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  • #22 in the world for Arts and Humanities*
  • #25 in the world for Social Sciences*
  • *2020 QS World University Rankings

10 ways an arts degree can change the world

Human values are shaping the tide of technological innovation

Passion, new perspectives, and an understanding of the past and the future are some of the best ways to make a difference to our world, writes Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Duncan Ivison.  

1. Passionate people make great leaders

Our graduates transform the world because they have been stimulated to follow their passions, and passionate people make great leaders.

Many of Australia's leaders in politics, business and culture are Humanities and Social Sciences graduates, and many have graduated from The University of Sydney. They go on to help change the world through the character and wide-ranging skills they've developed in the course of their study with us. Some include:

  • Clover Moore, Lord Mayor, City of Sydney, BA(1969)
  • Noel Pearson, lawyer/land rights activist, BA(1987) LLB(1993)
  • Malcom Turnbull, 29th Prime Minister of Australia, BA(1977) LLB(1978)
  • Adam Jacobs, co-founder of The Iconic, BA(2007) BCom(2007)
  • Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, BA(1979) DLitt(2007)
  • Robyn Denholm, Chair, Tesla, BEc(1985)
  • Glenn Stevens, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia, BEc(Hons 1980)
  • James Wolfenson, former president of the World Bank, BA(1954) LLB(1957) DScEc(1997)

2. Understanding the past to shape the future

You can't change the world without a deep understanding of the past. A Bachelor of Arts gives you the opportunity to grapple with the big questions and challenges societies have faced across time and how they have dealt with them. For example, Professor Roland Fletcher's ground-breaking Greater Angkor Project is establishing strong links between the demise of one of the largest, low-density cities of the pre-industrial world and the situation that modern cities are finding themselves in today.

3. Fresh perspectives on climate change

The humanities and social sciences are essential to helping transform our relationship with the environment. We won't be able to solve climate change by technical ingenuity alone. It will require changing people's behaviour, reimagining the way we live sustainably on our planet and developing new social, political and cultural institutions and practices to help humanity adapt to a world undergoing rapid climate change.

The Sydney Environment Institute is an excellent example of how humanities experts and social scientists untangle environmental issues for the wider community, and work to identify sustainable strategies to survive an increasingly unsustainable world.

4. Transforming our relationship with Asia

By studying Asian languages, literature, culture and politics, our students will help redefine Australia's relationship with our Asian neighbours and lead us into the new Asian century. Australia's future will require more students with greater Asian literacy than ever before - our students will lead the new engagement with Asia over the next decade and beyond.

5. Defending human rights

Teaching and research on the relationship between human rights and democratisation will change our approach to advancing human rights in the Asia Pacific and globally. Improving the protection of human rights around the world will require more than just legal instruments, but also the social, cultural, historical, economic and political analysis, and institution-building that will enable us to actually bring human rights to life. Our Master of Human Rights program and research projects are making a significant contribution to doing just that.

6. Supporting fledgling democracies

As democracy transforms the world, arts and social sciences students and researchers can help us understand the possibilities and challenges faced by democratic movements across the globe. The Sydney Democracy Network is doing pioneering work on the future of democracy in the Asia Pacific.

7. New concepts of community

Finding new ways for deeply diverse and multicultural societies to live together peacefully will transform entire regions in our world. Our students and researchers, working across a range of disciplines - including politics, philosophy, history, languages, media, literary studies, sociology, anthropology - are making fundamental contributions to developing new conceptions of social and political community, to enable such transformations to occur.

8. Harnessing digital technology for the public good

Social media and online technology have transformed the way we communicate. Our media and digital cultures programs are training a new generation of digital thinkers and producers who will take our communications industries and practices to a new level.

Among the research being undertaken stands the Socio-Tech Futures Lab who occupy the space between technical disciplines, industry, and policymakers to address the challenges and opportunities of emerging technologies. Most recently, several members of the lab were awarded funding by Facebook to help the social media giant understand how better to regulate hate speech online in the Asia Pacific region.

9. Making economics about people, not numbers

Our understanding of markets and human behaviour is being radically altered by the emerging consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic. A richer, more complex picture of human behaviour will be required to better understand economic activity and to design and develop improved economic policy. Economics is being transformed through new engagements with psychology, sociology, political science, philosophy, history and the natural sciences.

The Asset Economy research project is an excellent example of how economics and social sciences expertise are combining to provide a nuanced understanding of the logics of asset-based capitalism, and the new forms of inequality and precarity that have accompanied its rise.

10. Curiosity, critical thinking, compassion

The greatest transformations of all occur when our leaders and citizens remain open to new ideas and new approaches: in other words, when they retain a passion to keep learning.

Arts and social sciences degrees cultivate a deep love of learning in students through the basic foundational skills they help develop - critical thinking, analytical skills, good communication skills, breadth of mind, curiosity about difference and otherness, and the ability to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes.

Journalist and Master of International Studies alumnus, Premesh Chandran, exemplifies what a liberal arts graduate can offer – co-founding one of Malaysia's most popular news websites, Malaysiakini, and pushing the boundaries of press freedom in the country for over twenty years.

Professor Duncan Ivison is Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at the University of Sydney. This article has been updated, it first appeared on the 23 August 2016.

26 June 2020

Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research

Professor Duncan Ivison

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