All Posts Tagged With: "liberal arts"
Students connect through Potter clubs and classes
Two summers ago when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 arrived at the cinema in Ancaster, Ont., Stephanie Kesler took the day off work and lined up for 12 hours to make sure she got a good seat. Afterward, Kesler, now 23, says she felt “a little bit sad.” Growing up she had eagerly anticipated each of J.K. Rowling’s books and films. “That was my whole childhood.”
But last semester, the third-year English student at Western University in London, Ont., realized that the end of the series didn’t mean saying goodbye. In her children’s literature course, Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban was on the syllabus.
For her class assignment, Kesler presented to her peers on the symbolism of Rowling’s Dementors, dark creatures that suck the life out of people, and the Patronus Charm, the only thing that can fight them off. She likened the Dementors to depression and the Patronas to overcoming it through positive thinking.
Not far away at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., dozens of wizarding fans had a similar idea. Emma Morrison, a third-year Medieval Studies and Religion major, had started a chapter of The Harry Potter Alliance, a global network of campus and community clubs where Potter fans jointly work for social justice. The Laurier chapter’s first big project focused on Dementors and depression. After a social media campaign promoting awareness of mental health services on campus, the group held a Yule Ball (a Hogwarts-inspired formal) during February mid-terms. “We wanted to have something fun to allow people to let loose in their time of stress,” she says. More than 220 showed up for butter beer and dancing.
Professor Gabrielle Ceraldi, who teaches children’s literature at Western, is unsurprised by the focus on the Dementors. “Emotional states in the series are always represented through magic,” she says. Hogwarts, the school for witches and wizards, is bewildering, much like university, she points out. “The staircases never stay in the same place from one period of class to the next.”
Ceraldi, who has only just heard about the Harry Potter Alliance, will soon teach what she believes is the first Canadian course fully dedicated to the books. She has also just learned about the Quidditch leagues where students use broomsticks and throw Quaffles, yet another of the ways today’s university students are connecting to each other and to school through Harry Potter.
Harry helps them connect to school by introducing academic themes. One obvious example is the classism Hermione Granger highlights with her Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (SPEW), a group she starts to fight for the underclass toiling in Hogwarts’ kitchens. Harry and Ron first turn up their noses at Hermione, “but, in the end,” Ceraldi says, “grasping the value of house elves becomes pivotal to the triumph of good over evil.”
Morrison, the Laurier student, suggests that the theme of classism was inspired by Rowling’s own life. “Before she published Harry Potter, [Rowling] was a single mom who didn’t have a lot of money and relied on the government for a lot of what she was able to provide her children,” she points out.
Racism is exemplified in the mudbloods, people who come from muggle (non-magic) families and end up being capable of magic. At one point in the series, the mudbloods are accused of stealing wands from true witches and wizards, which leads to (ironically) a witch hunt.
Classism and racism were both considered by the Laurier chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance this year when they learned about child labour on African cocoa plantations and then collected signatures on a petition demanding Warner Bros. use fair trade chocolate in all their Potter treats.
But the Laurier chapter isn’t just for humanitarian work. Morrison says it’s also a place “where fans can get together and nerd out.” One just-for-fun meeting offered tea leaf readings.
Ceraldi says the Potter books offer more than social justice lessons. In her upcoming course they will provide an entry to other genres of fiction, including Gothic, dystopian and detective. Students may be asked to compare one book to a Sherlock Holmes novel and another to a story by Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell who, long before Rowling, used a mirror to symbolize self-reflection.
Though it’s not until January, Ceraldi is getting many e-mails from students wanting to sign up. They’re keen, she says, writing things like, ‘I am the person I am today because of those books.’
That, she says, is unsurprising. “They know these stories have incredible power and meaning.”
Prof. Pettigrew: We neglect our great truths at our peril.
Another day, another attack on the liberal arts.
This time it’s the great state of Florida, where governor Rick Scott’s task force suggests that university students enrolling in so-called STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) should pay less tuition than those enrolling in arts programs. That arts programs cost less to offer, is, apparently, besides the point. That not everyone is interested in or has the aptitude for science (never mind math!) seems irrelevant too.
But worst of all is the facile presumption, stated once again by influential government advisers, that the main function of a degree is to qualify the graduate for a job in the knowledge economy.
