All the way through high school, I’d been determined to do a science degree. But at the end of Year 11, a wise old literature teacher convinced me I’d find essays and art far more interesting than exams and research.
When the Head of Science found out I’d swapped chemistry and physics for art and literature, he told me there were two kinds of people in the world: scientists and garbage collectors. Back then, I couldn’t articulate why I found his binary sorting-hat philosophy unconvincing – but now I have a Creative Arts degree, which taught me, among other things, how to write critical essays full of citations and quotes from philosophers. So, who’s laughing now, Mr. Higgins?
It turned out his belief wasn’t just the opinion of a teacher worried about falling enrolments in his subject area. The dominant view in all developed nations regarding liberal arts degrees is that they’re a waste of time. That’s why we have so many jokes like: “What’s the difference between a pizza and an arts degree? A pizza is able to feed an entire family.” Or how about the cracker told by Dan Tehan, former federal Minister of Education: “If you want to study philosophy, also think about studying a language.”
OK, that last one wasn’t funny. Sadly, it wasn’t even a joke.
In 2020, the Morrison government announced their ‘Job-ready Graduates Package’ which incentivised ‘areas of national priority’ by dropping fees for courses in science, health, architecture, IT, engineering, maths and agriculture. The punchline was they planned to offset all this by increasing fees in the arts and humanities, some of which have now gone up by as much as 113%. Ba-dum-tss.
As soon as you accept utility as the highest measure of value, everything is reduced to a data point on a financial spreadsheet.
See, as soon as you accept utility as the highest measure of value, everything is reduced to a data point on a financial spreadsheet. Even researchers trying to justify arts and humanities in high school have fallen into this trap, with ACARA listing the benefits of studying these subjects as “increased self-confidence, self-esteem, and teamwork skills” despite admitting they “found no evidence of arts education enhancing academic performance”.
No wonder enrolments in arts and humanities have been falling steadily since neo-conservative policies took control of education. Economic rationalism trickles down, even if the wealth it generates doesn’t. We’ve all seen how this affects student subject selection in VCE. Recent data from ACARA shows that across Australia, the percentage of students choosing arts and humanities subjects has fallen equally as fast as in our universities.
So, the next time a student asks you what kind of career studying art, drama, history or philosophy might lead to, don’t show them one of those laminated bullseye job posters with concentric rings of possibilities. Instead, point them to one of the many articles predicting which industries will be most affected by AI.
In the top ten, you will find such jobs as budget analysts, judges, financial examiners, accountants and mathematicians – all careers for which the discounted ‘job-ready’ degrees were designed. If a student really wants to maximise their earning potential and future-proof their prospects, they should probably look at getting an apprenticeship.
If your students now look extra confused – they thought you taught philosophy, not economics or VCAL – this is where you can suggest a career in dance. That’s right – apparently, ‘dancer’ is the job least likely to be automated. And if your students still look confused then give them this 1872 quote from Nietzsche ‘On the Future of Our Educational Institutions’: “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education. Dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?”
OK, so he was being metaphorical. But his point was clear. We need to encourage students to take risks and pick subjects that don’t bore them. We need to reassure them that jobs will exist in some form forever, and that the best way to predict which ones will be around when they graduate is to ask themselves how interesting they find that subject right now.
And if they ask you what ‘job-ready skills’ a philosophy degree can give them, tell them it’s so they can at least ask someone not just if but why they want fries with their order. Philosophers also make the best comedians, which is another job the robots can’t take away from us. Yet.