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In my opinion

We need to challenge the primacy of “productivity” as an educational metric

A good education is not simply job training.


A recent study out of the University of Ottawa affirms the economic viability of liberal arts degrees. According to the data, eight years after graduation, the average social science graduate earns a little over $60,000 and the average humanities graduate a little under $60,000.

Defenders of the liberal arts were understandably enthusiastic. Here was empirical evidence that demonstrated the practicality of a degree in philosophy or sociology. For many of us, this is welcome news, since governments and even university administrators often demand that liberal arts disciplines justify their existence in economic terms. So, too, do anxious university applicants and sceptical parents want evidence that their investment in higher education will “pay off.”

However, while this particular study is new, the argument is old and growing tired. This same defense of the liberal arts crops up every few months in newspaper or magazine editorials. First the author presents the “surprising” statistics that prove arts grads really do make a good living! Almost invariably, the author then quotes a recent survey of CEOs who identify “critical thinking” and “problem solving skills” as desirable traits in new employees. Sometimes a CEO will be quoted citing the contributions anthropology majors have made to Silicon Valley.

There are several problems with this line of argument. First, if it were persuasive, we who work in the liberal arts wouldn’t have to make it every six months. Second, it’s a disingenuous argument, because if we measure degrees by economic payoff alone, computer science and engineering degrees are much better bets. More than that, by repeatedly making the case that liberal arts grads do “pretty well” after graduation, we implicitly concede that economic gain is the proper measure of educational value.

Those of us who care about the liberal arts need to start making more forceful and more honest arguments

The argument in favour of the liberal arts is not that graduates get respectable jobs with their degrees. The argument in favour of the liberal arts is that only a sick political climate uses economic productivity alone to measure human success. I suggest that those of us who care about the liberal arts need to start making more forceful and more honest arguments to defend our disciplines. A good education is not simply job training, and not all human goods can be assigned a cash value.

That we find ourselves in this absurd position of justifying the study of the Rwandan genocide or the novels of Jane Austen in monetary terms is a symptom of a broader cultural myopia: currently the only measure of political and cultural success is “job growth.” That has to change. We need to be more bullish on the essential role the liberal arts play in a healthy society.

Are our communities better or worse off if some of our citizens have spent time studying the history and purposes of our political institutions? Are we better or worse off if our citizens speak multiple languages and are acquainted with other cultures? Are we at an advantage or a disadvantage if our citizenry has a good understanding of world religions? The advantages of liberal arts education are clear, even if they cannot be measured numerically.

the goods acquired through the liberal arts are priceless

Consider some of the issues that have been dominating the headlines recently: the Syrian refugee crisis, the troubling ascension of Donald Trump, the scandal of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. With all due respect to my colleagues in other disciplines, none of these problems can be solved through major investments in STEM research. Science and engineering have clear roles to play in our communities, but so too do the liberal arts.

The liberal arts produce public goods. They produce the civil rights movement, feminism and marriage equality. We should not be so foolish as to pretend that any of the social and political progress we have made as humans would have been possible without the arguments that are first debated and tested in liberal arts classrooms.

Of course, I do not want to understate the importance of making a living wage. Putting food on the table and having a good job are justifiable reasons for pursuing postsecondary education. I am not suggesting that young people should study Aristotle and Nietzsche “for the love of learning” and ignore the claims of material necessity. Like most academics, I counsel my students about career options, write references letters for them and cheer on their professional successes after graduation. However, I believe we need to challenge the primacy of “productivity” as an educational metric. Those of us who have spent years in the study of Canadian poetry or medieval philosophy know that the goods acquired through the liberal arts – such as self-knowledge, political literacy and historical perspective – are priceless.

Andrew Moore is the director of the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University.

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  1. J. Y. B. / October 4, 2016 at 15:48

    I, as a recent graduate with both a BA and MA in a liberal arts discipline, agree that education should be about personal and communal enrichment and not simply on a vocational level. I devoted 5 prime years of my life to the liberal arts so I am clearly invested.

