additional $67.9 million for science in tertiary education. But there is plenty of data indicating that graduates with BAs find meaningful careers and over their lifetimes their earning power is equivalent to those with undergraduate degrees in other fields.

Increasingly, industry leaders are coming to appreciate the value BA graduates bring because of the skills they have acquired through their study.

Recently, the Washington Post reported how Silicon Valley parents often expect their children to study "stem" (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, believing these will get them a higher-paying job and good career prospects.

But a study of 652 chief executives and heads of product engineering in 502 technology companies found only 37 per cent held degrees in engineering or computer technology. The rest held degrees in a range of fields, including the humanities and social sciences.

Technology leaders, including Apple founder Steve Jobs, have praised the skills developed through studying for a BA.

As new products are developed, understanding how humans communicate, interact and what is important to them provides core insights central to success.

Britain's minister for universities and science David Willetts, wrote in the Guardian that studying humanities subjects such as classics or ancient history would not limit career options.

He cited research from Oxford University that showed that humanities graduates worked in many important areas of the economy - not only in education or the civil service, but in management, finance, law and the media.

He said research showed employers valued highly the transferable skills that an arts degree hones, such as shaping a logical argument, resolving problems creatively, and writing, thinking and communicating clearly.

Innovation is an important driver of a dynamic economy, and the ability to innovate requires imagination, creativity, curiosity, and originality - all developed in the BA.

Technology is changing the way we live and work. In an unpredictable market, transferable skills, versatility, and the ability to apply knowledge to new situations are enormously valuable. These are all skills taught and developed within the BA, making it excellent preparation for the jobs of today and tomorrow.

It is understandable that the Government is seeking to increase the number of students majoring in the "stem" subjects. But it should not forget that the graduates with the skills to analyse social problems, seek solutions for pressing challenges, or come up with an innovative strategy are likely to be arts graduates.

Our country needs citizens who understand global problems, speak foreign languages, and appreciate film and literature. New Zealand is known for its creativity and ingenuity, all features enhanced by the arts degree.

Professor Robert Greenberg is Dean of Arts at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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