As my years of high school were waning to their conclusion, I recall flipping through the University of Alberta course calendar with wide-eyed amazement. Bound between the covers were pages and pages filled with tiny black text, small abbreviations and numbers representing the full array of courses the university had to offer. Having made note of all the classes I would have liked to take, it soon became evident that either I should prepare myself for a decade of studies, or find some way of narrowing down my options.
Choosing courses from such an extensive list can be a daunting task, especially if you are not sure what it is you want to study. For many people, this involves some trade-off between following your passion and choosing a field that is practical, useful and likely to result in employment. Another challenge is being interested in a great variety of subjects and having to choose which classes will ultimately win a spot in your schedule. Knowing that political science was my field of greatest interest, it was this second conundrum with which I had to contend.
Over the course of my degree, I attempted to branch out as much as possible. In fact, I took more courses outside of my major (poli sci) and minor (economics) than I did courses within those disciplines. Besides the requisite courses in English, a second language, science, and fine arts required to graduate with an arts degree, I choose multiple classes from each of sociology, philosophy, history, and the Faculty of Native Studies. Essentially, I tried to fit in whichever classes interested me most, and often these courses had relevance for my major and minor as well. That flexibility in course selection is, I feel, a real strength of the arts program.
What are some of the advantages of doing things this way? For starters, it’s a chance for new students to try subjects they likely were not exposed to in high school, and not just at the 100-level. Philosophy, economics, anthropology, linguistics: most people enter university with limited exposure to such disciplines. There is a wonderful opportunity to experiment in one’s own learning. There are always surprises, too: I found I really enjoyed my art history class (which I enrolled in to fulfill a fine arts credit), and I probably learned more in my course on Aboriginal government and politics than I did in any other. Furthermore, for many arts students, unlike a professional degree, the career path after university isn’t necessarily straightforward. Having a well-rounded skill set and even basic knowledge in a diverse array of subjects can be extremely valuable.
Something I certainly gained and valued from taking a broad array of courses was a greater ability to criticize and expose flaws within my own disciplines. Becoming locked into the perspective of a particular field of study can lead to dogmatic and narrow thinking, and an acceptance that one’s own discipline has all the answers. There are many things, for example, that economists can learn from having a greater understanding of principles of sociology. The former tends to view people acting solely in isolated self-interest which, while useful for the purpose of devising economic models, falls short in its account of actual human behaviour. Many political arguments suffer from an ill-informed comprehension of economics, and polarizing issues, such as carbon taxation or government spending cuts, have predictable outcomes which become confounded by partisan rhetoric. I believe that a broader viewpoint can help you become a better thinker, and help you to understand your chosen discipline better.
Of course, I don’t mean to limit my argument only to within the arts. Arts and sciences complement each other in a great number of ways. In arts, where there is often a focus on creative thinking, students can benefit from improving their skills in thinking logically and deductively, as is emphasized in many science and math courses. These different ways of thinking are both extremely useful.
The complex issues that the world faces today require a considerable range of perspectives in order to be understood. Solutions to challenging and chronic social issues – the really big questions of the modern world – necessitate an interdisciplinary understanding. Economists who think philosophically, scientists who think politically, statisticians who think imaginatively: these are the people who will be at the forefront of creating important changes for society. Having a generalized skill set and being sufficiently well-versed in a variety of disciplines is something that carries great value. Being able to draw links between subjects and to make informed criticisms and improvements to different methods of thinking is essential in an interconnected, information-based world.
If you find that you have many and varied interests, I would encourage you to pursue many and varied subjects. I enjoyed what I learned throughout the course of my degree and appreciate the range of perspectives I am able draw on. The greatest gains in knowledge are always made in subjects which one knows the least about. Having a broad understanding of a range of disciplines has opened my eyes not just to new information, but to new and better ways of thinking. In the university environment, there can be an impetus towards specialization, but I believe there are many benefits that flow simply from taking a more generalized approach.
Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Antony Ta