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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

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In one of my recent lectures, a professor asked the class why, in our opinion, interest and enrollment in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences seemed to be steadily dwindling over the years. As students threw out theories relating to lack of advertising of the program by Dalhousie University or the title of “general arts” being misleading to some, the general consensus, though unsaid, was clear: Students aren’t enrolling in liberal arts programs the way they used to because philosophy, French, sociology and the like just aren’t “realistic.”

I’ve heard this sentiment from more than a few friends majoring in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – on numerous occasions; that they wish they could be in my program, but it’s just not realistic. I’ve heard them describe their classes as though they are teeth being pulled without anesthesia; I’ve listened to them contemplate dropping out at least once a day, and note how they attend only the classes where professors take attendance – and only stay long enough to say “present,” because that’s about as much of the course content as they can bear.

I dare not let them know how passionate I am about what I learn in my classes because I know that my sentiments will be met with either resentment or envy. If I ever challenge my friends’ complaints, and suggest they actually could take classes like mine, they simply scoff. “But what would I do with that degree?”

This is a question that my colleagues in the arts and social sciences are all too familiar with, along with, but not limited to: “What even is sociology?” “Arts? So do you, like, paint?” and “Are you going to get another degree after?”

I would never go as far as to suggest that liberal arts students are stigmatized; that I am able to go to university at all is a privilege, and the fact that my field of study is merely unpopular is not the problem. It is the stigmatization of the liberal arts, and what that means for students today, that bothers me.

I’ve come to realize that hard sciences, such as chemistry and physics, mathematics and computer sciences, economics, commerce and business, all share a common quality that disciplines such as philosophy, English or sociology do not. STEM and its related major fields of study have a certain vocational nature. While they are still academic disciplines, their workplace applications are clear. If I get a business degree, it can reasonably be assumed that I’m going to go into business. If I’m in computer sciences, while my opportunities after graduation will be plentiful and diverse, there is a clear and obvious application of the degree.

The application of an arts degree is less obvious, and this, I believe, is the root of why arts is less likely to be seen as a viable and valuable option. I am a sociology major. This means, of course, that I’ve taken a number of sociology courses, but I’ve also taken guitar, paleontology, French, creative writing, philosophy, human sexuality, meteorology and the history of rock 'n’ roll (yes, this is a real course at my university and yes, you have every right to be jealous). This diverse class schedule may seem random to some and, frankly, it is. But that’s the point. The value of a Bachelor of Arts is not that it will get me a high-paying job immediately after graduation; it’s that it gives me the opportunity to explore the potential of my mind.

The freedom to create a Jackson Pollock of my class schedule is unimaginable to some, but the things I have learned in the process could not have been learned otherwise. While some of the teachings are worth little more to me now than the answers to Jeopardy! questions, the abstract things I’ve picked up along the way are invaluable. I am a critical thinker from reading theories upon theories, all explaining the same phenomena, and having to come to my own conclusions. I am a strong writer from years of writing essays pretending to know what the hell I’m talking about. I know that if I was able to persevere through physics classes at 8 a.m. on a Monday after barely passing science in Grade 10, my hard work can get me through anything.

Some of the classes are just fun – and that’s as important.

This is the value of my university education. What will I do with my degree? I don’t know. What I do know is that the possibilities are endless. The most important thing I’ve learned during my time at university is the importance of passion. Passion for learning is what differentiates my university experience from that of many of my peers, which I can apply to any job I find that stirs that passion. Fitting into a box of what is “realistic” and what is “practical” does no one any favours. If you hate learning a subject, you’ll probably hate it as a career.

So, what will I do with my arts degree? I’ll apply the skills I’ve picked up over the past three years. And if that doesn’t work, maybe I’ll go on Jeopardy!

Phoebe Knight lives in Halifax.

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