In Defense of the BA

April 29, 2008

Paul here –

This morning, as I tuned in to hear Toronto radio legend Andy Barrie’s dulcet tones on Metro Morning, I was intrigued to find I had chanced upon yet another iteration of the classic debate over the value of a B.A. Barrie (who did a B.A. in Theatre at Dartmouth) was staging a debate between Donald Ainslie, the chair of the Department of Philosophy at U of T, and Tony Chan, an associate professor of Communications at the University of Washington. You can guess who stood on what side.

You can also likely predict the parameters of the discussion. Ainslie was talking about how philosophy grads (and humanities grads in general) are taught how to think rather than enact a specific skill; that they learn critical thinking, which equips them for a myriad of jobs beyond McDonald’s (despite what Queen’s Commerce students may chant at Football games); and that a number of rather well-healed business types in this country still look back on their time in Kant lectures without regret. Mr. Chan, on the other hand, derided Ainslie’s argument as indicative of an archaic and conservative educational model. He argued in favour of programs that focussed on specific, practical, and marketable skills.

But just because I could have written out both arguments almost verbatim before the program began doesn’t mean I didn’t welcome it on the public airwaves. As more and more of my friends leave the fetid couches of Bachelor degreedom and realize they need to rush off and nab a community college diploma to ensure their hirability, the value of the B.A. is being seriously eroded.

In large part, this is the B.A.’s fault. The Bachelors degree is the high school degree of the 21st century because standards have plummeted and most now see it as the reward for surviving alcohol poisoning in third year. This is sad for those who take their studies in the humanities seriously, because who wants to go into debt to get something no one in the outside world will value?

But fault also lies with those doing the hiring. While you may save the money required to train someone who appears to have done little beside tackle with political science, literature, or history for four years, are you really unable to see the value of having that person on your side longer down the line?

Okay, so yes, perhaps the worry is that said graduate will not be with you several years down the line. Good point, good point. In this day and age, we do tend to flitter and flutter about, scouting out the better deal, the tastier salary, and the greater opportunity for “personal fulfilment.” Point taken. Quite a conundrum that.

Here’s all I can say to the argument made by Mr. Chan on today’s program – the one that states that the philosophy degree is old and largely worthless. It’s a two part answer actually: Margot Franssen and David Pecault.

Don’t know what I’m going on about. Okay, I’ll tell you.

Margot Franssen is the former founding partner and president of Body Shop Canada. Nowadays, she runs Accessorize and sits on the board of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. She’s an Officer of the Order of Canada and all that. What did she study? Philosophy. Funny that. She tried to go to Business school, but after a few weeks she felt bored and uninspired. One day she met a guy sitting on a bench on campus. When she asked him what he studied and he said “philosophy”, Franssen wasn’t entirely sure what that was. But she dropped out of business and wrestled with problems of existence and truth for a few years. She knew it was a risk, that it promised her nothing, that she was throwing her money away. But she did it anyway. And when she came out, she was armed with the drive and the ethical framework to fly to England, ask for the Canadian rights to Body Shop, and proceed to make it one of the most progressive and successful arms of the companny in the world.

David Pecaut is the Iowa-born Senior Vice-President of the Boston Consulting group who Toronto Life magazine has called the city’s “Shadow Mayor“. He’s behind the Toronto City Summit Alliance and the Luminato Festival. He’s a versatile mind with a strong civic sense – the kind of guy who balances with striking economic competence with a desire to do good. And what did he do his degree in? Economics? Management? A specific degree tailored to the job market? Hell no. He did a BA in Sociology followed by a Phd. in the Philosophy of Music. He still got a job as a consultant on the other end. Hell, they were intrigued.

Does simply mentioning the career paths of too successful people somehow negate the argument that doing a specialized degree increases your chances of getting a good job and pushing your career forward? Of course not. But a BA is not solely a pre-requisite for law school, politics, or teaching. It provides a grounding for how we act (history), how we communicate (literature), how we organize (sociology) and how we are in the first place (philosophy). That has value.

I don’t want to say that such degrees “teach you how to think” because that’s a cliche and as a writer I’m meant to hate cliches. But, when taught right and given a proper chance, a BA forces you to engage with the world in a way that no specialized program does.

Does that mean I don’t think bringing practical skills from the world of employment into the classroom has any value? Of course not. It just means that, despite the devaluation the Bachelor’s Degree, I’m not going to recommend anyone bypass it.

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