It’s time to deflate the stigma surrounding the frowned-upon, yet popular BA degree. Here, BA graduate Devan reflects on his previous misconceptions of the degree, and on how important BA graduates are to society as a whole.
I studied towards a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree at Stellenbosch University, and today I’m really proud of saying so. With some shame, however, I have to admit that there was a time when I was embarrassed to tell people that – a time when I succumbed to the BA stigma, or general perception of the Humanities faculty.
The reality is that many young current and prospective BA students feel the same way now as I did then. There’s an elephant in the room, and I’m going to attempt to put it to rest. BA degrees are as important to society as every other degree out there, and no existing argument can justify why they are seen as inferior whatsoever to any other degree.
The BA Stigma
We have sadly been indoctrinated with a hierarchy of subjects: Maths and Science being the most important; the Arts and Drama being the least important. This is a stereotype that I feel few would deny, and this isn’t just my opinion; the very fact that a subject like Maths is compulsory at school, whilst Drama and the Arts are electives, pretty much directly supports this statement. I think this mindset has extended into university with the types of degrees that we end up studying. In other words, we rank degrees on a hierarchy of ‘importance’.
There is a general stigma surrounding the importance and overall impression of undertaking a Humanities degree, specifically a Bachelor of Arts. The general perception is that it’s considered an ‘easy’ option, which few ‘smart’ students opt for. The so-called called ‘bugger all’ degree apparently fails to equip students with a set of skills that are valuable and of effective use in the working world.
How untrue and, quite honestly, insulting.
At the beginning of my studies, I fell victim to this stigma. I must admit, I felt inferior more than a couple of times throughout my university career, mostly when starting out.
The majority of my friends were studying degrees in areas like Engineering, Commerce, Health Sciences, and Architecture; the courses that were designed for the students who excelled at school (I justify this because they are often the toughest courses to get accepted into).
While my friends were learning about Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, I was learning about governance. They would get lost in long, technical equations trying to solve some real world phenomenon; I was lost in a forty-page article discussing the myriad of challenges of gender inequality. They were learning how to design groundbreaking buildings and use rigorous computer modeling software; I was busy arguing why Karl Marx changed the world. I felt I wasn’t learning anything of importance.
Boy, with hindsight I cringe at how wrong I was.
BA – Getting Skilled for Life
Looking back, I wouldn’t change a single thing about my studies. I’d study a BA degree again and again if I had a time machine. I’ve come to the strong realisation that the skills I learnt during my studies stood me in great stead to establish a fulfilling career, something that I would struggle to advance in otherwise.
At the end of the day, the purpose of any degree is to teach students to think in a certain way. It teaches you a set of fundamentals, which you later apply to your profession, in whatever field that may be.
Unfortunately, too many people feel that a BA degree is more about ‘ticking the boxes’ of receiving a degree than actually learning a powerful set of skills that we can take with us into the workplace. I disagree completely.
If you are looking into studying towards a BA degree, here are some of the skills you can expect to gain. I certainly did.
1. You learn to write well.
Writing is a skill. Hands down, period. It’s something that doesn’t come naturally to us. We may know how to write, but we battle to write in an effective form of communication.
Studying a BA degree nurtures our unique writing style that we develop over time. It allows us to pinpoint our strengths and weaknesses, and affords us the opportunity to work hard on improving them. As the journey of a BA degree endures, we essentially end up with a personalised, unique writing style and there’s definitely something powerful about that.
2. It teaches you to formulate arguments.
Some people have brilliant ideas, arguments, or thoughts, but find it extremely difficult to express these on paper. Combining such ideas with the ability to write well allows us to convince others.
While studying towards a BA degree, we are constantly encouraged and challenged to express our thoughts and ideas on paper, even if it goes against mainstream ideas. In fact, for most of our BA degree, there aren’t correct answers to essay questions, and we’re exclusively evaluated on our ability to formulate and justify arguments.
It’s also important to mention that formulating arguments is hugely advantageous not only for writing but also talking. Whether we’re in the boardroom or with our loved ones, it’s certainly a desired skill to have when getting involved in a debate of some sort, and getting to the point of an issue.
3. You learn to speed-read & absorb large chunks of information.
If there’s one thing I remember from my years of being a BA student, it’s the countless essays we had to read. Long, 20-page research papers were part and parcel of daily life; sometimes we would be required to read them simply for a single lecture.