Pettigrew applies logic to the debate over the value of arts
We scholars of the arts are used to the attitude that what we do is a luxury at best and a silly waste of time at the worst. But one rarely sees that contempt stated as baldly as it was last week by Luisa D’Amato in The Guelph Mercury.
For now, let’s just remember that people do other things than work. They vote, and serve on juries, and raise their kids, and make a thousand critical judgements over the course of their lives.
Wouldn’t it be nice if some of them had been taught to think about more than how to build and market the next generation of smart phones?
But will business degrees really lead to better jobs?
Communication, critical thinking and problem solving are just a few of the skills that are gained from an arts education. But for many students, that list of skills doesn’t add up to a job, so they’re choosing business instead.
Worries about the decline of the Bachelor of Arts aren’t new. But when Ontario universities welcomed their biggest class ever this year, the headlines masked the fact that arts programs shrunk in size again in the province, this year by 0.3 per cent. Job-focused programs such as business accounted for much of the growth, increasing 2.9 per cent.
It’s not a new trend. Data from the Ontario Universities Application Centre (OUAC) show that between 2006 and 2010, in the average year, arts confirmations for first-year students coming from high school decreased on average by five per cent (that includes fine and applied arts, humanities, and social sciences). Business and commerce saw an increase of approximately 12 per cent.
From dirt and dreams to student favourite: what’s different about Quest University is pretty much everything
When Celeta Cook of Deseronto, Ont., applied five years ago as a 17-year-old to Quest University, the hilltop site in the coastal mountain community of Squamish, B.C., was little more than dirt and dreams. “I did my preview day in a hard hat and a reflective vest,” says Cook, now part of Quest’s first grad class this April 30. The library will be finished, she was promised, “it just hasn’t been built yet.” Far from being put off, she was excited. “All right,” she said, “I’ll see you guys in September.” She was one of 73 students in 2007. There are now about 300, as it builds toward its capacity of 650—still smaller than most of the high schools the students came from.
For Cook, it was a good fit. Quest, a private, not-for-profit undergraduate liberal arts and sciences university, is not for the faint of heart. Its promotional literature welcomes “iconoclasts, convention-challengers, pioneers, risktakers, edge seekers, creators . . . ” The same criteria apply to its faculty, and certainly its outgoing president, David J. Helfand, who divides his time between two coasts. He’s a teacher and administrator at Quest, and he chairs the astronomy department at New York’s Ivy League Columbia University.
An enterprise that has the silliness baked right in
I’m vexed when it comes to the subject of Mary-Lu Zahalan-Kennedy’s world-first “graduate degree in the Beatles”, which has made the Canadian singer and future Sheridan College instructor an ephemeral worldwide celebrity. The sneerers are out in force on the net, which was predictable, if weirdly anachronistic in the year 2011. Apparently the souls of those who got huffy about “more popular than Jesus” and the Boer War pensioners who couldn’t tell if the Beatles were male or female have somehow transmigrated into the bodies of present-day philistines.
Put simply, the Beatles are one of the pivotal cultural phenomena of the 20th century, and if they are beneath the notice of the liberal arts, then anything is. Any argument against graduate-level study of the Beatles—whose compositions Deryck Cooke, one of the greatest of musicologists, thought worthy of his attention—would extend readily to cover any popular idiom, throwing its penumbra naturally over operetta and ballet and zarzuela and the blues. Before you could say “Bach’s your uncle,” there would be nothing left of musicology at all beyond the deconstruction of fugues.
Moreover, the actual stuff of Zahalan-Kennedy’s thesis, unmentioned in most reports, sounds fascinating. Who knew that the Beatles hit big here in Canada as early as 1962? That’s a story worth re-telling after half a century. Maybe even in Maclean’s magazine!
But on the other hand…there is a heavy thumbprint of marketing on this piece of news, and it’s tough to watch Ms. Zahalan-Kennedy defending the seriousness of an enterprise that has the silliness baked right in. It’s tough, in part, because one senses that she will have to do it for the rest of her life. But there’s also the issue that her degree from Liverpool Hope University is hardly groundbreaking in any real respect; surely it’s just a bog-standard cultural-studies/history credential from an otherwise undistinguished (albeit conveniently situated) institution? The academy doesn’t really give out degrees “in” the Beatles, any more than it gives them out “in” Christopher Marlowe or Greek koiné or leptons, or for that matter the Dave Clark Five. It’s the process and the standards, not the particular subject matter, that are supposed to be the point.
