I’ve had a good run lately. My business, Ruby Slipper, is growing at a rate of knots. I’m getting nominated for some pretty prestigious awards. I’m seeing my name in print more often. I’m being asked to give keynotes by organisations and universities. I’m even releasing e-books these days. It’s all pretty sweet, and it’s the result of around seven years of rocking up and doing the work.
Last week I was interviewing a new client, who asked me a question I’ve never before had asked. He asked me what skills and qualifications were necessary to excel in Ruby Slipper’s field of expertise – which is writing with a digital strategy specialization. I was proud to reply:
“Creating excellent digital content comes from having a pretty unique set of skills. They generally must be arts graduates – whether in English, Politics or History. They need to be highly literate, voracious consumers of culture in multiple mediums. They’re also usually writers with their own, clear voices and body of work online. They’re often marketing and graphic design graduates, too.”
It’s rare that one has the opportunity in a business context to sing the praises – no, the absolute requirement – of an arts degree. More regularly, arts degrees are the butt of jokes – the epitome of the perceived uselessness of tertiary education that leads nowhere. I’m sure you’ve been to family catchups or BBQs where relatives have guffawed at arts degrees.
“An arts degree – what job will you get at the end of that? Waste of time. Better to be a sparky or a nail technician. At least they’ll have a job at the end of it.”
“An arts degree – don’t you mean you’re training to make coffees for life?” *Cue snorting laughter and rib-poking*
“People just do an arts degree because they don’t know what to do with their lives. It’s a waste of time and money. If you want to read a book, just go the library.”
This is bullshit that arts students, graduates and anyone who values culture shouldn’t have to smile and nod through. An education in the arts is of great value.
An arts degree teaches humans about their own culture, other cultures and their traditions. It gives a rich context to our daily life experiences, and helps us to recognize patterns which appear in our shared existence as communities, nations and as a species. An arts degree fosters a critical eye towards media – a skill which is more important than ever in our information-laden, expertise-poor modern lives. An arts degree teaches people to read deeply, to form an opinion from their research and then to coherently structure longform essays to display their ideas. This conglomeration of skills is truly invaluable and prepares graduates to apply a critical eye and a nimble brain to whatever comes next. An arts degree offers you competence and rigor. With those two attributes secured in your noggin, you can really go anywhere.
An arts graduate might go on to become an academic. They might be the CEO of the next tech startup. They might be an educator, an artist, a chef, a lawyer or a doctor. Some criticize arts degrees for their perceived lack of a discernible career post graduation. This is only a concern if an individual needs great structure from without. The true arts graduate will see opportunity everywhere, and be ready to give life a crack armed with their knowledge and ability to improvise. Their path isn’t linear. And that’s why it’s so wonderful. I’m not denying that floating in a pea-soup of uncertainty in one’s early-twenties can be disorienting. But necessity is the mother of invention.
I’m successful, highly employable and the direct beneficiary of an arts degree. I’m also the beneficiary of awesome parents, warm housing, medical care and good nutrition, for which I thank the fates, mostly. But nonetheless, my arts degree has helped me into the life I have built around myself today. At the beginning of my arts degree, would I have imagined myself a business owner – out on my own in the world? No. Would I have imagined myself an estate agent, calling auctions and being a general negotiating badass? Certainly not. But I’ve been both. These are not in spite of my arts degree or in contradiction of it. They’re actually – in a circuitous way, paved with my own two hands – the result of it.
I am a proud arts graduate, and if you are an arts graduate or a student currently going through your arts degree – I give you a giant high five. You have made an excellent choice. You are carrying a love of culture within you which our wider society is increasingly pooh-poohing in the face of MBAs on the way to a career in grey-faced middle management. Arts student, it is your very connection to culture, to expression and to discerning the world around you critically that will set you apart in this life.
Arts student, you just keep on keepin’ on. And don’t listen to the haters. Bring your stonking great Tolstoy to the next family BBQ. It’ll be better company than Uncle Wayne, and you’ll have the whole event over before you can say Russian steppes. Well done.
Portrait of Iolanthe Gabrie by Melwitz Folino.