The B-All

By Sandy Burgham

I don’t usually agree with a thing that comes out of the mouth of property developer Sir Bob Jones, but I do concur with him on one thing — the value of an arts degree, and specifically, a liberal arts degree. For those still stuck in an era where a Bachelor of Arts was mocked as “BA means Bugger All,” I challenge your thinking as archaic.

I see many who are clamouring to the idea of a STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering and maths) education because they are mystified at this world, which is changing at a faster rate than humans can deal with. But what we need are people with the ability to adapt to that change, and the BA delivers on this.

In fact, I fancy myself as a bit of an expert on this matter, having had four completely different careers that span 35-plus years, in which I have both worked with and employed a number of people. The ones that stand out to me are those who had taken the time to learn about the world around them and indeed challenge these learnings. And having just completed a liberal arts degree myself, I can reflect upon the impact it has had on my work, my life and how it was the missing link that connected me to what it is I actually wanted to be giving my time and energy to.

For sure, I have done pretty well without it, but that’s the point. Sometimes I can’t believe that I was allowed into meetings, the boardroom, or even thought I had a clue what I was talking about, given my previous level of education, a manky marketing qualification. No wonder I always had a suspicion that there was some other, more interesting, parallel dimension that I didn’t have access to.

The liberal arts taught me to not believe everything I read. Particularly so in the case of history, which embarrassingly I had never even considered as a particularly fluid and contestable arena. I naively had assumed that things happened, they were remembered and that was that. I considered myself a good communicator, but after honing skills in creating coherent arguments that absorb an array of conflicting research, my opinions are more considered, have more depth and I have a greater capacity to see the viewpoints of others. Finally at this ripe age, I feel I am in communion with life, rather than simply going through the paces. My liberal arts education has shifted me from someone who was living in the world to someone who wants to contribute to changing it.

I didn’t need a degree so people took me seriously, incredibly they already did. I only went to uni as I needed something to write about for my blog about turning 50. True story. I wanted to play by different rules, where I listened to my heart more than my head to see what happened. And while my career development soon took a back seat to my personal interests, six years later, I now work in a field that I couldn’t have planned for and with a deep sense of purpose that is beyond what I could have dreamt up.

I have leveraged so many learnings from my gender and history double major within my work and life that, in the language of the capitalist paradigm, I am a getting a ‘return on my investment’. In a full circle way, it also lead to me writing this column. And my collaborators and I now offer courses for 50-somethings who are getting the ‘is this all there is?’ feeling.

On campus I experienced full millennial immersion. I noticed my fellow BA students would only start second-guessing their degree because simultaneously, they had no idea what they really wanted to do with their lives. Their nerves were jangled by their parents or even worse, ‘friends of parents’, who enquire “just what do you want to do with that BA; how many jobs are there for anthropologists these days?”

But the tide is turning and public opinion will eventually catch up. In the last few years, both the Harvard Business Review and Forbes have reported on how liberal arts degrees are increasingly favoured in the tech world. In the age of information overload, we need thinkers who are unfazed by the vast amounts of information online. We need people who know how to manage it, use it and make informed criticism of the content. If, as predicted, within 10 years up to 50 per cent of jobs people see as current today might not even exist, then we need our young people to know how to adapt to change. And it is a generalist degree like the Bachelor of Arts that will help them stay both relevant and curious.


This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of The Hobson Magazine.