Why the arts and humanities matter, finding Phosphorescence and other stories about growing through adversity.
This week, the Federal Government announced a doubling of fees for arts, humanities, and law degrees. The intention was to bring about an “invisible hand” change in priorities for those thinking about university. It was not a surprising jab at disciplines that measure their success by how well they foster critical thinking.
As commentators note, it is doubtful that this will bring about meaningful change given students’ ability to defer paying their fees through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). In any event, it brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s description of cynics, being someone who:
“… knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.”
What are the jobs of the future anyway?
I recently had a chat with Nhung Vo, host of the Everyday People Podcast with Nhung Vo, on navigating education and making a difference with your career break.
I wanted to be a scientist at the end of high school—nothing less. As a geek kid who spent quite a fair bit of time around other geeky types, it seemed like the rational option.
In my first year of university, I knew that it wasn’t going to be the case. Trying to work out covalent bonds worked on atoms in advanced chemistry wasn’t floating my boat. And neither were the 4-hour lab report writing sessions after physics experiments.
Somewhat troublingly, I found that no one in my STEM classes ever questioned what they were learning. It was all theory, theory, theory. Chew it off, digest it whole. Then regurgitate it all in the exam. (They apparently break it to you in the final year that some of those theories aren’t quite representative of our current understanding.)
I didn’t expect to land in law. In fact, I went in the opposite direction after high school. Perhaps what you were always meant to do somehow hunts you down in the end.
Having sat across both sides of the so-called Humanities vs. STEM fence, I can say that a person’s ability to think critically—wherever you end up—is far more valuable than whichever side of the fence you might find yourself. For most of us, there is often no certainty about which subjects you’ll enjoy at university, let alone the kaleidoscopic career possibilities after. There is no static pathway to any career, which is why it’s so important to trust your gut and do what feels right for you.
Even then, finding the right area doesn’t mean that life is all hunky dory from that point onwards.
Phosphorescence is a delightful book by ABC presenter, Julia Baird, which I wish she had written some years earlier. It would have made a real difference if I had read it right after burning out at work while working as a lawyer in private practice.
Reading Julia’s book is like ingesting magic juice. She manages to bottle it up from the source of her experience. And it tastes really good. Most of all, Phosphorescence is a book about life and overcoming adversity to find your path.
“ … how do we continue to glow when the lights turn out? … All we can do really is keep placing one foot on the earth, then the other, to seek out ancient paths and forests, certain in the knowledge that others have endured before us. We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within — our own phosphorescence.”
— Julia Baird, Phosphorescence, page 281
A part of the book I strongly relate to is about drawing strength from all the lessons that you’ve ever learned when you’re at your lowest point:
“‘It’s now that everything that you have been given in your life matters; this is what you draw on. Your parents, your friends, your work, your books, everything you have ever been told, everything you have ever learned, this is when you use that.’”
— Julia Baird, Phosphorescence, page 11
This is why the arts and humanities have an important place. They centre our mind and ability to empathise with the marginalised, or question injustice. They give us the strength to comprehend the spectrum of human experience and solve problems through creativity. They give us visions of hope and a pathway to envision a future of possibilities. They are, alongside “rational” STEM, an important part of human endeavour. One does not exist without the other.
A case in point is Lisa Piccirillo, who solved a 50-year-old math problem in one week when the solution evaded everyone else:
‘When she first started studying mathematics in college, she didn’t stand out as a “standard golden child math prodigy,” said Elisenda Grigsby, one of Piccirillo’s professors at Boston College. Rather, it was Piccirillo’s creativity that caught Grigsby’s eye. “She believed very much in her own point of view, and always has.”‘
Burnout and finding the way out
When I experienced burnout—I can say that what I voraciously read (no less) and the arts, was what put my experience into perspective. Resilience is about taking those lessons and then reflecting on it. And of course, not making the same mistake again.
“We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”— John Dewey
The arts and humanities also give us resilience in the sense that they allow us to think critically and question given paradigms of thought. A common one in the legal world is—you can’t ever have a career break, because that will leave a questionable gap in your CV. It was advice that was dished out at me by an otherwise well-meaning lawyer.
Critical thinking is more important now than ever in a world of cookie-cutter career advice (“your options are 1 or 2”), confabulated truths, one-trick ponies and digital persuasion. There has never been a more important place for the arts and humanities than now.