As an assignment editor could probably figure out if he sat down and thought about it for a moment, there are probably dozens if not hundreds of people who have already received advanced degrees on the basis of Beatle-related thesis content. As Hunter Davies noted in his authorized biography-cum-handbook The Beatles:
In the early 1980s, I was asked to be an outside examiner for a student at London University who was doing a Ph.D. on the Beatles. I thought it was a leg-pull at first. I’d heard that some minor American universities had introduced such studies, but not any British ones, certainly not one as distinguished and rigorous as London University. I can still remember her name, Melody Ziff. She was, in fact, American, but London University had accepted her to study for a Ph.D. Her thesis, as I remember, was called “The Beatles’ lyrics as poetry”.
Today, there are universities, colleges, and schools all over the globe, eminent and otherwise, offering courses that include a study of the Beatles…
The philistines will question the “cash value” of close study of the Beatles, and while that is beside the point, it still seems remarkable given the unquestionably enormous number of people, from the time of the Monkees to that of Oasis, who have made millionaires of themselves by raiding the Beatles’ bag of tricks. There have to be at least as many of those as there are rich economists or physicists.
The push to make grads more job-ready may be killing the liberal arts tradition
Ian Collins was almost a cliché. He finished a degree in visual arts at the University of Western Ontario and then spent four years waiting tables. “I was going in for job interviews, but I wouldn’t get the job,” explains the Toronto resident. The deal breaker? “It was always because someone else had real-world experience.” So Collins decided to enrol in a one-year diploma in sport and event marketing at George Brown College because, he says, it had a built-in internship. That led to a job after graduation, and now he’s an account executive at the marketing firm Zoom Media. At 31, Collins has his career on track. “College helped me by getting my foot in the door,” he says.
It’s no wonder students like Collins are looking to college for a different path. Despite the fact that Canada has the second-highest rate of education spending in proportion to our GDP, we’re nearly the worst of the 32 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries when it comes to placing grads in jobs they are qualified for. That’s especially hard to swallow considering the price of education today. With student debt load reaching a record high—nearly $27,000 for university students last year and about half that for college grads—more Canadians than ever before are considering college as a less expensive, more job-oriented alternative to the ivory towers.
Following the trend at universities, college presidents across the country are reporting increased enrolment since the recession. While Statistics Canada does not have recent numbers for the colleges, the Association of Canadian Community Colleges expects enrolment levels to be at an all-time high this year.
Converts like Collins are not the only ones praising the college alternative these days. Bill Green, chairman and CEO of the $21.6-billion consulting firm Accenture, is an outspoken advocate of community colleges. The greatest proof of his commitment: he convinced his 21-year-old son David to go to Dean, a community college in Massachusetts, instead of one of America’s elite private universities. “I believe many people who attend universities might be better served attending a community college to get started,” says Green, also a Dean graduate. “Colleges have been overlooked, undervalued and underappreciated for far too long.”
In the U.S., community colleges are seen as a panacea for the country’s economic woes: President Barack Obama and second lady Jill Biden held the first-ever White House summit on community colleges in October. International foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also pledged millions of dollars to community colleges.
Even those on the inside of the ivory towers advise students to consider their options. Laura Penny, a professor at Mount Saint Vincent in Halifax and author of More Money Than Brains, an acerbic tome about higher education today, says university is too often seen as the default after high school. “People who want a broad experience or who are going to qualify for medicine, law or graduate degrees should go to university.”
Everyone else, she says, should look elsewhere. “I think a lot of people who go to university would be much happier in community college, and less indebted. Especially if what they are looking for is the credential for a job. A university degree does not guarantee a job.”
Ashley Pelletier took the college route after high school. Now, at 24, she has already landed a job as an associate at a big accounting firm in Toronto. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was in high school, and going to college didn’t require all the specific courses that are required for university.” She applied to a variety of programs at Seneca College and settled on accounting.
