Pursuing your Dreams
Dear Dr. Pope,
My son is registered at CONA, Burin to complete his University Transfer Year. In September, 2010, he plans to attend MUN. My question may be an odd one. I hope you'll take the time to respond.
My son did extremely well in Arts, Science, and the Math curriculum in high school. He has outstanding work habits, and could probably pursue any career path he wanted. He recently decided he wanted to complete an Arts degree with a major in Archaeology. He is aware that he would need to follow this degree with a Masters and/or Ph.D.
My question involves the advice he is getting from everyone who learns of his plan. Family, friends, and "educated" people in our community think he is following a "dead-end" dream. He's been told that he will not be employed, and will be poor for the rest of his life. I believe that he should be able to choose any career path he desires, as long as it makes him happy and he becomes the best he can be. However, after a month of "advice" from others, I'm wondering if I should be encouraging him to choose another path. Can you give me reasons why I should encourage him to pursue his dream ?
Any help would be greatly appreciated.
Kimberly Bannister, Burin, Newfoundland
Dear Mrs Bannister,
This is an elaboration of my earlier encouragement of your son’s plans to study Archaeology, when he comes to Memorial University next year -- particularly if he knows how to work and has a strong high school record. I assume that the “educated” people in your community, who are discouraging his plans, understand what a university is? They do understand that a Ph.D is only sometimes someone who has studied Philosophy? They do understand that students who have achieved a “Master of Arts” at a University like Memorial have rarely studied Fine Art but normally humanities, like History or French, or social sciences, like Sociology, Economics or, indeed, Archaeology? The “educated” people in your home town do understand that Archaeology is the scientific study of the past? So why on earth would they discourage a bright young person from pursuing that subject?
Let me start by dealing with objections to Archaeology as a suitable major for undergraduates. (I’ll consider graduate training below.) People who object to undergraduate study of specialized subjects, like Archaeology, are usually making one of two mistakes. One is a confusion common among people who don’t have a university education themselves. People without formal training or who have been trained at a technical college tend to assume that the function of education is exclusively to impart technical expertise, eventually certified by the relevant credentials. This is rarely the actual function of a BA (or most BSc’s). Undergraduate training in Arts does not prepare young people with current techniques in hairdressing or in the installation of plumbing or even in design of such useful aspects of our lives. It prepares people for a kind of broad citizenship. It enables them to take part in debates and decisions about where our communities, our province, our country and maybe even the world are headed. Businesses and government agencies hire graduates with BAs because they have a demonstrated ability to absorb information, analyze it and abstract their ideas on paper. The fact that they have mastered a specific body of knowledge is, often, only incidental. My former students work in government, law, the film industry, arctic administration, coastal zone management and many other fields. I know their training in Archaeology played a big role in their success and is, no doubt, sometimes relevant -- but they weren’t hired because they had degrees in Archaeology. They were hired because they knew how to think and because they had achieved a significant level of sophistication in their understanding of the world. They enjoy an advantage over those with a more technically specialized training: their skills give them a choice in careers and they are less likely to be outmoded by technological change.
A second kind of doubt about all the humanities and social sciences is, unfortunately, common even at the higher levels of our own University. In this way of thinking, Newfoundland needs to train its own medical doctors, its own accountants and its own engineers but does not need, in the same sense, graduates of subjects like Archaeology. This is a blinkered kind of thinking. If I go to the hospital with a broken leg, I don’t really care where the doctor who sets it was trained. If we need a new bridge on the Trans-Canada, it doesn’t really matter if the engineer who designed it was trained here or in Montreal. But we will be better off if some (most?) of our judges are appointed among legal professionals who did some of their training in Newfoundland; if local CBC producers include people who have studied local music and folklore; if our papers employ reporters with some background in the history and environment of this place and if the people who administer the Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation and in particular the Historic Resources Act, are trained in regional history and archaeology. In the end, the province needs Memorial’s Faculty of Arts (Archaeology definitely included) more than it needs any other faculty. That’s another way of saying that Newfoundland needs people, like your son, with the ability and commitment to engage in challenging studies, like Archaeology.
When your “educated” family friends advise your son to avoid study of a subject which intrigues him, they may do so with the best of intentions. But they are, surely, meddling with a decision your son can make only for himself. They seem to be thinking essentially of how to maximize his pay, in the short term. Most young people prefer to ask what they are going to do with their lives and your son may well prefer to ask how he might find interesting work. But even in their own terms, I fear that your sons “educated” critics may be mistaken. I strongly suspect that they are not, in fact, well-informed about what graduates of our programs actually end up doing. They may also be deluding themselves, if they think that they can out-guess our evolving economy. Young people who have the ability to master a subject which will give them some historical perspective on the massive social and environmental changes that we are undergoing may be better positioned than most to adapt to an ever-changing world.
With thanks for raising an essential question and for supporting your son’s right to make up his own mind about the balance we all must find between earning a decent living and doing something that enriches our lives,
University Research Professor and Head
Department of Archaeology