Student View

(April 24, 1997, Gazette)

And they say

an arts degree means nothing...

By Kathleen Lippa

I've never felt that an arts degree is useless. And maybe that's because my heroes are John Fraser (master of Massey College at University of Toronto), Rex Murphy (host of CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup) and Danine Farquharson (who's currently working on her PhD at Memorial). They all received English degrees from Memorial and went to the moon with them, or close enough. Articulate, smart and hilarious, these graduates embody where a liberal arts education can lead. And when I got the chance to speak to each one of them recently, my admiration for them, and the liberal arts degree, only grew deeper.

Before I even knew John Fraser had graduated with a BA from Memorial in 1969 and had received an honorary degree from MUN in 1993, I loved his writing. I had read and re-read his book Private View (a study of American Ballet Theatre) until the pages fell out. After discovering he spent four years at Memorial, I wanted to know if his work at The Globe and Mail, as an author, and as editor of Saturday Night magazine reflected his early days at MUN.

"It seemed about as far away as I could get from Toronto -- with water in between -- at the right tuition," he said of attending MUN. "And the English department had been highly recommended."

Of his time as an undergraduate he said: "I did very well, and that was after a very unhappy high school career. I failed twice -- grade 11 and 13. But once I got to university I had a ball. It was wonderful."

I asked him about English professors at Memorial, and he recalled, "George Story was just out of this world, and Patrick O'Flaherty. And Elizabeth Orsten, she smoked a pipe. They were wonderful characters...I had spectacular English teachers there."

But the sciences were another story.

"I took biology and failed that. Finally I took geography as a science and got 50 per cent," he explained. "My geography exam is quite famous because I turned it into a literary tour de force. I didn't know what I was talking about, but I translated everything into literary terms. They gave me 50 per cent for chutzpah, I think."

Dr. Fraser found George Orwell, Arthur Koestler, and 17th-and-18th century literature inspirational for his writing. As a student he wrote for the muse, was student columnist for The Evening Telegram, and had his first article appear in Saturday Night. It was about Joey Smallwood, and it was called The Only Living Father of Confederation.

"In the best of all possible worlds," he said, "I would recommend a general arts education specializing on something that you're really interested in, so that one understands the joy of actually working full out in [one's] field."

Still reeling from Mr. Fraser's tales, my phone rang at the Gazette and I was greeted with: "Kathleen, It's Rex Murphy again." Again? I had left him messages on his voice mail, but... Oh well, it was Rex, so I played along.

"I was rather reserved in those days, believe it or not," Mr. Murphy said about his early years at Memorial (he graduated in 1968). "But I do believe I'm one of the people who got the maximum advantage out of what everybody regards as a useless degree. I got an English degree and it's been the source of everything that I've done."

He told me that he'd recently been going over some 16th-and-17th century writing -- literature that he discovered as an undergraduate.

"Breaking down a poem, honestly, is a fairly rigorous effort of mind," he explained. "If you can read any really good poem, you can handle any political statement, or press release." Unravelling a poem, he said, "really does teach you how to think. And at an ultimate level, knowing how to think is the game."

Like Mr. Fraser, Mr. Murphy recommended a university education.

"The older generation who didn't have any education understood in an intuitive manner, much better than we so-called sophisticates, what education really was about. It wasn't related to something as mundane as making sure you weren't at the fish plant. It had a great deal more value."

And of the university experience today, he said: "The idea that you're signing up for something in the first or second year so that as soon as you walk out you've got it all nailed down -- this is madness. The mind won't grow in that context. University is a time for play, in an expanded sense of the term...It is not a training college, or a career baptism. It'll lead to that, and it should."

The "wider goal" of university, Mr. Murphy said, is "alertness and the sharpening of analytic forces, and also, finding out the great reservoir of potential amusement and pleasure that's involved in whatever discipline particularly encourages you, be it history, Russian or physics -- they all have joys."

The notions of fun, and studying things simply because you like them came to life for me when Danine Farquharson guest lectured my English class on Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse last year. As Ms. Farquharson spoke with confidence and poise, not looking much older than most of us in the class, I realized it was possible to grasp modernism, and even enjoy its complexity.

When I met Ms. Farquharson for coffee a few weeks ago, she laughed modestly about being on my "intriguing MUN graduates" list, and proceeded to let me in on what she was reading -- Thomas Mann ("Thick! Small print!"). She talked of her craving for Silver Surfer comic books as

a youth, and about her "deep and abiding love affair" with Michael Ondaatje's novels.

She moved to St. John's six years ago from Alberta, where she had won medals of excellence in English and classics at university, and then worked for an oil company. But a chance meeting with her inspirational high school English teacher confirmed her desire to get back into academics, and eventually teach at the university level. Although she was accepted at both University of Toronto and McGill University, she chose MUN because it seemed like an adventure.

Besides teaching first-year English at MUN for the last four years, she has co-founded a journal called Postscript, providing a new forum for the scholarly papers of grad students. She's also the assistant editor of the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, and is involved with the MUN Sunday Cinema Series.

"All the things I do are related," she told me. "I have so many roots here now...I'm a student of literature, and I always will be."

And with that, I headed off to write my exams. Talk about inspiration.

Kathleen Lippa is an undergraduate at MUN, joyously pursuing a liberal arts degree.