I Studied History And Can’t Find A Job: In Defence Of The Arts Degree

“To study and not think is a waste; to think and not study is dangerous.”


I came to Berlin looking for a job. Really, I came to Germany to look for a job. I just happened to come to Berlin as the first stop because it’s the biggest city.

But finding a job has turned out to be exceedingly difficult. I have been contacting different companies and organisations for months now, and have received approximately sixty refusals. Why? Why is it so goshdang difficult to find a job in this world?

The thing that’s really bothering me is the wording in the refusals. They always say, “Sorry, you don’t meet all the requirements to get a job with us”. Usually, an entry-level job these days requires me to have more years of experience than I have even been alive, so of course I won’t have enough experience for them. And I’m receiving these even from companies who have very low expectations.

For example, this morning, I was refused for a coat check position because I didn’t meet their minimum requirements. COAT CHECK. I have a degree with above satisfactory marks from the best school in Canada and the 17th best in the world and I’m being refused by coat check at an art museum.

So why is it so difficult for me to find a job? Many instantly say it is my degree.

All three and a half years at McGill I constantly heard and constantly joked about the same thing, namely that arts students would end up jobless. One person even said to me, “You know, in arts degrees, you don’t really learn anything useful but you learn lots of the like soft skills and stuff”.

Let us go through this statement, shall we?

“You don’t really learn anything useful”: I’m sorry, I thought that a degree that taught me how the world ended up the way it is and why it functions the way it does in the present would be considered useful. While everyone else is confused about whether the Russians did this or that, I can guess with relative certainty whether they did it, and why there is a precedent for them doing so, and why they might do something similar again, and how to respond in a way that the Russians understand.

“You learn lots of like the soft skills and stuff”: Yes, and one of those skills (which most of us in arts pick up) is how to express yourself without using ‘like’ and ‘and stuff’. It took me two years to become a decent writer, because my degree forced me to write term papers constantly. It took me a semester to become a good presenter, since I had to be in front of  a class often, and sometimes in foreign languages. So there are a great deal of soft skills which I did learn, yes, and which many in my degree never will learn. I often laughed at science students for their inability to express themselves on paper in a clear and coherent fashion, but there are many, many history students and political science students who still speak and write as if they are in the third grade.

And beyond that, there is the freaking information of the courseload. I didn’t study for four years to get a piece of paper that said I had done so and to get some mysterious soft skills; I went to do both of those things and learn about history. To discount the information one learns in such degrees as “useless” is a gross generalisation. Sure, knowing about the Turkish-Venetian Wars is not something I use every day, and I have forgotten a lot of the information about it for that reason. But when similar events occur in the present, I can guess pretty accurately what is going to happen next. And it’s damned interesting to know what happened in these Wars just for the sake of knowing. People forget far too often that there is almost no useless information.

Let me qualify all this with a thought I had a few months ago. Two of my best friends at McGill (shout-out to you guys) were a political science major and a philosophy major. The thought process for the three of us was starkly different, and I’ll explain how. The philosophy major thinks of the world in perfect and imperfect states, and analyses it according to his own principles and those of incomprehensible Germans and Frenchmen. The political science major thinks of the world as structural entities, all competing, and analyses it by throwing together a bunch of theories to synthesise them based on what has occurred before. Then the history major sees the world as a chronology, a series of events, and analyses them based on one or two narratives, with the help of the literature and arts of the time. These three thought processes, when fused together, seemed to be able to determine exactly why anything you could mention would occur, and would answer questions of human nature, political process, and historical implication. Our ability to synthesise and extract from the world seemed dangerously powerful, but that’s just a soft skill so it’s useless.

So now that we’ve taken care of that quote, let’s get on to other business, shall we?

Why did I take history if I knew I had no clear job afterwards, like engineers and chemists do? Glad you asked. To put it bluntly, I wanted to have a life. When I was a lot younger, I wanted to be an engineer and then work for the Lego Company. I went to a math and science high school. I admire the sciences, and I envy my friends in sciences to some degree for their sense that everything is cut-and-dry, but at the same time I probably would have hanged myself after a semester of being “weeded-out” like they do in all those programmes. They all seem to exist just to make the lives of the students difficult. And science is not as constantly exciting as they make it seem in movies, either. It’s months and years of guesswork, trials, experiments, and other gruntwork that almost never reaches a clear conclusion, even if successful, and can be overturned the next day.

By contrast, in history, they really just want you to learn what you are supposed to. In poli sci, the profs can be a bit more annoying and have their heads too far up their butts to be heard during their lectures, but generally their only hope is that you learn something and can think critically. The information is presented, and if you can memorise it, restate it cohesively, and argue for or against interpretations of it, you’re golden. You have to read a few thousand pages a week, yes, but eventually it becomes normal. So yes, I took a slightly easier way out in that I didn’t want as much work as science seemed to be, or at least I wanted a different kind of work.

So why didn’t I do business, then? Well, to be honest, it all looks fishy to me. The more I watch documentaries on financial crises and the structures of businesses (and not just documentaries that are against all this cronyism), and the more I spend hours poring over Wikipedia trying to wrap my head round ‘margins’ and ‘credit risk payments’ and things, the more I wonder why all of this isn’t illegal. If someone came up to me and tried to offload some assets on me the way these people do, I would never take the deal. To put it another way, it seems like these people have invented an awful lot of ways to make money out of thin air, money that doesn’t actually exist, then bind it all together, pretend they all have it, and then actually never receive any of it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just beyond me. But corporate business, especially investment banking, seems as if they are contrary to all human sense of morality and common sense.

