UBC President's Speeches and Writings

The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century : More Important Than Ever Ono, Santa Jeremy 2019-05-08

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The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century: More Important Than Ever May 8, 2019 Carr Lecture St. Mark’s College, Vancouver Thank you, Dr. Meehan. It’s an honour to be here. I’m proud that UBC and St. Mark’s have been associated for over 60 years, while we’ve partnered with Corpus Christi almost 25 years. We not only share scholarship and resources, students and faculty, we share a common commitment to scholarship and service to humanity. St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi both have a stellar reputation for liberal arts education. It’s something that you should be proud of, and yet, today we find ourselves having to defend the value of a liberal arts education. I’d like to start by quoting one of these critics: “The social sciences are fighting for life, the humanities against death. What is certain is that neither is properly adjusted to the educational and social needs of the modern world.” There’s nothing unusual about that statement except that it was written in 1964 – fifty-five years ago. So obviously people have been predicting that the humanities have been doomed for a long time! These critics – including politicians and media commentators – dismiss the liberal arts as irrelevant in the 21st century, and suggest that universities and colleges should concentrate on producing STEM graduates rather than historians, and scholars in literature and similar fields. I certainly agree that Canada and the world needs more graduates in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. At the same time, we still need the liberal arts, now more than ever. I’ll give you just two examples. First, just a few weeks ago, the world watched in horror as the steeple of Notre Dame Cathedral toppled and flames engulfed the historic building. Immediately, a number of questions were being asked. How do we make sense of such a tragedy? Why did this fire get so much attention compared to the destruction of other relics? Why did donations to restore the building flood in when other worthy causes go neglected? Should France rebuild the cathedral as it was, or should it use the opportunity to re-envision Notre Dame for the 21st century? As France, and the world, grapples with these questions, the humanities – philosophy, religious studies, history, architecture, art history and more can – and will – help inform the conversation. Another example: recently the world observed Earth Day, is held to raise awareness of the dangers of environmental destruction and climate change. The same week saw the publication of Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich. I urge you all to read its compelling narrative about climate change and the chance we had to save the Earth three decades ago. The author of Losing Earth was not a climate scientist; he was a liberal arts graduate. I would argue that his humanities background helped make his message even more powerful, because his liberal arts education gave him the critical thinking skills, and the perspective to bring home the poignancy of our lost chance to save the Earth’s environment. These are just two examples out of many that show that the liberal arts matter more than ever. We need the liberal arts to help make sense of our world – as we grapple with issues like climate change, with hatred and prejudice, with economic inequality, with runaway technological change – the humanities can give us the critical thinking skills and the perspective to deal with these issues. As, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, recently wrote in his book Robot-Proof, the humanities are even more important as the pace of technological change increases. Allow me to quote from his book: “Intellectually, morally and spiritually, the humanities are among the most fertile grounds on which to nurture a complete human being. They form the foundation of a life well-lived and the furnishings of a civilized mind.” No matter how much we rely on technology, we still need to deal primarily with humans, Dr. Aoun notes. As he says, “Even the engineer needs to consider human interfaces, and even the programmer must learn to be a storyteller.” Some critics might respond that while that’s all very nice, for most students, majoring in the humanities will not lead to a rewarding career. Get a liberal arts education and you’ll end up as a barista in a coffee shop, they say. But here are some statistics that refute that: 55 percent of the world’s professional leaders are social sciences and humanities grads. Humanities graduates are just as well paid as those in the sciences. Ten years after graduation, the average humanities grad earns as much as the average math or natural science grad. Employers want the skills that humanities grads have.  According to a study of Canada’s largest employers, employers value soft skills over technical knowledge, especially relationship-building, communication and problem-solving skills, analytical and leadership abilities. These are attributes that are developed and refined through studies in the social sciences and humanities. But we cannot feel complacent about the importance of the humanities. The liberal arts need to adapt to the times in order to stay relevant. Cardinal Newman once said that the purpose of liberal knowledge is to prepare graduates “to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility”. In his day that would have meant classical studies, as well as law, literature, history and philosophy. But today, it would include computer science, communications and cultural awareness. I’m heartened to see that liberal arts colleges such as Corpus Christi and St. Mark’s are adapting. If you look at the calendars for the two institutions, you’ll see courses in computer science, economics, film studies, psychology. And the course content in other disciplines – philosophy, political science, history, biology – has also changed to reflect new discoveries and new challenges. The humanities are changing at UBC as well. Let me give you a few examples. UBC is increasingly emphasizing experiential learning. For the liberal arts that means integrating traditional liberal arts skills with technological proficiencies to give students the tools of the digital humanities and computational social sciences. We continue our efforts to increase the number of experiential learning opportunities for UBC students, through international learning, internships, co-ops, service learning, research, leadership and professional skills development in a variety of settings. Liberal arts students at UBC are encouraged to embrace coop work experiences. UBC’s co-operative learning program – largely based in our Faculty of Arts – represents the largest in Western Canada and it provided students and employers with more than 6,000 work placements annually. UBC collaborates with community, industry, government and university partners to provide a variety of transformative learning experiences to students. The university has integrated experiential learning opportunities across a wide range of programs, including the liberal arts, to make them more accessible to students. A few more specific examples: Arts One is an established eight-month program that features learning in small groups with an integrated, interdisciplinary curriculum. We offer numerous interdisciplinary programs – our Asian Studies department alone offers 15 such programs These programs bring humanities and social science and often science and creative arts students and faculty together. They tend to be focused around either an issue or a topic, whether that’s migration, the environment, inequality or technology – and students come together from different perspectives to think about these questions. These are just a few of the ways that UBC keeps the liberal arts relevant and responsive to the needs of the day. As I said earlier, the world faces major challenges – poverty, inequality, violence, climate change – and the liberal arts can help us face those challenges. Just as the liberal arts were relevant in Cardinal Newman’s time they remain relevant today, and will be even more important in the years ahead. Thank you.  

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