Friday 20 April 2018

Doing Arts is not a 'waste' of your points

Professor Claire Connolly, Head of School, School of English, University College Cork. Photo: Tomas Tyner, UCC.
Professor Claire Connolly, Head of School, School of English, University College Cork. Photo: Tomas Tyner, UCC.

In 2012 I moved home to Ireland after 20 years living and teaching in the United Kingdom. Of the many things that surprised me on my return, one was the sometimes surprisingly low esteem in which the BA degree is held. Teaching in a leading university, in one of what is known as the Russell Group in Cardiff, I had become accustomed to students who identified warmly with their chosen Arts subjects and whose sense of self was bound up with their degree.

In UCC, I saw a student walking through the quad wearing a T-shirt that read: 'Social Sciences. At Least It's Not Arts'. Jokes from my own days as a BA student came rushing back: 'Q: Why don't Arts students look out the windows in the morning? A: So that they have something to do in the afternoon.'

Why is the BA degree so disparaged, in the popular mind at least? The degree asks as much of students as they will give. Subjects such as English, history and philosophy express some of the most important values of our culture, while the skills taught include the ability to analyse and question such truths and to interpret the world in which we live.

Because these truths and values change under our scrutiny, the BA has adapted to offer cutting-edge teaching in critical theory, digital humanities, film, television, and new media. Meanwhile the BA remains the single best route to expertise in the language skills so sought-after by employers.

Broadly speaking, the BA offers a flexible but focused degree that prepares students for a wide range of graduate careers. Communication skills and persuasive writing are core competences that are valued by employers. The BA provides a strong foundation for study at higher degree, including postgraduate courses in business, education, law and management.

Sometimes, though, students are drawn to the BA by its very openness and diversity. Not every Leaving Cert student can plot a clear path towards their later career, despite the best efforts of their friends and family. Few parents will regard uncertainty about future career pathways as a desirable rationale for the choice of a degree. Yet we should not forget the value of time spent reading and thinking - not to mention coding, digging, filming, researching and writing.

University study shapes those very qualities that can concern parents most - a restless mind, a broad focus - into skills that employers value. BA graduates are able to observe patterns and people, to see problems differently and to communicate effectively.

Most of all, a BA degree builds and sustains a lifelong relationship with our culture and our heritage. And don't forget that there are a lot of jokes about engineers.

Claire Connolly is Professor of Modern English at University College Cork and author of A Cultural History of the Irish Novel, 1790-1829 (Cambridge University Press, 2014). She was formerly Professor of English at Cardiff University.

Irish Independent

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