I also didn’t want to study business because of the culture. McGill is known for having a business school culture that breeds enmity and keeps the students at each other’s throats. They think that the entire world is a dog-eat-dog system, in which only the worst of mankind ever achieve anything useful, namely acquiring a lot of green pieces of cotton and paper mix, and anyone with some sort of a heart loses. The fact is that there are genuinely kind humans who still exist, and that at some point, some people become content with what they have. There are enough digits in the sum in their bank account and they decide that enough is enough. Not everyone has to have dangerously virulent ambition, and the world doesn’t have to be as cutthroat as they want it to be. Those who cannot accept these truths, sometimes, end up like ENRON and Lehman Brothers. And the others get away with it.

I would also like to discuss the valour of an arts degree in and of itself at this point.

A few weeks ago, I was at a party in the US. A guy with dreadlocks down to his butt and a hemp shirt was bragging to one of my friends about the success he’s been having in his work. He works for JP Morgan or something as a computer programmer. The only word that came to mind when I analysed him was ‘smug’. If any of you have seen the South Park episode on smugness in San Francisco, think of that; for those of you who haven’t, refer to the .gif. I tried to save my friend by interrupting and asking if she had seen someone round or something like that, but he, to my horror, attempted to talk to me. He asked me what I studied, I responded honestly, and his face instantly turned into some sort of twisted smile, as if he realised he had some sort of power over me. He began to ask me why I never studied programming. I responded that I wanted to study something interesting, eager to make his skin crawl. He looked at me, pretending not to be somewhat disappointed I wasn’t fawning at his success, and said, “Well, if you ever want to learn, let me know”. I had a coup d’escalier a few minutes later, and wished I had said, “Yeah, congratulations on being trained for the job market and nothing else”.

(from Giphy)

Why go to university only to be trained for the job market? Yes, the idea that a university degree was going to help me get a job later was a major factor in my decision. But there is no reason to waste four years drudging through all that if it’s just to get a job staring at a screen all day while the people in the offices a few floors up make billions wrecking the global financial system.

The general arts degree, if you are willing to put in a little work on the side, will also allow you to learn a great deal more than what applies merely to your degree. In history courses, great pieces of art and literature of a monumental nature are mentioned constantly. Scientific advances are of the utmost importance to the development of certain political movements or certain wars or what have you. So I decided early on I’d try to understand as much of the sideshow as I could. I began self-studying art history, to the point that a friend or two in art history has been surprised at how specific my knowledge was. I began reading profusely, as can be seen in another blog post, whether it be literature, science, art, architecture, philosophy, or mathematics. In one summer, I read more than thirty books on virtually every topic I could find. This have given me the ability to get along with just about anyone and to have a much broader comprehension of what causes the world to function the way it does. Why does Putin act the way he does in foreign policy? Perhaps because of Russian avantgarde theatre techniques. Was Hitler just a failed artist who took his fury out on the world? Perhaps, to the contrary, he was a “more sinister artist, whose materials were men” (Isaiah Berlin). Such an ability to contrast and assemble information into a beautiful whole is something one learns only in an arts degree and only with special efforts on his own part.

Sciences, on the other hand, are much more specialised. They give you a track you must follow and from which you must not deviate. This sort of tunnel vision, I find, leads to a much slimmer understanding of the world. Science students, from what I have seen, have trouble writing clearly and cohesively. Science students often know very much about their own subject, but very little about anything else. And it’s rather sad, really. Think of the great scientists like Leibniz, known for his scientific and philosophical theories; of Zamyatin, an engineer as well as one of the first dystopian writers; of Erasmus Darwin, the botanist and zoologist who was a phenomenal poet and coined many of the words we used to this day. Science has done exactly the opposite of what Plato hoped, falling into ever more cordoned-off disciplines that refuse to allow anything extraneous or unquantifiable into their reach.

Similarly, business programmes seem as well to be inimical to anything of a finer sort, since that softens one. This reminds me of Lenin, who refused to play chess, since it might make him weak (he liked to act like a real tough guy). If they do allow any sort of cultural exchange, it is seen as a business strategy and a way to get on the other party’s good side before you crush them. That’s the sort of vibe I receive from these people.

But still, many think that the arts degree won’t get you a job in spite of all of its own innate benefits and the possible detriments of other fields of study. I realised some of the problem may be my cover letter, so I’m trying a different format. But then again, it takes time for anyone to find a job. I have been in a new country for three weeks and am frustrated I haven’t been swept off my feet by someone. My mother felt the same way, and only in the past few days have we come to terms with the fact that this takes time. I know I will find something eventually, and that someone will appreciate my skills, both accredited and unaccredited.

I also reminded my parents of a quote I heard from someone else, even though he was discussing law school: “In law school the A students become professors, since they have the strongest grip on the theories and can explain them; the B students become judges, since they hate academia, want to practise law, and will push the discipline forward; and the C students will make millions being lawyers.” There is so much more to making vast sums of cash, namely the ability to mould humankind’s progression and its advancement. And this comes with a much lower salary, which is supplemented by true achievement. So I have to keep reminding myself that just because I am being refused for these terrible jobs,  there might be something much more important down the line. The job search depends entirely upon being in the right place at the right time. And all I have is time.

The arts degree is perhaps the only fully inclusive course of study still available. It forces one to think for himself, to express what he has learnt and to contrast it with what he knew already, to analyse the forces guiding his life and the lives of others, and to find the most profound use of his time possible by experiencing and learning as much as possible in as many different disciplines as possible.


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