We need the humanities more than ever, despite all the shouting

Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - 15:37


Here is a telling statistic. In 2005, 54 per cent of Canadian university students were enrolled in courses in the humanities or social sciences. By 2015, that number had fallen to 50 per cent. By now, these students may be a minority on campus.

In today’s knowledge economy, the practical value of a STEM (sciences, technology, engineering or math) degree is obvious. A degree in sociology, not so much.

“We have progressed to a much more STEM-oriented society, and I think universities have reflected that,” Daniel Woolf, principal of Queen’s University, acknowledges in an interview.

More than ever before, “there is a discourse in the land, ‘what are you going to do with a philosophy degree, what are you going to do with an English degree, what are you going to do with a sociology degree?’ ”

And something else may be at work. Universities seem helpless to prevent clashes between opposing and repugnant ideologies. Alt-right chauvinists flirt with hate speech, while antifa extremists blame straight white men for all the ills of the world.

The STEM students shake their heads and go about their business. Taxpayers wonder why governments waste their money on these screaming spoiled brats.

And everyone knows that if you want a job in the real word, you should avoid majoring in anything that ends in “ology” or “Studies.”

And yet, more than ever, we need graduates who are steeped in the humanities and social sciences. Our future depends on it.

Gabriel Miller, executive director of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, agrees that there is a public perception that the subjects his association represents are increasingly irrelevant.

But “it doesn’t seem to be affecting the demand from business, from government, from the non-profit sector for people with these backgrounds,” he adds.

Mr. Miller points to a 2016 study from the University of Ottawa’s Education Policy Research Initiative. That study shows that, while they trail the STEMS in terms of income, humanities and social sciences graduates (excluding fine-arts graduates, who truly were born to suffer) typically find work right after graduating, start out with decent salaries, and see their income rise robustly, reaching an average of between $57,000 and $62,000 a year after eight years, which isn’t bad at all.

“While it has been commonly assumed that studying in [the humanities and social sciences] leads to low earnings levels and limited career progression – i.e., the barista myth – the evidence presented here suggests otherwise,” the reports’ authors conclude.

We live in a time when knowledge is money. We sell the humanities and social sciences short when we devalue the knowledge − the historical perspective, the critical thinking, the ability to weave disparate strands of information into a coherent whole − that a degree in one of these fields provides.

As for the shouting matches on campuses that get so much attention in the press, “If we lost that, if none of our students took positions or argued vehemently or were activists, we would be the poorer for it,” Dr. Woolf believes. Besides, he adds, things were much wilder in the Sixties.

It is true that we face a schism between the right to speak and the right to be respected, between the reality that race and class and gender and sexuality advantage some and disadvantage others, and the equal reality that no one should be required to submit in remorseful silence to those who accuse them of sins they never committed.

Wisdom is found in synthesis, which is a skill and a value taught by the old-school disciplines.

“If I had a wish it would be that all our disciplines would be a little more inclusive of the other disciplines,” Dr. Woolf says.

We need, Mr. Miller believes, to get past the shouting, and instead “to do the nuts-and-bolts work of creating an enlightened, open-minded, curiosity-driven country. It happens every day in thousands of classrooms,” he observes.

There are no headlines in what goes on in the classrooms where no one shouts. But if we value what happens there, he adds, “I think we can start another conversation.”


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