There, she found small class sizes, helpful teachers and lots of guidance for her career. “You get to know your profs and all of them had relevant industry experience,” she explains. “University is totally theoretical, whereas the professors at college are more practical.” While in college, she worked at RBC Dexia, and then translated her accounting and ﬁnance diploma into an accounting degree at York University. She sees her three years at Seneca as a bridge to her career. “It was a long haul but I don’t think I would have done as well at university if I didn’t start at college.”
Pelletier’s experience—capping a college diploma with a university degree—is also indicative of the increasingly porous border between colleges and universities. Seneca College president David Agnew says colleges and universities used to have distinct purposes, but “now, that’s completely changed.”
If governments won’t support the liberal arts, someone else is going to have to do it.
Canadians have for many years been justly proud of their system of public universities. And as with publicly-insured health care, our system of government-funded universities serves as a means to distinguish us from the U.S. Sure, we say, Harvard and Yale may be great schools, but their costs make them almost exclusively for the elite few, while working-class Americans have to settle for modest state schools or community colleges that no one takes seriously. Here in Canada, by contrast, anyone can go to any of our high quality public universities.
So far, so good, but the times are changing, and changing fast. It is increasingly an accepted article of faith among university administrators and government officials alike that universities are economic levers. As such, programs that seem to have a clear economic benefit — business, engineering, computer science — are increasingly understood as the disciplines that matter, while the traditional areas of studies — the liberal arts in particular — are viewed as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and economically unsustainable.
Like many professors of the humanities, I have railed against this view, with no success. No matter how many times people like me argue that education ought not to be mainly about training workers who can create value for corporations, the march of the Philistines goes on. No matter how many times people like me point out that research shows how liberal arts grads actually end up doing better economically than graduates from applied programs, English Literature still appears to be the discipline you can’t do anything with, while Entrepreneurship seems street smart and savvy.
So be it. Governments have the right to fund what they see as important and if the electorate doesn’t make an issue of it, I suppose we shouldn’t expect our politicians to do so either. The barbarians aren’t at the gate: they’re in the cockpit.
But if governments refuse to properly fund and support and promote the liberal arts, they should allow — indeed, by all rights they must allow — the creation of private universities for those same liberal arts. It’s one thing to deny funds to such programs. It’s entirely another to deny the whole populace the right to pursue the kinds of education they want. Notice, by the way, that I am not talking about for-profit institutions, only institutions that do not rely on regular government funding.
Can such institutions be viable? I think they can be, though the gestation period will be long and difficult. For one thing, they would require a certain amount of start-up capital, and that would mean private donors. But building a foundation of private donations is not impossible, and many existing universities got their start just that way. Such donations would go mainly towards building and furnishing a building (or renovating an existing structure), providing books for the library, and creating an endowment from which an annual investment revenue could be drawn to continue to cover the maintenance costs.
Once a base of donations has been gathered and the start-up costs have been covered, the running of a small liberal arts college is actually extremely cost efficient. Without expensive labs and scientific equipment, and with an endowment to help cover day-to-day costs, the largest expense for such an institution would be faculty salaries, and these could be covered through tuition. I could imagine a small, credible liberal arts university with, let’s say, five departments: Literature, History, Philosophy, Anthropology/Sociology, and Languages. We could tweak the exact organization and complement, but let’s start there for argument’s sake. Now, let’s imagine five members in each department, and let’s say every faculty member teaches 3 courses per year with 30 students in each class. That’s enough room for 450 students taking a full course load. Now, let’s say each of those students pays something near the top end of the existing Canadian tuition scale (and why not for an elite liberal arts school?) or $7000 per year. That’s about $3.2 million in revenue. Our 25 faculty members, making, let’s say $75 000 per year, cost about $1.9 million for their salaries, leaving us a surplus of over a million dollars to spend on other things such as administrative costs.
Readers might argue with the particular details and the exact arithmetic, but the basic point holds: a small, private liberal arts university would not be particularly expensive to run. And with a small faculty and student body, the army of administrative staff that bogs down the budgets of other universities could be largely, though not entirely, avoided. There would be no need for Deans or Chairs or their secretaries. Similarly, by focusing only on academics, needless expenses like football teams can be forgone, too. Many aspects of campus life — residences, food services, the bookstore — could support themselves with the revenue they generate.
