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Why Study Arts? A Personal Reflection

Last year, approximately five months before graduating from Renaissance College with my Bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Leadership, I felt inspired to apply to UNB’s civil engineering program. Now that I had my liberal arts education, I was ready for my technical training that would make me a productive member of the workforce.

I felt a sense of relief that this was the direction I wanted to go in—the uncertainty about employment prospects that I carried around with me during my undergrad were now gone—of course I would get a job in today’s market with this esteemed engineering degree.

Except when I returned to university in the fall, unease immediately began to creep in. The work wasn’t what I expected—and it’s not that I didn’t find what I was learning interesting. I just realized it was interesting in the”‘I’d like to read about what engineers do in the news way” not “this is what I want do for the rest of my life” sort of way.

So I switched out. I dropped all of my engineering courses and picked up some arts courses I was interested in. But then I started wondering, why had I felt so much pressure to go into STEM? Why did I feel incompetent and like a failure for realizing it wasn’t for me? Why did I want it to be the right fit for me so badly? And why was it that, once I switched out, I told everyone I was just taking some arts courses—emphasis on the just.

Bound by curiosity, I talked to numerous members of the UNB community in pursuit of my answers. Was there some kind of perceived difference between the value of an arts education and a STEM education that I had internalized to make me feel this way? And where was it all coming from?

According to UNB vice-president academic George MacLean, these perceptions could come from a “conflict of ideas” about the purpose of a university education—and therefore the “value” of a degree.

“When we go to university the misconception can be that we’re being trained for a job. We’re being educated for a career. That’s the way I like to think of it.”

Photo: Maria Araujo

MacLean says the university does contain aspects of training, which are present in what Arts 1000 professor Matt Sears calls the “applied fields.”

“What I mean by applied fields is engineering, nursing, business, education—and so UNB, like almost every comprehensive university is divided up between the liberal arts and sciences and what are essentially vocational schools,” Sears said.

“Those fields have a much more explicit career focus. They have Co-op programs to introduce people to career fields—and all of that is great. But what I worry is happening is that kind of career focus is then being held up as the reason that people go to university, the only reason.”

The concept that the outcome of a university degree should be a job often runs out of line with the study of the arts and sciences. In fact, Sears says that the purpose of the liberal arts and sciences are one and the same, and any perceived divide between the two is “artificial.”

“[Humanities, arts and sciences are] driven by curiosity. They’re driven by understanding the world and getting answers to questions that we don’t have answers to,” he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by the Dean of Arts, Joanne Wright, who says that the arts and sciences provide a solid foundation from which to build off of.

“I feel arts and science are very much understood to be foundational faculties and programs,” said Wright. “They offer a kind of comprehensive foundation from which students can then go on to other professional programs, occupations, careers.”

This is an idea that is reinforced by the fact that students studying STEM disciplines are required to take around an eighth of their degree in complementary studies, which include electives in the humanities.

Edmund Biden, a UNB professor of Mechanical Engineering studied history when he was a student. He said that his courses in history offered something to enhance his engineering degree.

“It’s influenced my thinking about, and understanding of engineering and science ever since—in ways that are probably more important and influential to the way that I think about science and engineering than anything I did that was strictly technical.”

While it seems that UNB does recognize the importance of the liberal arts education, it doesn’t always seem to be reflected in the university’s bigger picture. UNB touts the line that they are Canada’s most entrepreneurial university, and while this certainly fits the bill for many of its applied programs, arts programs struggle to find their place. This is something that Dean of Arts Joanna Wright admits.

“I think STEM disciplines are—what would I say—really prominent at UNB and lots of universities. UNB’s not different from others but—and you know the mantra about innovation— sometimes Arts doesn’t feel that its contributions are captured in the dominant discourse of the university.”

In many ways, the education of students is now coupled alongside commercial and industrial success. And while the there is a perceived value of arts within the university community, this isn’t always seen externally on the societal level.

According to MacLean, funding decisions are made by senior management and administration based on the money received by either a government grants, tuition revenue or miscellaneous forms of revenue collection.

“We need to be able to balance budgets to the best of our ability, we need projected costs and revenues so we know down the road how we can fund our programs,” explains MacLean about the decision-making process.

While it is possible to argue that there’s an onus for UNB to prioritize in investing in what’s profitable, Anthropology professor Sue Blair says that underfunding is not simply isolated to arts programs—that it extends to all units at UNB.

“When I talk to my colleagues in engineering and in sciences and STEM disciplines, theyre really struggling too. Those are classes full, their labs arent big enough, they dont have the resources either,” says Blair.

So that doesn’t really leave me with an answer does it?

The only thing my search really confirmed was that my interdisciplinary liberal arts education combined with a technical education like engineering would have been a stroke of genius. So that kind of sucks.

But, different strokes for different folks—right? It wouldn’t have been for me. And I’m not the only one who’s experienced this. Dave MacMullin returned to UNB a year ago to pursue an arts education with a major in Classics, after three years spent in the workforce post-Business degree.

“I studied Business mostly because I thought that I would be happy with a job in my life. That was my high goal—just to get a job… Little did I know that that wasn’t fulfilling enough for me. That just having 40 hours a week just poof gone and this job I hated wasn’t enough.”

MacMullin is loving the fulfillment his current studies give him, saying, “I guess that sort of keeps me going—that I feel like I’m doing it for myself… [In my Business degree] I was caught up in suffering for this end goal that I thought that I’d be happy then. But  lo and behold if you don’t like the process, you won’t like the outcome.”

In our interview, MacLean said that “An arts education is about permitting yourself to move in directions that you’re not anticipating.”

I wasn’t anticipating moving towards engineering, just as I wasn’t anticipating how quickly I would fall out of it—just as I’m sure MacMullin wasn’t anticipating returning to school to take a degree in what were formerly his “hobby” courses.

It’s hard not to swallow the societal pill of pursuing university for reasons other than just acquiring a job. Hell, it is downright terrifying going after your own interests and passions, when it feels like everyone around you is saying it won’t take you anywhere.

Sears attests to this, saying, “There’s a lot of anxiety about disciplines like arts. Because there aren’t immediately clear career paths. I talk to parents all of the time—‘What will my kids do if they take classics or history or philosophy?’ Of course there are answers…but that anxiety is what’s driving—I think—the privileging of the vocational parts of the university.”

But this argument is not one the university needs to be perpetuating, according to MacLean.

“I do think that this conflict about what our programs bring in terms of value is something of an inflated construct. It doesn’t have to exist and I think that we could be doing a much better job of projecting to our communities what the value of the university education actually is.”

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Perry Reply

    An excellent article. I, too, have become very concerned that UNB appears to be putting too much emphasis on becoming a “wealth generator” for the province.
    “Universities are not just good places in which to undertake….fundamental questioning; they also embody an alternative set of values in their very rationale. Attending to these values may help us to remember, amid difficult and distracting circumstances, that we are merely custodians for the present generation of a complex intellectual inheritance which we did not create – and which is not ours to destroy. Stefan Collini : “What Are Universities For?”

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