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pissed off feminist strikes back: won’t somebody please think of the liberal arts?

Last week, The Atlantic published an article entitled ‘Pop Culture Has Turned Against the Liberal Arts’.  Today I feel the need to leap to their defence, because if I don’t, then who will?

Now I’m a writing student. Writing and cultural studies, to be exact. Usually I can’t be bothered explaining that cultural studies is a field of academia like any other — like sociology or gender studies — except it’s fairly new and very very current. We look at feminism, at Marxism, at literary theory and a number of other schools of thought and then apply that theory to cultural products and practices — to an artwork, to burlesque, to drug-taking or grunge literature. When I chose my degree, I was really just looking forward to all the creative writing I would be doing — not really thinking about my career. So now I’m more than halfway through and forced to consider, what does having a slightly more specialised arts degree do for my future? Where does this leave me? What is my skill set?

In the aforementioned article, Kevin Craft details the plots of two films released in America last month. They each present liberal arts students as somewhat bumbling, useless people. They don’t have social skills, they don’t even have a real degree, can’t get a job, so on and so forth. The frequent denigration of my field of study is perhaps what has made me so determined to succeed. Because I’ll tell you something, studying cultural studies or taking a liberal arts degree not only broadens your repertoire, but also sets you up for life in a way that the films Hello I Must Be Going and Liberal Arts fail to recognise.

Now in Australia, the mocking tone used when referring to arts, media and communications students is fairly widespread. We’re barely at university, we’re not qualified to be anything at the end of it, and so on. Because people increasingly think of university as a place where you study, say, architecture, and then at the end, you are an architect, or you study journalism and so at the end you are a journalist. In a 21st century context, anybody with a keyboard and a solid understanding of the English language can be a freelance journalist. It’s not the exclusive domain of journalism majors, or those who undertake masters. No. I myself am a freelance journalist, yet in my degree I write essays about gender in Woody Allen’s films and then write some genre fiction for the next class. It’s about having ideas. It’s about being able to articulate those ideas. It’s about understanding the power that language has.

Having a liberal arts degree gives you a set of tools that one wouldn’t expect. We’re able to think critically. We’re able to take cultural phenomena — the kind of things people think are arbitrary and don’t make a real impression on the world — and show that they do in fact influence the very way we live. Some may say that these cultural representations of reality in films like Liberal Arts don’t have an effect on objective reality, when in fact they do. Because these representations are shaped by, and in turn shape, the world in which we live. If we constantly repeat the fact that an arts degree is worthless, people go into it thinking that it and they themselves are worthless, despite the truth that what they have to offer is just as valid as if they’d taken economics.

In my own case, I’ve found that my degree has developed my skill set in a way I didn’t think possible. It’s important of course to complement these with professional experience, but it’s interesting to note that I have worked in advertising, in publishing, in the music industry, without having been sat down and taught exactly what such an endeavour requires. And a lot of people like me work their arses off. We work casual jobs, go to university, freelance (sometimes unpaid, but in the interest of exposure), and intern. And once we finish one internship, we jump to the next one. We have CVs cluttered with experience, overflowing portfolios and notebooks full of stories.

What I have learnt, in cultural studies classes, in writing and workshopping classes, is how to write.  A skill many people don’t have. A sought-after commodity. I know how to write, dependent on the context. I can write academic papers, conversational articles, creative non-fiction, personal essays, short stories, novellas… I learnt how to read, and more importantly to analyse a variety of texts. I learnt how to workshop with others — to work collaboratively and individually — and craft stories. I learnt how to edit. And I learnt how to give and receive criticism. So now I feel capable of going out into the world at the end of next year confident that my diverse degree was worth something.

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3 thoughts on “pissed off feminist strikes back: won’t somebody please think of the liberal arts?

  1. I do the same degree as you and I really agree. I always thought I would transfer into architecture or marketing. But I was surprised by how much I deeply loved my Liberal Arts (ish) degree and couldn’t transfer out. I feel like I have learned so much with it and it has really allowed me to see the world in a totally different way. With the amount of content that now needs to be churned out by organisations there has never been a better time to be a writer.

    I’ve gotten plenty of crap about it though. With a family consisting of a physiotherapist, a doctor and two engineers I can feel a black sheep. I still think I made the right choice and I know that I can make just as much of a contribution as my family has, even if it took me a few years to figure that out.

    So cut out the jokes people. One day we’ll write a scathing commentary about you Bachelor of Arts haters, then you’ll all see.

  2. Oh how I heart your article! I’m also a cultural studies student, about to graduate and be a cultural theorist and I’m in love with this discipline and everything I get to explore in it… and I am so sad that it is not taken more seriously given the immediacy of what we’re dealing with and engaging critically with. I hope that there is a resurgence in the value and importance placed on people who do work like we do work, think like we think and engage with people and society the way we do. I think we are just as valuable as teachers, as doctors, as lawyers, architects, sociologists, business analysts… all of them. We are culture workers and we specialise in seeing and doing something that others don’t always notice, but is critically important. Having a rare moment of not feeling alone in this space!!

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