Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Value Of My Arts Degree

After five years, ten semesters and endless 9 am lectures missed and two hour classes spent staring at the ceiling - what have I learned? What is the value of my higher education, beyond the government-sponsored debt I have incurred?

Beyond meeting like-minded individuals, prolonged coffee breaks and deliciously cheap student discounted specials. Besides the common experience of all nighter essays, made up references, bluffing your way through presentations, readings about Foucault or Said, deconstructing Everything You've Ever Known. Beyond university parties and learning to scull beer, having your friends write your name on the role in classes you haven't attended, beyond spending hours at university just because you're rich in time. Beyond learning to sound pretentious, alternate, intellectually sound. What was it all for?

They say it teaches you How To Think. I'd argue that is also teaches you How To Learn. Learning for the sake of learning. Thinking for the sake of thinking. Because when else do you have time to question the colonial discourse around the term 'Yellow Fever' or understand the complicated web of events and people of The Past and how they've shaped everything to do with the Right Now? 

Unlike medical studies, business degrees, law qualifications or bachelors in engineering - Arts degrees are deliberately broad, vague. What can you do with it? What job will it get you? How much money will you make? The short answer is, not any job in a failing economy and not much money at all. The hidden truth is that you have to think and learn and analyse and deconstruct ideas, history, events that matter. You are forced to know, you are forced to think, and in short you are forced to care about understanding the worldBecause when you have people learning how to build buildings, how to make money, how to make new laws, you need people outside of this framework who are thinking about what the building and the money and the laws mean and amount to.

David Foster Wallace's commencement speech blew my mind. He argues that it's more about the choice we have of what to think about. He argues that the default setting we have is to think about ourselves, to think in terms of ourselves, from our own views, from our own experience - solipsism. But that it doesn't have to be this way, we can think outside of this.

He argues that it is the obvious that is the most important, that we have to continue to remind ourselves that we are not the centres of the universe, that life is more than the everyday. That we have the power to create meaning where and of what we will. And perhaps this is why I am always ranting here about what my friends like to call that kind of stuff meaning the stuff that sometimes makes you sigh and sometimes makes you cringe. But it's necessary, this writing and rewriting of the obvious and the inane questions.

The truth of his speech is that to think is to create. Create meaning, value, ideas, works. If we're creating without thinking, we are zombies, puppets. Without thinking about what we're doing, the value it's really worth, the way we are living or affecting other people - we become casualties of everyday life. Everybody can go through life in this default setting, not knowing 'This is water', this is life. The unexamined life is not worth living.

What I think he's really saying is that an Arts Degree can better equip you to think and consequently make choices that have everything to do with your own freedom. To make better choices, and life is a laundry line of choices strung together and hung out to dry. Each choice is something we put on, we wear day in and day out, it shapes us and makes us. And eventually somebody will look fleetingly at our choices, or maybe we'll look back at our own and either we'll be impressed, dismayed, ashamed, confused, proud...

Choose well. Choose better. Choose to make meaning, choose to add, instead of take away. Choose to worship something other than yourself. Choose to see a world beyond that which is immediately apparent to you.

'The real value of a real education has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over..'

'It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliche turns out to be true: your education really is the job of a lifetime'

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