Bachelor of Arts, what is it good for?

Many of the problems we face today stem not from an abundance of useless arts degrees, but in fact too few. Every banker who believes this time will be different should be forced to take a history lesson and read Galbraith’s seminal book 'The Great Crash, 1929.'

John Roskam of the Institute of Public Affairs wrote a thought-provoking opinion piece published by The Australian Financial Review that is tantalisingly titled “Arts degrees are welfare in reverse.”  His argument is essentially that ungrateful arts students don’t know how lucky they are to have tax payers subsiding their useless degrees.

He wrote “It's not obvious why Australia needs more arts graduates anyway. Nearly a quarter of all students in higher education are enrolled in degrees in the field of society and culture.” He believes in the brave new world of a deregulated higher education sector, the market will decide what students want or need to study.

This is not only a terrible vocational way of looking at education, most importantly it is actually an indictment of Australia’s out-of-date business culture when it comes to recruiting graduates. It is timely to remind ourselves some of Australia’s top corporate titans studied these so-called useless degrees.

Gail Kelly, the chief executive of Westpac, cut her teeth not as a financial analyst but a teacher of the dead tongues of Cicero and Julius Caesar. Her second in command at the bank, Brian Hartzer, also read modern European history, no doubt a waste of time in the eyes of a utilitarian.

The highly respected chief executive of Telstra, David Thodey, undertook English literature and anthropology as a student. His customer-focused strategy might have been influenced by that early training as an anthropologist. Thodey’s old employer IBM is dead keen on recruiting classics graduates as well.

And a former chief executive of News Corp Australia, Kim Williams, studied classical music before he became a businessman.  While we are on the topic of media, two of the world’s best known economics and business commentators, Martin Wolf and Gillian Tett of Financial Times, studied classics and anthropology respectively.

The list goes on and on. It is even more pronounced internationally. I have lost count of how many senior American and British executives are trained in classics, philosophy and, god forbid, French literature. Mark Zuckerberg studied ancient Greek and Latin before he founded Facebook and Steve Jobs’ college calligraphy course inspired him to focus on the aesthetic of his products.

In Britain, the highly respected chartered accountant program, epitome of usefulness for our modern society, actually recruits people from all disciplines and that includes arts students. Head of recruitment at KPMG in Australia, Nikki Harrison said “In the UK, a lot of people study English, literature and history and they join the big accounting firms. We [Australians] are more conservative and more risk averse.”

Are we still saying arts degrees are useless?

Mr Roskam’s view is a sad reflection of a part of society and political establishment that see arts degrees as unnecessary luxuries without social utilities. In fact, a deeper and broader appreciation of history and culture is exactly what we need in the age of a globalised economy.

Grant Dooley, the Asia head at Hastings Funds Management and a former senior Australian diplomat, who just won a major mandate to jointly manage the Port of Newcastle with the Chinese Merchant Group, explains why.

Dooley, an Asian history major and Song Dynasty poetry aficionado, told Business Spectator his appreciation of Chinese history and trivial knowledge of Shanghai Green Gang during the 1920s helped him tremendously to build rapport with his Chinese partners and leading officials. If we want to stay on that utilitarian path, the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said one of the great strengths of the US education system was that it allows engineering and maths nerds to take humanities and social sciences courses to broaden their horizons. The cross-fertilisation of ideas and discipline is crucial to American innovation.

Last but not least, many problems we face today are not due to too many useless arts degrees, but in fact too few. The recently retired Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, said one big shortcoming of economic curricula was not enough attention to economic history. Every banker who believes this time will be different should be forced to read John Kenneth Galbraith’s seminal book "The Great Crash, 1929", which has never been out of print since it was first published in 1954.

The modern economy is a complex beast which requires input from a multitude of talents, including arts graduates. Multinational mining and energy companies need their exploration engineers as well as their political scientists and anthropologists who can help them to understand tribal politics as well as assessing geopolitical risks. Fund managers have to understand not only financials, but also appreciate the politics of emerging markets.

Arts degrees are not only essential to give us the broader education foundation we need to function as informed citizens, they are also indispensable to our modern economy. Mr Roskam should not have dismissed arts degrees so casually.