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Stop apologising for your arts degree

Madeleine Dore

How do you convince the skeptics that your degree in humanities counts?
Stop apologising for your arts degree

Stand out with an arts degree. Image via

After revealing you study humanities, arts students are all too familiar with being shot a confused look followed by the firing of denigrating questions about their decision – ‘How do you plan to get a job after your degree?’, ‘What does an arts degree even teach you?’, ‘Are you just buying time while you figure out what you actually want to do with your life?' 

Humanities 21 – a non-for-profit organisation championing the benefits of the humanities – set up a panel discussion as part of Melbourne Knowledge Week to crystallise why you should stop apologising for your arts degree, and start singing its praises.

Chair Hannie Rayson, the author of fourteen plays including Hotel Sorrento, and panellists Karen Hitchcock and Lisa Gorton, candidly discussed how their humanities backgrounds helped their careers, along with the benefits an underpinning in the arts can bring to all aspects of commercial and contemporary life.


A humanities degree can take you anywhere
Contrary to the unfair branding of an arts degree being ‘useless’ and ‘leading nowhere,’ studying the humanities can lead to a variety of vocations, including medicine.

Hitchcock studied arts at LaTrobe in the early 90s', and is now a full-time specialist physician at a major hospital in Melbourne, and a columnist for the Monthly. Despite complete ignorance of the sciences as an arts graduate, Hitchcock was accepted into the graduate medical program at Newcastle University.  

‘I had never thought I would be a doctor... the thought never crossed my mind until somebody said you can be a doctor with a humanities degree,’ said Hitchcock.

You become well versed in interdisciplinary teamwork
Gorton, a poet, essayist and fiction writer, relished being able to work with students across a variety of disciplines.

‘At University, I was really lucky to have a set of friends from different areas.

‘One of the things I thought was really good about the humanities is how you enter into conversations with all these different spheres… you were not just closed in one stream of learning,’ said Gorton.

You keep company with the Greats
A humanities degree has kept Hitchcock humble and embedded a thirst for knowledge.

‘I think the thing I learned from my humanities degree that I was a very, very small unimportant person in a huge history of geniuses that know more than me, and I can always turn to them.’

Being in the company of such genius keeps you curious. ‘I felt really inspired by the history of humanity and consciousness... I felt not-alone,’ said Hitchcock.

You learn to question everything

Studying the humanities helps to unlock a special kind of knowledge and ‘create a special kind of thinker, helping people to fulfill their potential and lead flourishing lives.’

Balancing being a doctor and a writer, Hitchcock credits her humanities degree for giving her a ‘sense of standing outside.’

‘When I’m in the hospital, I am definitely 100% a doctor. But when I come home I am outside of that and thinking about what’s going on.

‘I read widely, and there are lots of influence in my thinking,’ said Hitchcock.

Rayson agreed that an arts degree helped her be ‘suspicious of certainty.’

'Nothing is ever black and white, and the development of analytical thinking can protect you from evangelical thinking,' added Hitchcock.

‘Now, more than ever, the world needs these kinds of people. The dismissing of the humanities is both an unwise and costly mistake,’ said Peter Acton, President of Humanities 21.

You build emotional intelligence
Studying humanities helps you to develop emotional literacy, and an ability to read what someone else is feeling and also control what you are feeling.

‘I don’t think that reading or writing necessary makes someone a better person, but I do think it makes us a better community,’ said Gorton.

Hitchcock said that emotional intelligence is often something we are born with, but in many ways is something that can also be developed. ‘I think that what it [humanities] would hone in someone is an ability to see what is beneath the surface.

‘I don’t think a humanities degree absolutely guarantees that you will have that sort of view on human life, and I don’t think the lack of it means you can’t have it,’ said Hitchcock.

Culture is shaped, formed and developed by the humanities
Rayson assured arts students their knowledge and work is not pointless, rather it is fundamental to shaping our society.

‘There is this total sense that the culture is still being created. It is a growing organic business and you are shaping it. And there can be nothing more inspiring than knowing, “I am not the person who is the last on the pile of tortoises, I am not a person in a static culture full of convention, but someone who is making a moving, breathing thing.”’   

Gorton expressed concern about a world without a growing culture and its impact on national identity. Even locally, the impact the arts has had on the development of the City of Melbourne is undeniable.

‘Look at the development of the laneways, it was sphere headed by artists. The arts mesh with Melbourne in all sorts of interesting ways.

‘But there is a discrepancy in the rhetoric in how important the arts is…. And in the pay,’ said Gorton.

You are able to help others articulate their thoughts
Gorton often works with people who can write, but are unaware of how to use writing as a way of thinking.

‘I think we find it hard to define that as a skill in Australia. We would be much more comfortable to say that a sports person who trains six hours a day will become good at that sport. But there is just a mechanism and a sense for a language that you just get better at.

‘What you can help with is organising thoughts before people start writing.’

You only have one life
When the panel was asked how to communicate the value of an arts degree, Hitchcock left the audience with a poignant reminder. 

‘It depends what you mean by valuable. Can I just say you only have one life. What do you want to do with it? It was so wonderful to just have all those years of reading and thinking and writing… it was an amazing experience.’

In the words of Mary Oliver, ‘What are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?’

About the author

Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of the interview project Extraordinary Routines. She is the previous Deputy Editor at ArtsHub and dedicated to communities that encourage entrepreneurial and artistic careers. Follow her on Twitter at @RoutineCurator