I used to dread reading all those papers on Karl Marx, social justice, and public management, and thinking,
“Why am I reading this???”
But as the years went on, reading these long pieces became easier. I was subliminally developing the wonderful skills of speed-reading coupled with strong comprehension. I failed to realise it at the time, but I was actually learning a valuable, career-enhancing skill: the ability to absorb large chunks of information, and extract the important messages; the ‘golden thread’.
Since leaving university, I’ve had to read long, tedious pieces of work, especially policies, articles, and books. Having the ability to read quickly without compromising on comprehension has been a huge advantage and something I’ve depended on for meeting tight deadlines.
4. You become neither a specialist nor a generalist, but a balance of the two.
In the past, it was found to be highly advantageous to become a specialist in your field of work. In today’s world, however, it seems to be more and more beneficial to have a broader set of skills, instead of being too narrow-minded. The same argument goes that being too much of a generalist can leave you struggling to cope in the fast-paced working world.
By studying a BA, you get the best of both worlds: you don’t become too specialised or generalised; you leave with a balance. This is especially important if you decide to work for yourself or in a team .
Another way to look at it is like this: don’t be an expert in one thing; rather create a unique combination of skills in which you are really good – and when you put them together, it creates something unique and invaluable.
I think if you can become a generalist and a specialist at the same time, then you’ve got a really strong recipe for success in today’s ever-evolving world.
This combo allows you to zone in on one particular interest whilst still having a broad understanding of the others.
That leads us onto my final point.
5. You learn to connect the dots. I’ve been reading a lot of Malcolm Gladwell lately, and I find his work truly incredible. He is one of the few writers who are able to brilliantly piece together findings from different fields of study and combine them in fascinating ways; in other words, ‘connecting the dots’.
In his book David and Goliath, Gladwell explains how a highly inexperienced, unskilled sports team can easily rise to the occasion and beat a considerably more skilled team (think of Japan beating the Springboks at last year’s Rugby World Cup – bleh). His arguments take various ideas from his research into behavioural economics, sport psychology, human culture, and modern business. Very diverse fields of study, I’d say, yet by ‘connecting the dots’ he is able to present a compelling and convincing argument (he refers to this argument as the ‘disadvantage of an advantage, and the advantage of a disadvantage’).
In the Japan vs. Springboks argument, the Japanese players made the most of their size (‘disadvantage’), by using their speed and agility as an advantage. In rugby, and especially South African rugby, we usually think of size as an advantage, but they thought otherwise – and they beat us (ahh, it still hurts thinking of it!).
When studying a BA, you slowly but surely figure out how to connect the theory from one field of study to some other field of study, much like Gladwell does in his books. You’re taught to think creatively and identify these amazing connections.
Pumping Things Back Up
I am by no means suggesting that other degrees neglect or fail to address the above-mentioned points. They most certainly do. I speak from my own personal experience studying a BA, and I am well aware that other degrees possess certain advantages that many BA degrees do not.
However, these above-mentioned skills lie at the very core of any BA degree; they are why BAs were devised in the first place. But clearly somewhere along the line our perceptions skewed and we stopped viewing these skills as skills.
At the end of the day, a degree teaches you two things: skills and knowledge, and each degree teaches you a balance of these two. Some degrees focus more on the hard set of skills, like specific types of construction (e.g. welding). Others strike a seemingly 50/50 balance, like Medicine (practical work as well as thorough scientific knowledge). Others in turn grant you with abundant knowledge, but don’t necessarily leave you with a set of hard skills – according to the stigma, at least. It seems to be the category in which BAs (falsely) fall.
Too many people believe that BA degrees are skill-less, and merely teach you knowledge. The truth, however, is that BAs uniquely equip you with both of these advantages equally, because the above points I’ve discussed are, to me, most certainly skills that are often overlooked, and skills that are so valuable to the modern world.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
I hope that I have managed to deflate the infamous BA stigma. If I haven’t, then my unique writing style and my ability to formulate arguments and communicate them effectively – all the things I feel my BA degree taught me, and the reason behind this article – have failed dismally.
Then, well, perhaps I’ve misinterpreted all along what I think I’ve learnt. As they say, the proof is in the pudding – you decide.
If you want to get a better idea of what a BA has to offer, what subjects and fields of study you can choose, as well as how to distinguish a General BA from a BA in Social Sciences, check out our undergraduate Humanities overview.