I do not know John Roskam. I have never met him. He has been, and I quote from his bio, “Executive Director of the free market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs since 2004. Before joining the IPA he taught political theory at the University of Melbourne.”
On 6 June, he wrote a remarkably silly piece in the Australian Financial Review entitled Taxpayers Shouldn't Fund Arts Degrees. That’s not quite the title that appears in the Review, this appears to be “Arts degrees are welfare in reverse”, but I’m assuming the article is the same. It is, I suppose, the type of cant that I would expect from a political theorist of left or right. In saying that, I accept that the piece was meant to be provocative.
In responding, I want to focus on one thing, my own experience as a recruiter. What do I expect from someone with an Arts degree?
Most importantly, I expect them to be literate and articulate. Obviously I test that, You can no longer assume that anybody with a degree has either quality. In a world of mass education and short knowledge tests where most kids have to work while studying, literacy in particular can no longer be assumed. Writing, the capacity to write, remains important. If you can’t write, if you can’t express yourself, then there is a problem.
Next, I expect them to be able to talk about something that they have studied. I don’t care whether it’s Pope, Wright or Cicero, philosophy or history or English literature. The point is what have they learned, how have they approached it. Do they have the learning skills to address themselves to the job that I want them to do?
Then I look for curiosity, the capacity to think outside the box. I would expect this from Arts graduates, although the best in all fields of study will have the same characteristics.
My comments to this point have focused focused on Arts as a broad, generalist qualification. Obviously, if you want someone with specialist skills for a particular field such as law or accountancy you will focus in that area. With law firms, a key question is the capacity of the person to generate immediate billable hours. if I give you the work, can you do it? However, beyond that point the type of skills and abilities one expects of an Arts graduate are still important.
Law firms depend on their rain makers, the people who bring in the work. They depend, too, on the ability of their people to find new solutions to legal problems. This requires a capacity to think. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the first double degrees in Australia were in Arts/Law. Both field require different disciplines. The power lies in the combination.
Mr Roskam’s problem, as I see it, lies in the need of the political theorist to simplify, to ensure that things fit within his model. Marxism had similar problems, As I said, I thought that it was a remarkably silly piece. I stand to be corrected in debate. Am I wrong?