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The Downside of Arts Degrees: What Went Astray?

Commentary: “If given the chance, would you pursue an arts degree?” This question posed by my wife has sparked contemplation. It’s not an easy question to answer. I had a deep affection for my degree during the late 60s and early 70s. The freedom to explore a wide range of topics and read what interested me was truly a joy. Of course, there were mandatory courses and material that I would have preferred to avoid, but there was also a sense that disciplined and structured study was valuable, and that mental training was just as important as physical exercise.

However, times have changed. Arts faculties in universities across the globe have veered into the realm of identity politics. Gender and race have become defining factors, making it nearly impossible to escape certain prominent issues such as race relations and gender studies. This identity focus is coupled with a post-modernist belief that rejects any form of hierarchy. Shakespeare holds no greater value than Mickey Mouse, rap music is considered equal to the works of Mozart, and ancient stone-age art is placed on the same pedestal as Michelangelo’s masterpieces. This dangerous combination threatens to diminish the significance of humanity’s greatest cultural and intellectual achievements.

Reflecting on my undergraduate studies in English, I recall reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, a variety of novels from different authors and time periods, and a diverse selection of poetry. As the years went by, the curriculum expanded to include more Shakespeare, as well as works by Milton, Pope, Dryden, and a plethora of novels. It was a well-rounded education that exposed students to the heights of English literature and its various genres.

Nowadays, it’s possible to complete a three-year undergraduate English program without fully engaging with the works of Shakespeare and other literary giants. Specialization has taken precedence over a broad understanding of the subject. Some universities even offer music degrees without requiring students to study Western notation.

This tendency to undervalue greatness and elevate mediocrity has primarily been observed in the arts faculties. Fields like Medicine and Engineering still require a university education, although there are concerns about architecture departments focusing on indigenous design, and law faculties de-emphasizing jurisprudence and the philosophical foundations of law. How many law students today would truly appreciate the Christian origins of Common Law?

As the former president of Campion College, Australia’s first liberal arts college, I am grateful to have witnessed the dedication to a traditional arts education. Campion focused on “core” subjects such as literature, history, philosophy, and theology. Throughout the program, students delved deeply into the works of Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, Thucydides, Tacitus, and more. It was a comprehensive education and, in my opinion, the best arts degree in the country.

In contrast, mainstream universities overwhelm art students with an excessive array of subjects to choose from. With options ranging from women’s issues to rock music studies, it’s hard for students to make informed decisions. Are these subjects worthy of a university education, or are they simply offered to accommodate the belief that everyone is entitled to a degree in something?

Choosing subjects randomly without considering their connectivity or context leads to a fragmented understanding of knowledge. History is studied in isolation, without recognizing the interconnectedness between Australian, British, Greek, and Roman history. Without a strong foundation in critical thinking, reading, and writing, it becomes impossible to grasp the bigger picture.

In a world driven by false ideas of “equality,” there is an abundance of sociologists and criminologists, but a shortage of skilled tradespeople needed to keep our society running smoothly. Psychologist Jordan Peterson once claimed that mega-university arts faculties are no longer suitable for their intended purpose. He believed that the humanities would flourish in smaller institutions such as liberal arts colleges, specialized institutes, and classical high schools that are emerging worldwide.

In the end, as Edmund Burke said, “No man ever made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” The efforts of these smaller institutions and dedicated individuals may seem small, but they are crucial in preserving and advancing the humanities.

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