Letter: Why a BA isn't BS

It’s the start of the school year, and that means upper-year students are wondering what they've achieved and second-years are wondering what they’d like to achieve as they choose majors. 

In the Faculty of Arts, both groups are tainted by the stigma and misconceptions associated with the beleaguered arts degree: pointless, easy and a bad bet in an increasingly competitive economy. Unlike my friends in engineering and science, my decision to pursue history and French usually provokes more skepticism than compliments. Such negative attitudes are endemic and many arts majors end up internalizing them.

Yet, they’re wrong. The humanities and social sciences (AKA the liberal arts), and the people who study them, are valuable and, indeed, critical in today’s world. In other words, a BA really isn't BS.

The big myth

The classic misconception about arts majors is that they end up sad and jobless. And while sometimes that outcome is beyond our control – the job market is tight and full of gatekeeping – the above is still an easily disprovable myth.

Just look at all the BA grads who occupy important positions in our local, national and global communities. UBC BA grads have, and continue to have, meaningful careers in fields like politics, education and journalism.

Outgoing UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa Ono graduated with a BA and credits it for making him a better scientist and educator. Likewise, BC Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix —both of whom have been critical in BC’s pandemic response — are both history grads. And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earned his English literature degree at McGill (before getting his education degree at UBC). In fact, every single Canadian prime minister, besides those who went straight into lawyering or politicking, had a BA under their belts. 

It's not just in politics that we see big-ticket BA holders, either. Countless acclaimed authors, like Margaret Atwood and John Green, also studied the humanities at university. And, according to Forbes, the BA is one of the most popular degrees among Fortune 500 CEOs, including former Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, interim Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube (who also helped found Google).

To put it simply, arts grads run much of the world. 

Lots of these successful BA grads say their undergraduate training set them up for success. Far from being easy and self-indulgent, the arts is a challenging discipline and its students acquire crucial skills and knowledge about the world from their degree. These students read hundreds of pages of ground-breaking scholastic and cultural work every week. They engage with — and challenge — some of the most important issues and ideas in human history. They’re trained not to accept or expect easy answers and they study debates over issues over which the smartest people have disagreed. Then they have to assemble their own ideas into insightful essays that their profs can then tear to shreds, telling them to do better next time. Then they do just that. 

The value of the humanities in a changing world

Despite knowing that humanities students do in fact have arduous work at uni and end up in important, fulfilling jobs, many still wonder if the arts and social sciences are of any real value to the world. The answer is an emphatic yes.

Whether one is studying New Wave cinema, democracy or Indigenous literature, the arts specializes in producing critical thinkers, which has never been more important to the world. 

In many areas covered in the liberal arts, such as questions about ideal governments, literary style and historical interpretation, there really is no ‘right answer.’ Such lack of clean-cut, definitive answers means arts majors are required to think open-mindedly about abstract concepts, differing viewpoints and their own beliefs to formulate nuanced arguments and defend their positions.

Arts students are thus trained to sniff out places where assumptions and ideology shape interpretation and lead to the scourge of misinformation. Although BA students and grads don’t have a monopoly on that — scientists and doctors are vital in combating anti-vaccination ideas, for instance — they can be especially equipped for it. 

With their emphasis on writing and different forms of communication, the liberal arts also create clear and creative communicators. According to Dr. Raúl Álvarez Moreno, a UBC associate professor of Spanish, the humanistic storytelling and debate skills developed in humanities classes give people the skills to find common ground. And all those thesis-driven essays might be exhausting to write, but they train students to be better at persuading people — vital both for the job market, and for creating the connections necessary to build consensus around the issues that matter. 

The world is diverse and complex, and arts grads who’ve gained valuable cultural perspective are very well positioned, and indeed vital, to tackle racism, reduce global conflict and foster peace. The long reading lists of humanities courses aren’t just padding, and arts curricula don’t just read dead white guys anymore: lots of understanding comes from reading texts from outside ubiquitous, Western perspectives. While identifying historical, social or political contexts behind poverty and anti-Black or Asian racism doesn’t magically solve such problems, it’s key to beginning to combat them. How can we begin to solve issues if we don’t understand how they began?

And, although it is undoubtedly true the STEM fields will be essential in tackling global crises like the climate crisis and pandemics, so too will the humanities. The global issues we face today are not only medical or environmental; they are human problems. 

As Dr. Ono said in a 2019 talk about the humanities, “we need the liberal arts to help make sense of our world — as we grapple with issues like climate change [... and] hatred and prejudice [...] the humanities can give us the critical thinking skills and the perspective to deal with these issues.”

In the end, the value of the humanities and social sciences cannot be overstated. Far from just making latte art, BA grads will leave university with an invaluable, world-changing degree they can be proud of.

Shane Atienza is a senior-year student studying history and French. His research interests include Canadian constitutional and legal history. Shane has also contributed to The Ubyssey.