The art(s) of surviving

Why is there such a generational rift between the understanding of an arts degree?

As an arts student I’m frequently called upon to defend my degree, whether it be by dispelling false claims about its lack of academic rigour or listing the myriad  career pathways possible with English and History majors. I’ve always stressed that by electing to do an arts degree, I am not only doing what I love, but seeking instructions for my survival. Literature and history supply the tools through which to navigate complex global challenges such as climate change and inequality, just as much as engineering, science or law. 

My Chinese mother requires the most convincing. Although supportive of my decision to study an arts degree, I sense deep down that she would have preferred it if I’d studied law or engineering: vocational degrees, which in most eyes signify prestige and job security. I know it pains her somewhat that I cannot provide her with a definitive goal for my career post-university. Her inability to fully comprehend why I study what I do creates what feels like an unbridgeable gap between us.

Parental pressure to do well in school and study certain degrees at university is a sensitive topic. It’s complicated by racial stereotypes of tiger mums and Chinese international students being drones, as well as sweeping cultural generalisations about Asian values. “Many parents in China simply want their children to have a better life,” Wu* a second-year law and politics student from Hunan told me when I asked him about parental influence in his choice of degree. “Although for me the law is maybe a little bit of a compromise, I think it’s harder for me to find a job with just an arts degree in China.” First-year commerce student Hannah* suggested that she would study arts if she didn’t feel pressure not to from her parents. “I don’t agree with it but I think it’s just old Chinese values.”

Can I trace my mother’s inability to realise the value of an arts education back to inherently Chinese ideas? It’s difficult to say. Nor can my mother’s experiences and beliefs represent those of an entire culture. But I know this much: my mother grew up in poverty in Shanghai during the 1960s. Her parents belonged to the merchant class and were targeted by Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution. Every grain of rice was to be savoured; the food I eat on daily basis would have been, during her childhood, a luxury. After migrating to Australia in the late 1980s, she worked countless menial jobs before she was able to live a comfortable life. For many years her future was uncertain and survival was paramount.

While I can understand  Cultural Revolution and colonialism through the abstractions of critical theory, my mother came to comprehend these things through her lived experience. While I practice my Chinese in the context and safety of a classroom, my mother practiced English before people who believed there was an Asian Invasion, who wanted her to return to China. Understanding my mother’s trauma, and realising she was deprived of a proper education herself, is crucial to understanding her disengagement with politics, history and literature.   

As much as I view the arts as critical to my survival, I can understand why my mother doesn’t. And as much as I always want to defend my degree, I recognise that, for some people, studying arts is a privilege.

*Names have been changed