How a “useless degree” might have saved my career

And how the liberal arts teach you to "become who you are"

Why This Matters | Spence Tait | February 18, 2016

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I’m just going to say it: I’m an Art History major. There. Worse yet, I left the business school after one semester to pursue something you might pin as so hideously random. In the general scheme of things, and in a more conservative academic climate, to study art history is classic career suicide… higher education harakiri. Everyone knows that to be “competitive” in the job market, you need something applicable. It must be logical, realistic, and governed by the current state of the business-oriented zeitgeist. However, my journey has quite obviously veered off the well-worn path. It has almost gone full-derail, actually, judging by the size of my lecture halls (all two of them).

And here’s the kicker: I’m exhausted by the stigma that follows me everywhere. I’m tired of people confusing “unorthodox” with “incorrect” or “inferior,” because I’m convinced that at the end of the day, there is nothing “useless” about an unconventional liberal arts degree. Allow me to explain.

“Liberal arts teach things that are profoundly valuable, and so very human.” 

Moving chronologically, being dropped into the business school head first was easily more disorienting and disheartening than moving countries for the fifth time in my life. Wide-eyed and bushy tailed, I was simply revved up to learn how to flesh out an idea, turn it into reality, solve problems creatively, gain management skills and work with other inspired people to bring motivation to tangible fruition, eventually coming out the other end empowered to pursue something entrepreneurial, or contribute to an noble and self-directed corporate climb. That didn’t happen. I was, like hundreds of others, instead blighted by the staggering awkwardness of Foster’s econ (I don’t know how many mangos Uruguay gets!) and the condescending drudgery of FYDP (thanks for the line graph depicting mood change between Monday and Friday). Looking at the crystal ball that was my prospective syllabus for the next four years prophesized two years actually studying what I wanted to, but only after an equal amount of time continuing with econ, and crawling through a minefield of statistics, corporate accounting, and calculus—things I knew I would so obviously never use judging by the work spheres I was aiming for.

“There is nothing about an unconventional liberal arts degree that makes it less valuable.”

I quickly changed gears and started taking preemptive GPAC courses before I even switched in. I took a translated Chinese poetry course that gave me new visions of “how to live,” enamored by the pragmatic romance of Taoism and the honorable, staunch traditions of Confucianism. My University Writing course explored the Golden Age Dutch Renaissance through painting—presenting an entirely fresh and almost blinding view of the human condition at the turn of a new age in human history, systematically indulging in the opulence of 16th century Holland.

I’ve stuck with it ever since, and I’ve only grown to love it more.

If you are under the impression art history is useless, consider the following: I’ve never had to think for myself—in more creative ways—any more strenuously. No course in the business school could have prepared me to write an exam’s surprise essay prompt on how a pile of bubblegum represents the emotions of an 80s AIDS crisis victim (yes there is a correct answer and logical discussion behind this). I’ve had to analyze things to the level of how brush strokes in Chinese scroll paintings or renderings in 19th Century European landscapes change in response to respective cultural climates and socio-political disruptions. My education is based on discussing ideas, challenging thought, researching, understanding complex (often baffling) concepts and writing about how they stand for something importantwhich has truly become a lost art. I am lucky enough to have an education in deconstructing an idea to see and explain what makes it valuable, what makes it special, and how it can be recreated. If you think art history is easy, take two nights to memorize 200 Chinese/Japanese/Korean landscapes (name, date, artist, and material) and let me know how you do. Better yet, ask anyone who’s taken AH1001.

“If you are under the impression art history is useless, consider the following: I’ve never had to think for myself—in more creative ways—any more strenuously.”

I’ve contributed the thinking style and analytic problem-solving I’ve fostered to a résumé I am hugely proud of and career prospects that have me completely excited, because I pitched myself tirelessly and successfully utilized the skills I have gained through several demanding internships and extra-curriculars. I, and many others like me, take pride in my initiative to grow into something larger than a mere “art history student” to someone with rare perspectives. That is what an education, and a career path, is meant to be. I know for a fact that if I had stayed at the business school, I never would have learned what I was good at. I never would have learned to approach something in a way other than the textbook. My résumé would likely be a painfully insipid mid-tier attempt at life, and my grades would much more than likely be circling the drain with a resounding “plunk” while I pursued something thousands upon thousands of other 20-somethings are routinely awarded every war.

So go study something you love because it will take you further. Figure out how and where to implement your skills (different from knowledge) in the meantime, because you’re in college. Get that drama degree, that French literature degree, that botany education for God sake—but if you’re not looking for a career in it, understand what it does for you, and what it can contribute to someone else and then hustle the field. Find what makes your “random” passion-pursuit demanding and unique, and realize that, as expressed in this article, not everyone in business has a business degree, and that the liberal arts teach things that are profoundly valuable, and so very human. 

And if you’re the type to laugh at anything other than a BADM or Poli-Sci background, just remember that a Bachelor’s in general barely means jack anymore anyway.

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