But why would anyone go there? For one thing, there is still a large number of students (and parents) who understand that the joys of communing with the great minds of our past and present are too great to pass up. Moreover, such a university would attract the very best scholars and teachers in the relevant fields, because Canadian liberal arts professors generally feel undervalued and would jump at the chance to teach in a small university dedicated only to their disciplines.
Moreover, employers would scramble to hire graduates from my little university because they would recognize that their well-developed curiosity, imagination, and critical faculties make them much more valuable in the long run than graduates from public universities trained in technologies that will be obsolete in five years. And so students will be all the more eager to attend, knowing that a degree from Pettigrew University really means something.
But wait, don’t such colleges already exist as public universities? They do, but given current trends, they won’t in the long run, and those who want to save the liberal arts traditions from the unexamined dustbin of history have to start preparing now. If we don’t, the last university liberal arts program will be cut by the end of the century, long after there are enough people left who remember why it mattered.
But to start now we need to do two things. First, start keeping your eye out for rich people who want to leave a legacy akin to, say, the Stanford family and when you find them, encourage them to establish a foundation for a private liberal arts university. And get them to tell their friends, too. Second, give up the notion that Canadian universities all have to remain public and get your provincial government to give it up, too.
Once you’ve done those things, contact me, and I will take it from there.
Students are still flocking to study the soft sciences
Everywhere you look, someone is arguing that the government doesn’t pay sufficient attention to the liberal arts. All 19 Canadian Excellence Research Chairs (CERC), announced last month, came from technical fields, prompting sharp rebuke from the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences. More recently, on Saturday, the Globe and Mail ran an interview with University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum to discuss her new book Not for profit: Why Democracy needs the Humanities.
I have not yet had the opportunity to read Nussbaum’s book, so I will reserve comment on it. But, the interviewer prefaces the conversation with what seems to be a widely held belief: “As the critical thinking taught by the humanities is replaced by the unexamined life of the job-seekers, our ability to argue rights and wrongs is silenced.” There are a number of assumptions loaded into this statement. Presumably, the humanities, once dominant in university, have been “replaced” by more utilitarian fields. And, presumably, study of the humanities is required to “argue rights and wrongs.” On the latter point, I will defer to Andrew Potter who takes on the “Education for Freedom” argument.
The notion that the liberal arts have been “replaced” is somewhat misleading. If we are talking about the government’s obsession with attempting to substitute private innovation with publicly funded innovation in the Ivory Tower, then, fine, the liberal arts may be under appreciated. Of course, there is little new in the Conservative government’s strategy towards universities. The debate surrounding the excellence chairs is essentially a reheating of the debate that Jean Chretien’s government sparked when it created the Canada Research Chairs program, and the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
Whatever might be the correct level of public funding for the liberal arts, be it for teaching or research, when we consider what students are actually studying there is little to suggest that the liberal arts are on their way out.
A Statistics Canada report, released in December, that surveyed university graduates between 1992 and 2007 confirms that the social sciences remains ever dominant, and that the proportion of students graduating from the humanities has remained steady. At 22 per cent, in 1992 the social and behavioural sciences and law graduated more students than any other category of university subjects. That number declined only slightly to 20 per cent by 2007, yet retained the number one position. As for the humanities, it retained its fourth place ranking with 11.3 per cent of all university graduates, also declining only slightly from 12.8 per cent.
There were slight increases to the number of students graduating in the hard sciences and health-related fields, but the proportion of students graduating from any given field has barely budged. While Statscan reported other demographic changes, such as a widening of the gender gap, and a greater proportion of international students attending Canadian universities, “there has been relatively little change in the overall composition of graduates’ fields of study.”
Although the data Statscan has used is somewhat dated, the period being considered featured major shifts in Canadian higher education. Federal funding was gutted during the mid-nineties and when the money returned, it was increasingly focused on research that would presumably be useful for economic growth. Not to mention more emphasis being placed on marketable skills for students.
While replacement of the liberal arts may still be in the future, the fact that it hasn’t occurred already suggests that the liberal arts are more robust than the constant predictions of their imminent decline would have us believe. Despite what would seem like Ottawa’s and the province’s best efforts, students are attracted to the liberal arts as much as they ever were.
