To a first-year student, subject POSt enrolment is not only a rite of passage, but a crucial moment of decision-making. Majors matter, especially if a specific skill set is required for a job. Ask anyone what a confused undergrad should major in, and they will tell you to choose one that prepares you for the job market — after all, your OSAP loan will not pay itself off.
Consequently, with a job market that is already saturated with overqualified workers, students have become increasingly stressed about their futures. The result of this is that programs that do not on the surface offer degrees that will launch a graduate into the workforce — specifically, the arts and humanities — receive criticism in public discourse.
The perceived inferiority of the arts has actually led to a decline in humanities programs offered in universities. As an intended English specialist, I find myself in constant defense of my program. Instead of politely inquiring about my academic interests, the response I often get from opinionated peers is, “What are you going to do with an English degree?”
In reality, an English degree offers students far more benefits than simply written and communicative skills. It provides students with malleable skill sets that will remain relevant as society changes. There is no guarantee that a job you train for now will be in demand in four years. However, the ability to think critically, to notice patterns, to articulate ideas, and to craft well supported arguments are skills with no expiry date.
Writing demands clarification and expression, as opposed to the memorization and regurgitation required by other fields. Students are required to understand the course material, rather than committing it to short-term memory and tossing it all out after the final exam. This familiarity with the material assists them in transferring problem-solving strategies from the classroom to the real world.
In 2013, Brian Boyd conducted research on the benefits of the arts and found that humanities students thrive through our excellent handling of information, complex processing, and patterned play. Even in ENG140, a first-year English course at the University of Toronto, students are required to critically analyze texts to develop creative and original arguments. Details which on the surface seem to have no correlation are picked out and strung together to construct a strong thesis. This is similar to the “patterned play” or “pattern recognition” mode of thought that Boyd refers to, and it is a practice that can be applied beyond the boundaries of the classroom.
Whether you are analyzing a text, conducting research, or developing and articulating premises, the skills you’ll gain from studying English can be useful in any situation. It is baffling, then, why it is seen as an inferior program of study.
Some have blamed the narrow emphasis that universities place on empirical research; with considerable attention paid to published research articles, there is insufficient time or funding to consider other fields with different, but equally valuable, skill sets. A humanities degree is also seen as intrinsic rather than instrumental; perhaps good in itself, but impractical upon graduation.
In contrast to this belief, 2010-2011 data from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce found that upon graduating, less than 10 per cent of English majors reported unemployment,. In comparison, rates for the more ‘practical’ fields of economics and political science were at 10.4 and 11.1 per cent respectively.
This is probably due to the fact that English majors graduate with skills that allow them to aspire to a variety of different positions, whether it be careers in politics, law, or media. There is no predicting what jobs will be in demand in a few years, and students who choose transferrable skills over specialized skills may just be making the right call.
Both the humanities and sciences are contributory in value. Both investments are equal in risk and in merit. Faculties should stop competing for status, and instead focus on the education of their undergraduates. Furthermore, students themselves should not let common misconceptions and petty stereotypes cloud their judgment when it comes time for POSt enrolment.
Lily Wang is a first-year student studying humanities.