Most students now, just the same as half a century ago, have a practical object in view: to get an Arts degree as a means to an end. There is nothing wrong with that. But the professor has the challenge to provide the extra dimension in an Arts degree: to ensure that students in the Faculty of Arts not only learn the elements of their subjects but also develop the critical attitude and love of knowledge for its own sake that is the true value of an Arts education.
One of my job placements as part of the co-op program while I was in school was with the Dean of Arts Office at the University of British Columbia. And part of my duties there as a research assistant was to compile stories and produce a newsletter to celebrate the 50-year reunion for alumni who graduated in 1953. One such 1953 alumnus was Peter Harnetty.
Prior to pursuing his undergraduate degree at UBC, Harnetty served as part of the British and Indian armies. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree, he pursued graduate studies at Harvard University before returning to UBC to join the faculty. He started out as an instructor with History and International Studies, moving on to Asian Studies and History in the early 60s, and even serving as the head of the Department of Asian Studies for a number of years. I’m not sure how active he is today (he is 90 years old, after all), but Peter Harnetty has been listed as Professor Emeritus since 1992.
My minor was in English literature, and while I make my career today as a freelance writer, my knowledge of Shakespeare isn’t especially relevant when it comes to writing about the newest smartphone or covering trends in social media. But to think about higher education in purely practical terms is missing the point entirely.
I’m fairly certain I haven’t used the quadratic equation since I graduated from university over a decade ago. I haven’t had to break out the calculus and work out complex derivatives, aside from maybe trying to wrap my head around what Katherine Johnson was scribbling on the chalkboard in Hidden Figures. (I still don’t get it.)
But that’s not the point. That’s missing the point entirely.
As Peter Harnetty says above, there is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing your education as a means to an end. You get a certain diploma, degree or certificate, so that you can pursue a certain job or career. Medicine, law, business, and engineering are all noble pursuits, but an arts degree empowers you to explore the human experience just a little deeper. That’s what we stay alive for.
It’s true. Far more valuable than the facts and history lessons I gleaned from the dozens of overpriced textbooks, far more valuable than learning what to think was learning how to think. We shouldn’t take delight in ignorance; we should learn to pursue knowledge for its own sake, taking the appropriate steps to analyze what we know (and what we don’t know) to engage in a fruitful, civilized discourse about how to move forward. Together.