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For the joy of it

By Shira Sebban - posted Monday, 24 June 2013


Whatever happened to learning for the sheer joy of it? To embark on a quest out of curiosity and to savour the journey, motivated by a deep love of learning?

As Christopher B Nelson, president of St John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, has said: "The reward of learning simply for the sake of learning itself is a kind of fulfilment we call happiness. And this happiness is something we should want for all … students" (www.acenet.edu).

Yet, today, knowledge is becoming more "commodified". You can get a degree in almost anything, from professional nannying and auctioneering to clowning, paranormal studies and UFOs, and every institution seems to be at pains to tell you how useful your studies will be in helping you advance along a rewarding career path.

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Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say. Obviously, we all need to earn a living, and it certainly helps if you can do so in a meaningful and enjoyable way, especially after paying considerable sums of money preparing for the privilege. Indeed, job fulfilment is ostensibly more important to Gen Y (aka Millenniums or Millennials) than it has been to any previous generation. Nevertheless, learning for learning's sake seems to have little to do with the whole process.

I recently attended a Year 10 subject selection night at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) with my teenage son, where we discovered more than 300 degrees on offer – students can nominate up to nine they would like to study – each accompanied by a list of associated career opportunities.

Amongst the myriad of documentation we collected was a Parent Information Guide, which told us in bold yellow print: "It's time for your child to leave high school behind and take their first steps towards a rewarding career". Studying at UNSW, it maintained, could "give them the best launchpad into the rest of their lives".

No mention of love of learning here. The closest we got was a paragraph in the parent guide, encouraging us to ask our children what subjects they "enjoy" as a way of helping them to discover "degrees that match their abilities". Meanwhile, we were bombarded with statistics about how UNSW graduates "are in high demand from employers" and "are in the top 5% for median starting salaries".

While career paths for the more practical degrees, such as actuarial studies or optometry, are quite evident, others are far more vague. Those interested in an Arts degree, for example, of which I myself am a proud holder, are told: "Students in the humanities and social sciences learn a wide range of skills that open up many career opportunities. No other course of study provides you with the same combination of broad intellectual growth, skills development in research and analysis, the ability to communicate effectively and the capacity to think critically about the global environment we live in."

Certainly all most valuable skills to acquire. Although not pointing to specific jobs, the desire to appear useful and therefore attractive to potential Arts students is obvious. And with good reason. In 2012, only about 76 per cent of new bachelor degree graduates from Australian institutions had found full-time employment within four months of completing their tertiary studies (www.graduatecareers.com.au). In other words, one-in-four students had not, and guess who they were most likely to be?

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Nothing much seems to have changed in that regard since I graduated more than 20 years ago: Arts, and for that matter, Science graduates are often compelled to search long and hard for meaningful entry into the Australian work place, with many employers favouring more obvious and practical skills, such as those offered by a medical, accounting or engineering degree. There is even a Know Your Worth chart measured by how many burgers a young graduate can buy with their starting salary! Newly fledged dentists are in first place with more than 21,000 burgers, leaving those humanities graduates fortunate enough to find employment languishing in their wake on a paltry 12,000.

I can still recall the days when as a newly married, 20-something graduate, I moved from Melbourne to Brisbane. Armed with a French Honours degree with a major in philosophy, I was keen to find work, only to be met by the blank stares of my prospective Queensland employers. How I wished I lived in the more open-minded United Kingdom, where philosophy graduates were sought after banking employees! As it was, unless I wanted to be a teacher or agreed to leave my husband and move to Canberra to take up a job in the public service, there seemed little hope for me.

Today, philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Melbourne, is a shadow of what it used to be and has merged with history. Indeed, many subjects, particularly from the liberal arts, are disappearing precisely because they are no longer attracting students in large numbers, at least not the all-important, full-fee-paying international ones, and so are no longer seen as financially viable. Gender Studies, for example, is gradually being eliminated from many Australian universities, as are various history courses, religion, linguistics and foreign languages, the number of which being taught has more than halved over the past decade.

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About the Author

Shira Sebban is a Sydney writer and editor. A former journalist with the Australian Jewish News, Shira previously taught French at the University of Queensland and worked in publishing. She is also a director on the board of her children's school.

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