‘Intellectual kete’ part of BA makeover

Actor and BA graduate Antonia Prebble is part of the BA myth-busting video series

Myths about the BA (Bachelor of Arts) are being confronted head-on by Massey University, which is championing the degree as the ideal training for graduates facing a world of unparalleled complexity, change and uncertainty. As well as a 'myth-busting' video series featuring Massey BA graduates actor Antonia Prebble and comedian Jeremy Corbett, Massey has re-calibrated the BA with distinctive new elements.

The addition of a new ‘intellectual kete’ of core papers in 2016 exploring citizenship and identity in New Zealand and globally is a response to fast-changing realities of the 21st century, from the impact of technology – including robotics and increased automation – on jobs, to climate change, terrorism, migration, the quality of political debate and the influence of social media on everything. It’s also a way of championing the intrinsic worth of a degree that nurtures critical, creative thinkers vital to a healthy democracy and economy, says Professor Richard Shaw, who is spearheading a “refresh” of the BA, the first university in New Zealand to do so.

For hundreds of years all around the world, universities have been offering the BA precisely for the purposes of expanding people’s intellectual universes, says Professor Shaw. “That’s our job, that’s what we’re supposed to do – expose students to things they would not otherwise have known existed.”

Getting over the fixation with degrees that ‘sound like a job’

As Massey’s – and likely the country’s – first tertiary director dedicated to promoting the Bachelor of Arts, he knows it’s no longer ‘business as usual’ for any university degree, and particularly one that “doesn’t sound like a job.”

That characteristic alone – not sounding like a job – has historically triggered disdain. Such a reaction is unwarranted, says Professor Shaw. “It’s never been the case that a BA is irrelevant to the job market – in fact, it is more relevant today than ever, as independent, external research commissioned by the University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences shows.”

“In our increasingly rapidly changing, diverse world, what we know is that you’ll be working with lots of people who don't look, think or speak like you. There are over 100 languages spoken in New Zealand now,” he says.

“A BA provides students with a set of sharp intellectual tools, which will allow them to deal with whatever comes their way. And what we know is coming their way is not a single career but multiple careers, some of which don’t yet even exist.”

Employers will want to have people on their payroll who are confident in their own sense of identity, and not threatened by or intimidated by or defensive about other people’s ways of doing things, he adds. The need for curiosity, acceptance and tolerance is paramount in super-diverse Auckland, and in many other New Zealand cities with increasingly diverse cultural and cosmopolitan profiles. Never mind that so many travel overseas to live, work, and do business.

Professor Richard Shaw is spearheading the addition of an 'intellectual kete' of core papers to the BA programme

Versatility beats volatility of 21st century job market

Traditional competencies, or the so-called ‘soft skills’, gained through doing a BA – such as written and oral communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, analytical and reasoning skills, cultural awareness, empathy and tolerance, ethical decision-making, the ability to see things from another’s viewpoint, and creativity – are in greater demand now than they have ever been, he says. Fostering the deeper humanitarian perspectives and principles embedded in an arts degree are paramount at a time in world history where political, religious and economic tensions and divisions threaten us all, he adds.

One of the five new core papers spread over the three-year programme has been developed after in-depth research and consultation with various interest groups, including past and current students, employers and businesses. It is built around the Māori concept of turangawaewae, or ‘standing place’, as a platform for exploring New Zealand’s cultural heritage, myths and multiple voices. The aim is to provide a deeper understanding of both individual and collective identities to ultimately enhance social cohesion.

From the role of the All Blacks and the Anzacs to protest movements, political leaders and popular culture, the programme is defined as an “intellectual kete” of key academic writings along with film, music and literary expressions delving into a broad-ranging investigation of citizenship. Professor Shaw has also compiled a Turangawaewae playlist on YouTube with an evolving archive of material to elucidate ideas.

And while parents typically prioritise the economic imperatives of job opportunities alongside the cost of student loans as determining factors in their child’s degree choice, he thinks personal tastes and passion for a particular path of study are ultimately going to shape a student’s chances of long term success and satisfaction in their lives and work.

Critical thinkers needed for healthy democracy

More urgently, society needs people with BA degrees – people who’ve studied politics, philosophy, religion, history, sociology, anthropology, languages, literature or media studies to name a few – to help maintain a healthy level of debate and dissension, he insists.

“You can’t have a functioning, vibrant democratic society without the kind of environment the BA provides.

That is, to challenge received wisdoms and sacred cows. The Education Act enshrines this requirement,” he says. “The hallmark of free society is the ability to cope with dissent, difference and conflicting points of view.”

“In the same way that biodiversity makes the natural ecosystem, having people with diverse interests brings colour, vibrancy and interest to society. You need people who can argue, get angry and articulate themselves and offer reasoned arguments on a whole range of things. You need people who can ask awkward questions, who can be the grit in the wheel – unless you want to live in a highly controlled social ecosystem.”

Alongside the new material, Professor Shaw’s vision to foster a strong community of shared interests among BA students, who have traditionally tended to lack such a thing. Social spaces – both physical and online – will be set up at the Manawatū and Auckland campuses so that BA students can simply hang out together, find out about each other’s interests, share ideas and connect with their lecturers in an informal setting. And an online equivalent will be established for Massey’s growing distance student body.

Above all, he wants to see a move away from the overly humble, often apologetic mind set of many BA students who seem to have internalised the derisive, ill-informed views about the degree that reflect a tradition of anti-intellectualism.

Bright stars join BA myth-busting campaign

Massey’s “myth-busting” campaign has had a chorus of support, from celebrities such as comedian and TV host Jeremy Corbett, and Massey BA graduate and actor Antonia Prebble, who features in a short video clip. She talks about how her Massey BA in English literature and French have enhanced her career and personal development. She was recently appointed as cultural ambassador for the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival later this year. Business, political and creative talents also feature in the series about how the BA has shaped their careers.

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