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In praise of the Arts degree

We’ve all heard the jokes about Arts degrees. I should know – I did one. Arthur went one step further and did Honours. Then we followed up with theology. We are overly qualified to work at Maccas.

In contrast to that, Mehal Krayem has written a great piece on why we need Arts degrees. As a former Arts student, this resonates with me, but it’s not just true for Australia. Tanzania needs Arts degrees too.

See, there’s this myth that Arts degrees are for societies that are already prosperous. It’s the idea that to build a nation, first you need some doctors, nurses, engineers and teachers so you’ve got healthcare, roads and education. Then, after that’s set up, you can get on to the ‘optional extra’ of philosophy, music, history and literature. Some might argue that these are integral rather than optional parts of society. But even then, they’re necessary the way icing on a cake is necessary: it’s nice to have, but it comes after the more substantial stuff. That kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? Stories might shape identity but they don’t feed people.

This is how the government in Tanzania thought about things immediately after the withdrawal of the colonial government. From 1960-1961, there was something of a caretaker government. Their education policy was ‘Education for manpower development’. It was focused on the sciences and technical skills – the sort of thing you need to get your country up and running. But it didn’t work.

Enter Julius Nyerere, the so-called father of Tanzania, ‘teacher by choice, politician by accident’. He believed in ‘Education for self-reliance’ which meant that Tanzanians had to be more than just do-ers – they had to be thinkers as well. Nyerere’s education system emphasised critical thinking, an enquiring mind, self-confidence and responsibility. So he introduced Arts degrees and championed the Arts in society. He believed that Tanzanians didn’t just need skills to improve their situation; they also needed imagination! His rule saw more than 90% of Tanzanian children in primary school and the 2 engineers and 12 doctors increase to hundreds.

Nyerere wasn’t right about everything. This is a guy who displaced 10 million of his own people and completely wrecked the economy. But he knew that it takes more than skills to make a nation. Tanzania didn’t just need professionals; it needed thinkers and dreamers. The same is true today.

In the 1980s, primary education in Tanzania dropped to 59% – why? Because the World Bank declared Tanzania ‘underdeveloped’. The story Tanzanians were being told changed. Nyerere’s optimism was replaced with despondency. People didn’t believe in themselves or their nation any more. It’s not hard to see how that degenerates into an ‘every man for himself’ attitude which fosters corruption at every level. Without a dream, it’s hard to lift your sights. Tanzania has been clawing its way back from the World Bank’s crushing blow ever since.

There are encouraging signs in Tanzania, like the rise of tertiary education in the last 10 years. But if Tanzanians are going to write their own story, it won’t come merely from skilling up its people. Tanzania needs dreamers, storytellers, those who think outside the box, people in search of new perspectives and the critical and creative thinking to get there.

Categories: Tanzania University ministry Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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