Jian Ghomeshi’s advice for students

I was jack-of-all-trades and master of none. But it worked.

Photo courtesy of CBC

The 2013 Maclean’s University Rankings asked some of Canada’s most successful writers, politicians, and scientists what they wish they’d known in university. Their responses are a perfect addition to our First Year Survivor blog. Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q, shared his wisdom—and opinion on tuition—with Julie Smyth.

I went to York University and I partly did that because I didn’t want to stray too far from Toronto. I was already playing in a band. My first intentions were to go for theatre but I had a passion for politics and history and that is what I ended up doing—pursing a political science and history double major that turned into a political science major/history minor with women’s studies as a minor as well.

I did all of this with some trepidation. I desperately worried throughout university that I was a jack of various trades and master of nothing. At the same time, I was a student activist and I was really involved in theatre and music and I had started this band, Moxy Früvous.

I lamented this diversity of interest, thinking that if I only could better focus on academia then I would be like Edward Saïd, who was a hero of mine, or if I only focused on music and my voice I could be David Bowie—but instead I was pissing it all away. The irony is that that kind of, for lack of a better term, Renaissance-person education is exactly what I needed for what I am doing today.

I became president of the York Federation of Students. It was a big school and it had been dominated by business students and jocks. I was an activist and people said I should run. It ended up being like the rising of the disenfranchised masses—my campaign team were folks from the women’s centre and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered club, and the Caribbean students and the Arab students. I ran on zero tuition and a woman’s right to choose and anti-racism, all things that in the early ’90s were much more provocative than they are now.

I still support zero tuition. I remember thinking when I get older I will never believe that students shouldn’t have universal access to education. Of all the things I’ve sold out on, this is one I hang on to. When the Quebec students were protesting, I was public about the fact that, sorry, I’ve got to support these guys.

I definitely did not know this in the early ’90s but I know it now: there is no job security, the skill sets are changing in every sector, and you can’t handicap what you are going to need in 20 or 30 years’ time. I believe a liberal arts education, unless you have a passion for a specific kind of professional job like a dentist, is more valuable than it’s ever been. All that agonizing I did, I would now put my arm around me, the skinny 18-year-old, and go, “Hey, it’s going to be okay, that diversity of interest is actually not a bad thing.”

Jian Ghomeshi’s advice for students

  1. Just happened to read this article today as I was checking my email and I’m glad I did. I was convinced I was one of the few people left that believe in a Liberal Arts education. When I was teaching I always hesitated to suggest students might want to consider Liberal Arts and felt almost like a subversive in the face of the system’s overwhelming pressure to direct students into “practical” courses involving the sciences and trades. People are always surprised (stunned?) when I say that besides my B.Ed. I have degrees in Latin and Classical Studies. However, unlike Jian, I had no qualms about spending my university years studying such “impractical” subjects since in the sixties most people went to university to study subjects they were really interested in and few of us worried about our future “career path” and how much money we could make. How unfortunate that times have changed. Thanks again to Jian for brightening up my day.

  2. Our youngest son got a four-year arts degree in, ‘of all things’, philosophy & religious studies.

    We supported his decision, all the while thinking “Cool! really sale-able degree with those majors” (mild cynical outlook). He ended up taking a scenic tour of his degree – taking a year off, forgetting to replace a half course he opted out of (so having to go back for a year while doing only the half course he needed for the next installment of the trust fund payment he’d be getting), etc. We supported him in all of his decisions, again thinking “Good grief! Where’s this all going to lead to?”

    Upon graduation, he did what a good number of other students did. He took the piece of paper he got with him and went to a local community college and got himself a two-year diploma in a social worker kind of field (I forget what it was exactly).

    He’s now employed by a school board working with, primarily, autistic children. He loves it. He’s doing well at it. He’s a natural. We support him, we’re proud of him. We love him.

    What does this have to do with Mr. Ghomeshi’s article? That’s easy. It’s that one never knows what’s down the road, what doors will be available to us for opening. Yes, from a purely functional perspective, our son’s course choices and route were non-constructive but, in the end, he slid into a field in which he’s a proverbial ‘bug in a rug’.

    Maybe his story is somewhat exceptional but, then again, his dad’s was somewhat similar. From a fearful, crowd avoiding, socially shy stutterer to a grateful & satisfying 34 year career as a teacher. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to stand in front of people & talk. The courses I took in university were such that I wouldn’t have to do that.

    This may sound airy-fairy but it’s also true. Life can be a surprise. Be open to all sorts of possibilities. Be ready to try. Your left turn might actually lead you down a great street.

  3. Thank you, Jian!
    Beautifully said, too.

  4. I recently completed my BA Professional Communications, and can relate entirely to being a “jack-of-all-trades”.

    There is increasingly more and more pressure for specialization in academia and the workforce.
    I am interested in the negative connotations and stigma of today’s “Generalist”, which was once valued and referred to as a “Renaissance Man”.

    Hoping that my diverse background and skillset works for me like it did for Jian!

  5. Great perspective! I have always pretty much objected on the pressure put on young people to decide RIGHT NOW what you want to do for the rest of your life. It’s ridiculous.

  6. We are all citizens, regardless of what each of us chooses to do to pay the bills. Knowing even just a little about world history, politics, philosophy, sociology or great literature is intrinsically good. Being better able to engage with the man next door or the woman on the other side of the world puts the ‘human’ in humanities.

  7. Thanks for posting this! A lot of us English or Theatre majors get a little bit of heck from the “brilliant” engineers, or the “job security concerned” parents. But knowing that, from this, doing what we do isn’t a bad thing…it gives us reassurance…and hopefully the overbearing “pick a real job” parents!

    Thanks for the support!

  8. Great piece Jian and I completely agree. To me one of the fundamental purposes of university education is to have a broad and general knowledge of as many subjects as possible (or as a person is interested in). I am speaking particularly of the 4-year undergrad degree.

    I don’t have a complete degree (much to my regret) but I do have most of the credits for a BA. Not having had the opportunity to go to university right out of high school, I went to night/summer school. All the while I was working full time. Not easy, but so glad I did it. It had nothing to do with my job (except I did work in broadcasting so suppose the knowledge was helpful). Basically though, I did it for me. My university: Mount Allison in Sackville, NB, of which I am very proud.

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