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Arts students need to focus the narrative on the value of their degrees

By Kristy Koehler, November 5 2019—

A new provincial budget was tabled last week and it was pretty much what we expected ⁠— cuts across the board, including cuts to post-secondary education. If you’re a student in the Faculty of Arts, you’re probably worried about cuts to your program, whether that be courses, faculty, support staff or your major as a whole. 

A quick scroll through social media, a flip through a campus newspaper or a chat with a classmate in a social science class reveals that arts students are perpetually worried about budget cuts.

Universities never cut science, business or engineering programs right? The Schulich School of Engineering is getting a fancy new façade and history students are running from one end of campus to the other — their first class of the day is on the third floor of the education tower and their next one is in the kinesiology theatre. Arts students don’t have a building with a donor’s name on it and we perennially complain that people don’t value our degrees.

While there may be some truth in our worry, we’re complicit in the devaluing of our own education. How often do we mumble something about a “backup plan” when our friends and families ask us, “Philosophy? What are you going to do with that?”

Arts has a reputation for being the place to go when you don’t know what you want to do ⁠— and more insidious still, when you aren’t capable of doing anything else. We are complicit in this narrative. We laugh at jokes about “being a career barista” when our Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies is mocked. 

Long have we sat around the dinner table and shied away from the questions directed at us by our families —“Political Science? What will that get you?”

It’s time we stopped thinking about education in terms of what it’s going to “get” us or at least change the narrative about what it is we’re supposed to “get.” It’s time we started evaluating our degree in a way other than financial. Critical thinking, interdisciplinary knowledge and awareness of the world around us represent a value to society that far exceeds financial reward.

It’s hard, when society tells us that end goal of an education is a job. Engineering students graduate and become engineers. Nursing students graduate and become nurses. Some fields are easy to measure. What do women’s studies majors do when they graduate? Sociology students? In some aspects, this speaks to the larger failing of society as a whole in how the goals of education are defined. However, it also speaks to our failing in allowing society to create an elusive definition of success and then adhering to that definition.

We measure our success by the metric set by science programs. We aren’t, however, comparing apples to apples. When we talk about the University of Calgary being a research institution, we need to stop leaving arts out of that equation. Research isn’t only taking place in the sciences — it takes place in the Faculty of Arts too. Our professors are studying the accessibility of public spaces, energy security, resistance rights in international politics, regulation in Canada’s internet and telecom industries — they’re developing ideas that will shape the world and how we think about issues for years to come.

It’s time that we, as a faculty, decide what our own metric of success is. It’s time we started evaluating our education in a way other than financial, and thinking of the value our degree provides to society rather than to our bank accounts. When we ourselves understand what success looks like in the arts, and the sheer volume of research that has been done by our faculty, we’ll be able to convey that information to others — and it will make it a heck of a lot harder to even consider dropping programs or majors from the Faculty of Arts in the face of budget cuts.

Sure, I’d love a fancy Faculty of Arts building. I’d love a legion of donors who understand the value in receiving a broad-scope education and want to fête us with gala dinners, research symposiums and award presentations. 

But, what I want more than those things, is for every student in the Faculty of Arts to not dread the family gatherings where they’ll inevitably be asked “What are you gonna do with that?” I want Faculty of Arts students to stand up for their degree, understand its value to society, believe in its merits and stop wanting some nebulous idea of “funding.”

Look your family and friends in the eye and tell them exactly what you’re going to get — knowledge and skills that will equip you to literally change the world. 

This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet‘s editorial board.

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