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The value of liberal arts

The value of liberal arts

Liberal arts
iStock.com / heathernemec

Best friends Hannah Peck and Jane Keller are unarguably typical Canadian undergraduate students. At 19, both Ottawa natives are looking forward to their second post-secondary year and a slate of arts courses: Peck at Concordia and Keller at McGill University in Montreal.

“I pursued studies in the faculty of arts and science because it doesn’t confine me to one sector,” Peck says. “It gives me the freedom to explore different subjects and truly discover what I’m passionate about.”

She laughs that her two favourite first-year courses turned out to be business law and algebra, with the history of British pop music limping in last. For her part, Keller echoes much the same sentiment: arts at McGill has confirmed certain likes and dislikes, but more surprisingly, it’s led to brand new associations, opened unfamiliar vistas and revealed heretofore unknown interests.

It’s just not what they’d expected, and it’s the age-old dilemma of youth: how to discover the world around you, what interests you passionately, and how to knit a good career out of it all?

Add to this tall menu the fact that intense pressure has mounted in recent years — fueled by strident calls from certain employers and politicians to up Canada’s game in global competitiveness — for high-school graduates to pursue science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) degrees rather than a liberal arts education.

The path from high school through post-secondary education to productive, well-employed citizen has of late been characterized as a direct flight with no stop-overs from STEM studies to a well-paying stable job. But this denies the productive, even well-employed opportunities arising from a less obvious destination trek through the likes of philosophy, art history, or even British pop music.

Peck and Keller are resisting that pressure, but other students, joined perhaps by their worried parents, have paid attention. Statistics Canada data shows that in the decade between 2005 and 2015, Canadian enrolment in STEM-related disciplines rose by more than 32 per cent, while enrolment in the humanities and social sciences increased by just less than 17 per cent. However, graduation rates remain close with a 36 per cent increase in STEM degrees, and a 31 per cent increase in social sciences and humanities.

“More students are pursuing post-secondary education and over the course of their undergraduate degree find their passion,” says Pam Foster, CAUT’s director of research and political action. “To quote Shakespeare, the world is your oyster and educational offerings and choices should reflect this open and inclusive view.”

But a North America-wide trend has seen arts and humanities faculties suffering under budget cuts, resulting in reductions in course offerings and enrolments.

Meanwhile, governments and funding agencies are being encouraged to align education policies to ensure labour market “relevance.”

“It’s not good enough simply to produce more graduates. Canada needs to target funding and education policy reforms at areas relevant to the new knowledge economy,” advised a Conference Board of Canada report which handed Canada a “C” grade using 2010 data ranking STEM graduates compared to 16 peer countries.

The report went further: “Graduates in math, science, computer science, and engineering will need to be supported by appropriate policies and strategies that will see their innovations developed, diffused and successfully marketed.”

For many, the link between education and the “innovation process” has become the end-game, accompanying an assumption that a focus on STEM will lead to an easily predicted outcome guaranteeing jobs, productivity and a secure future for Canada’s economy.

“The idea took hold that narrower, applied skills, whether they were learned in community colleges or science and engineering disciplines, held the most potential for students in terms of ultimately finding work,” says Gabriel Miller, exe­cutive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“An impression arose that the humanities were somehow passé or more of a passion project than they were about getting ready to go out and earn a living.”

But many teachers and institutions take issue with the characterization that innovation only springs from STEM-like beginnings.

Claudia Malacrida, associate vice-president research, and a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge, says her institution holds a longstanding commitment to liberal education as foundational to the school.

“It’s hard to draw a direct line between a religious studies degree and a career,” she admits. But her university is attempting to make these connections by engaging undergraduate students in the humanities, social sciences and arts in research and community development projects.

“It enriches their educational experience and it also positions them well to be part of their communities, to contri­bute, and to help create the connections that will help draw that line, even an indirect one, between study and career,” she notes.

Malacrida, who also served on the advisory panel for Canada’s fundamental science review, is blunt about what she calls the “the fetishizing of innovation.”

“It’s valuing engagement in research and inquiry only to produce a widget at the end that is going to make life better for everybody. Yet a lot of research that happened from curiosity or from having learned rich things often ends up 15 or 20 years down the pike producing something important,” she says.

There may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as the tide of disregard for arts and humanities credentials seems to be turning. Despite an oft-cited link between higher earnings and STEM careers, students have not exactly stampeded to embrace one path over the other. Currently about half of all post-secondary students and teachers in Canada study and teach in non-STEM areas, according to Miller.

“I’m encouraged. People are catching on now and I think we’ll look back at this period as an anomaly,” he says.

“There is a huge hunger for this type of education,” Malacrida observes. “The curiosity that people bring to their desire to learn is not always well-fostered by narrower, outcome-based, and disciplinary-siloed ways of teaching.”

The argument that STEM graduates have the jump on good jobs is also floundering. Surveys conducted by online job search websites like Workopolis consistently reveal that employers rate technical skills behind the “softer” ones like the ability to communicate well, show leadership, think analytically and provide insightful customer service.

This fact is driving some employers to suggest that there is a need to focus on “STEAM” education (STEAM adds “Arts”), and one of them, Canadian high-tech CEO Michael Litt, has taken his argument to the top.

Co-founder and chief executive of the video marketing platform Vidyard, Litt has blogged openly about his industry’s need for non-STEM staff.

“At my company, as at many tech companies, developers only make up 15 to 25 per cent of our workforce. While tech businesses are booming, many of the jobs waiting to be filled require broader skill sets than just great engineering chops. And in my experience anyway, the truly irreplaceable jobs — not just of the future but of the present — are the roles that intermingle arts and science. My employees with humanities backgrounds regularly show they’re willing to learn new skills and try new things,” he states.

Litt has also trotted out his opinions on TV shows like CBC’s On the Money, chatting with host Peter Armstrong about re-embracing a genuine liberal arts education, a point he pushed when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited staff at Vidyard’s Kitchener headquarters recently.

This kind of renewed interest in STEAM excites students like Peck and Keller. Both young women may not have yet figured out their career paths, but both are fluently bilingual and obtaining high marks in English, algebra and sundry courses as they continue their educations.

“I may end up getting a business degree,” Keller muses. “But I’m still unsure, and enjoying learning about so many things. It’s encouraging to know that employers will value my communication skills perhaps even more highly than any technical ones I will learn down the road.”

Malacrida agrees: “These are important fields and probably everybody should at least dip their toe in that water. It makes for a good education, for good workers and for good long-term outcomes that we can’t necessarily predict. It takes time to know what having produced a bright mind and not having stifled curiosity can actually accomplish: let’s be patient.”

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