    However, I think arts faculties across the country need to work a lot harder to find a way to give their students’ some amount of work experience, especially in this current economic climate, and to sell the abilities of their students to employers. I find it embarrassing that so many of my fellow liberal arts grads get jobs out of school simply because they have a friend or family member in an HR department in a company, which gives them an “in.” Networking is key and you don’t network by writing essays all the time. Some of us moved to the big cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, or Toronto from small towns and by nature don’t have long-lasting connections throughout these cities. Plus, many of us aren’t from middle class or white collar familial backgrounds, meaning that we don’t even have friends in high places. I look back on my seminars at both undergrad and graduate levels and all I see are middle class privileged kids (and profs). I just don’t understand how people think that we can just write a couple awesome resumes (with relevant work experience) and put our educational credentials at the top and then *poof* you’ll get a basic entry-level job. It turns out that way of transitioning from higher education to the workforce isn’t much of a thing anymore. Liberal arts are becoming increasingly the option for the more well-to-do people in our society and that’s not good because they don’t know what it’s like to not know if you’ll have an income year to year.

    If the future of the arts is to be a supplementary education then one might as well just take some advanced trade and maybe take some arts courses on the side because we all can’t just walk out of school and get a job without a hitch anymore. Employers need to welcome arts graduates more overtly and advertise their jobs with something to the effect of “arts degree preferred” but that’s not going to happen as long as arts faculties sit around telling everyone that they teach transferable skills. Things will only change once arts faculties develop better connections to the communities around them so that businesses will be more willing to welcome graduates.

    Let’s not forget that education, living expenses during your education, and the money you lose out on while pursuing a degree, are much higher than they were when the old tenured generation walked institutional halls. No where in this article are tuition fees mentioned and that speaks volumes about how little regard or emphasis the author sees in the huge costs associated with getting a liberal arts degree. The payoff is not clear unless you’re from a middle class (or higher class) family with connections in business. I’m tired of hearing how valuable liberal arts are because that’s an argument reserved for the privileged in society.

  2. Sean K Lawrence / October 6, 2016 at 11:18

    You’re right, of course, that we shouldn’t measure human flourishing in terms of income alone. However, those who argue about the good which arts subjects do for society seem to reproduce the logic of measuring the “productivity” of a degree. The only difference is that they see “production” not in terms of producing income, but in terms of producing good citizens, likely to embrace certain values. The argument is equally instrumental.

    Moreover, it isn’t a very convincing argument. Many terrible people have been trained in humanities, and indeed, in the liberal education that we’d both wish to champion. (Heidegger comes immediately to mind).

    It is, as your final sentence makes clear, things like self-knowledge, political literacy and historical perspective that really matter. The problem is that we tend to identify these things with agreement with our own prejudices. I use the term “we” consciously; I agree with the political ends you put forward as goods produced by universities, just as I agree with the value of a liberal, humanities education.

    Even Cardinal Newman didn’t expect universities to teach morals, nor to inculcate his own catholic values. If what we want is to champion our own prejudices, then we don’t need humanities education. A different sort of ignorance would suffice.

  3. Peter Wilson / October 7, 2016 at 09:31

    Discussing the economic benefits of a particular degree program, does not deny that the program may have benefits that are not economic. Students though do have the right to inform themselves and make intelligent choices that suit their expectations, and we have the obligation to be honest and fair in our discussions with them. I always warn students that my discipline – physics – is a long and difficult program, and that their economic opportunities will be quite limited, especially for those who don’t graduate with an outstanding academic record.

  4. John / October 7, 2016 at 09:32

    Most of us can agree that there’s value in PSE of any kind – and that humanities and liberal arts studies have particular importance to dialogues in the public sphere, daily life, and personal development.

    The value of PSE should be measured in all terms though – this is how people make good decisions. Increased earning potential doesn’t cheapen the other values of an education in the arts. Increased earning potential shows that those skills you’ve learned are broadly applicable and valued in the market.

    A second issue I have with your article is your turfing attempt. No branch of people in a society has complete dominion over the topics of public discourse. An engineer, doctor, or janitor is not limited from understanding an issue by the fact that they didn’t go through some formal education. Ancients conferred no degrees, and yet made progress.

    I get where you’re coming from, and your reaction is more understandable in light of the attacks leveled on the arts. However, you should consider strongly improving your students ability to translate what they’ve learned to whatever they choose to do in their future. Their education isn’t about your opinions, it’s about the growth of those students and their lives.

  5. Lesley Cormack / October 7, 2016 at 11:31

    I completely agree. I would add that if we are to find a path to reconciliation (or perhaps more appropriately conciliation) with indigenous nations and peoples, liberal arts will be at the front of this project. Equally, solving climate change will not be primarily a technological solution, but a social one. And living a good life turns out to be important as well.