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Why We Should All Think More Like Arts Graduates

Dr Irena Yashin-Shaw PHD - Monday, September 28, 2015

Arts degrees have increasingly fallen out of favour in comparison to more vocationally oriented degrees. There a perception that an Arts degree is the ‘poor cousin’ to degrees such as business, engineering, architecture, law, accounting that articulate into specific professions. Yet Arts degrees nurture the very skills and capacities that help people to be good leaders and productive workers in a VUCA (Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex, Ambiguous) world. Their course of study is ideal for developing the very skills that contemporary workplaces are crying out for - critical thinking, effective communication, emotional intelligence, creative problem solving and perspective shifting.

However such skills are not as ‘visible’ or quantifiable as technical or vocational skills. When you train someone for a particular job they can demonstrate their competence by showing their skill. But when you are being taught to THINK, that is an internal process and more difficult to explicitly identify.

Years ago - in my previous life as an academic, I was Senior Research Fellow on a project that helped undergraduate humanities students to appreciate the value of their academically acquired Arts knowledge in their part-time work. They were able to identify many ‘invisible’ skills and benefits that they regularly used in their work. As full time students working part-time, they were in jobs such as carers and community assistance workers; wait staff and other roles in hospitality; check-out personnel in supermarkets; junior admin. The research uncovered many ways that their arts studies enhanced their workplace performance. Here are some examples of what students said.

  • "A humanities student has always ‘got conversation’ because of the broad knowledge base they have acquired through their studies. So you can facilitate better workplace relationships by talking to people about what you know they are interested in."
  • "It’s that big thinking! I’ve learnt not to adopt just one particular approach to something. It’s about being more flexible and having the ability to appreciate that there are several different perspectives to a situation. It’s the ability to question."
  • "I am able to discuss different cultures with some of the elderly people I work with. I am helping to look after one gentleman who is Ukrainian. He was so pleased to be able to have discussions with me about the history and politics of his homeland."
  • "I can relate to customers better especially if they’re from a different culture. I am now aware of differences and how to handle those differences better than I could have before."
  • "My communication skills have improved so I am able to communicate on a higher level and deal with different kinds of people. In my job I have to deal with the mechanic up to the managing director, so being able to communicate well both orally and in writing on all levels is something I’m learning in my Arts course."
  • "The cognitive skills I’ve learnt enable me to look at situations with a wider perspective. The same answer is not going to fix every problem. The best analogy I’ve got would be playing a game of chess where you have to look at the whole board, not just individual squares. Being able to see the big picture has come from the courses I’ve taken. I am able to solve problems more quickly which means not so much down time - which is good from a business point of view."
  • "I am able to go beyond the standard scripting of the call centre to help customers solve problems. We don’t have to do that - so it’s going beyond the requirements of my job. I’ve modified things a little to suit customer’s needs without breaking the rules. Things aren’t so black and white."

These students were well practiced in analysing information from different points of view and in different contexts. They were used to developing responses to problems which were not clear cut with right or wrong answers. They demonstrated strategic thinking skills, relationship and rapport building skills, insight, sensitivity, advocacy and intelligent problem-solving with complex and ill-defined issues. Workplaces today would welcome more of these capacities in their leaders and in their workforce.

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