Volume 93, Issue 51

Tuesday, November 30, 1999


Contemplating academic competence at Western

Campus Comment

Contemplating academic competence at Western

By Molly Duignan
Gazette Staff

Every student, at one time or another, will find themselves contemplating whether their university studies are truly fulfilling. Especially in such a broad faculty as the arts, the question of how valuable a degree is lingers.

"There's a pressure in our society as a whole to justify oneself financially and in productivity terms," said David Bentley, a Western professor of English and editor of the Journal of Canadian Poetry.

Bentley said students today are too interested in finding jobs which make a lot of money. So interested, he said, they tend to lose focus on the fact the arts are central to culture.

"Instructional engagement with the arts enables students to acquire high-level analytical and cognitive skills that are not merely useful in arts-related professions, such as teaching and journalism, but also transportable and applicable in managerial positions in a wide variety of industries, such as banking and manufacturing."

Bentley described the arts as an education which teaches critical thinking and communications, two aspects which are highly in demand in businesses. He said this is a part of arts which tends to be overlooked. "What we do mustn't always be about money. An educated population is a happier, more fulfilled and healthier population," he said. "We all live where the discourse and rhetoric is all about getting a job and getting it quick.

"The arts have been generally regarded in the Western tradition as valuable, both intrinsically and extrinsically, as inherently admirable, beautiful manifestations of human creativity and intelligence that can be enjoyed both in and for themselves and as a means of becoming emotionally and intellectually refined or cultivated," he added.

Vincent Lee, VP-finance for the science students' council and third-year biology student, said he felt his four-year Bachelor of Science would be worthless. He said in order to make any money, he will have to attend graduate school or professional program.

"I saw that friends of my parents who were in arts didn't get anywhere in life – it was ingrained in me my whole life that any area other than science wouldn't allow me to be successful," Lee said.

In hindsight and with only one year left until graduation, Lee said compared to a Bachelor of Arts degree, he is confident he will be less prepared for aspects of communication in the working world. "There is not enough exposure to research or writing in science like there is in arts, where students write many papers and essays, preparing them for communication areas."

Bentley agreed with Lee's point. "The heavy emphasis on reading, writing and discussion in arts programs enables students to acquire the communicational skills that are essential to professionals and managers and moreover, are slated toacquire increasing importance in a global culture based on information and electronic technology."

Paul Bishop, associate professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business, said the value of any degree cannot be measured. "There are all kinds of intangibles in an arts degree, whereas Ivey programs focus directly on knowledge and attitude enhancement in specified areas. Arts degrees enhance people instead."

Bishop explained there is no discrepancy between degrees in order to apply to the school. "Students are accepted according to their [Graduate Management Aptitute Test] scores and applicable work experience. Undergrad degrees are only examples of academic ability. Good marks from good universities matter more than the title of the degree you graduate with."

Bishop also said he does not see the focus of students as necessarily money-oriented. Instead, the focus is primarily on career success, he said. "People are looking for advancement, recognition and experience at work – three aspects that will inevitably lead to satisfaction in monetary terms as well. The prime driver for students of business is opportunity."

Misconceptions about entry into successful employment without a graduate or professional degree are common. Like Lee, many students assume any undergraduate degree will not affect their chances of an entry-level job after three or four years of

post-secondary education.

Pat Allossery, a journalist with the National Post, said she graduated with an honours English degree at Western and felt an additional or graduate degree would neither have advanced nor hindered his chance of finding a job.

"In an occupation such as journalism, if you become too specified you are closing off what is such a broad and expansive field," he said. "An arts degree is a good background or primer for further learning. Having written so many essays and intensively studied so much literature, the discipline in arts allows for a much better grasp on how to form ideas and make a clear argument."

Bob Hamilton, vice-president of retail-credit services at the Toronto Dominion bank, said the arts teach students how to think with creativity and provides tools for a lifetime of learning.

"Part of any job is to think creatively and apply ideas. Arts encourages thinking and this leads to other professional designations. In the business world, we are constantly asked to cultivate ideas and report them creatively and clearly and arts allows a strong base for learning and a background in applicable skills," he said.

Peter Godsoe, Western's chancellor and Cheif Executive Officer of the Bank of Nova Scotia agreed. "A BA allows for a breadth of knowledge and a broad understanding that goes beyond university and is applicable in all aspects of life. Without a strong base of understanding, it is nearly impossible to attempt to achieve this understanding after you enter the work world. Arts teaches essential skills such as critical thinking, intellectual elasticity, breadth in problem solving and flexibility – a strong foundation for any person in any job," he said.

Godsoe graduated from the University of Toronto with a BSc in math and physics and a Masters of Business Administration from Harvard. "I wish I had gotten an undergrad arts degree," he said. Liberal arts are so much better because they offer such a broad expanse of applicable knowledge. In such a complicated and changing world, the skills learned through arts are useful for a lifetime, whereas a degree such as one in computer science is so temporal, that the information learned is really only useful until you have to go and learn it all again as technology is continually changing."

The attitude of most students, Godsoe added, is influenced by the media, society and government, who each promote an attitude implying an arts degree is only a starting point in the education process, similar to the vision of a high school diploma.

In a meeting held last week by the chancellors of the Ontario universities, Godsoe said the results of a study which focused on the level of job entry after university were discussed. "The research showed that any degree from a university invariably leads to job placement within no longer than two years after graduation. Ninety per cent of degree holders are getting jobs within six months of graduation. These numbers alone prove that arts students are getting jobs, just as competitively as any other degree," he said.

"The attitude has changed so much since my era, with regard to arts degrees. In my time, [BAs] were the cornerstone of most universities and were held in such high regard. We must realize that in the corporate world, people are hired because they have intelligence and the competence to learn."

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Copyright The Gazette 1999