Such interest would appear to hold true in the face of declining rates of return for graduates of these fields. A paper published last June in Education Economics that analyzed National Graduate Survey dating back to the 1980s concluded that “substantial increases in lifetime earnings” would be needed “to draw students into fields of study they are not inclined to choose initially.” This implies that once students make up their minds to major in, say, English, it is not so easy to get them to switch to, say, engineering, simply by emphasizing the difference in economic returns.
So while governments may need convincing as to the value of the social sciences and the humanities, whatever that may be, students need no convincing. In short, the liberal arts are not going anywhere.
Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems
Spend long enough studying philosophy, and eventually someone — most likely a member of your family — is going to ask, “what are you going to do with that?” It’s a tough question to answer, since philosophy isn’t really something you do something with, like a screwdriver. It’s more like something you just do — like fly fishing. But academic philosophy, like every other department in the university, is in the selling game, trying to attract customers and the money they bring, money that enables you and your colleagues to keep doing philosophy.
And so during my time in academia, I spent a number of days at university fairs, these events in big convention-style halls where you set up a little booth, pile a few texbooks in front of you, and wait for prospective students to wander by. And when they do — parents hovering skeptically in the background — they want to know why they should study philosophy. One year, I remember manning the booth with a fellow grad student, and we had come up with what we thought was a pretty clever sales pitch. “It’s great preparation for law school,” we told our customers. “Think of it as like cross-training for your brain.” etc.
The truth is, neither of us really had two clues why anyone should study philosophy, or what you would do with it. It didn’t really bother us though, since philosophy was interesting, we were young and curious, and the harder, more pressing questions seemed a long way off. But the fact that the best we could do by way of justification for philosophy was its instrumental or technocratic benefits says a lot about our own disciplinary insecurity and the ideological tenor of the times (which, it has to be said, has only intensified over the last decade).
So that’s one bad way of defending philosophy (feel free to substitute your own favoured discipline for “philosophy”). The value of studying philosophy can’t be that it’s a form of preparation for law school, or that it provides a sophisticated critical/analytic training for your brain.
But at the same time, the liberal arts has to be useful in some sense, doesn’t it? I say this because there is a defense of the “squishy subjects” that makes the opposite error, by making their value far too, well, squishy. A case in point is a recent piece by Peter Berkowitz of the Hoover Institution, which was printed in the Wall Street Journal. According to Berkowitz, the true aim of liberal education is to prepare citizens for the proper exercise of freedom. “Education for freedom” or “Education for citizenship” is an old idea; here’s Berkowitz’s version of it:
How can one think independently about what kind of life to live without acquiring familiarity with the ideas about happiness and misery, exaltation and despair, nobility and baseness that study of literature, philosophy and religion bring to life? How can one pass reasoned judgment on public policy if one is ignorant of the principles of constitutional government, the operation of the market, the impact of society on perception and belief and, not least, the competing opinions about justice to which democracy in America is heir?
This makes me more or less uncomfortable, depending on how we are interpret the thesis. On a “strong” interpretation, Berkowitz comes close to saying that only people who have studied the liberal arts are truly indepedent thinkers and are positioned to judge public policy. At the extreme, only these people are truly citizens. I’ve never really been persuaded by these sorts of arguments, and it strikes me as a dangerous route for the defenders to take by moralizing the study of the liberal arts. It is a commonly held position in academic circles though — more than a few humanities profs console themselves with the thought that even if they aren’t as important or as well paid as the hotshots in the sciences or engineering faculties, at least they are better people.
A weaker version of the thesis says something like the following: A healthy society provides a cadre of intellectuals with the time, space, money, and resources to think deeply and broadly about all sorts of questions. The goal of these inquiries is not “freedom” or “citizenship”, and it certainly isn’t more questions. The answers matter because the questions matter, though their practicality or application may not be always relevant or obvious. But it is worth having people think and argue about all sorts of things: immigration, equality, justice, voting behaviour, constitutionalism, race, culture, language, class and on and on, because we don’t really know what sort of problems we’ll face as a society.
On this view of things, the liberal arts work sort of the same way as your immune system. Your immune system doesn’t know what specific invasions it will face, so it just generates billions of shapes of antibodies, hoping that one of them will match the relevant antigen. I could go on, except I seem to have arrived at pretty much the same answer given by Paul Wells, in his excellent essay on the subject, which you must read if you haven’t yet.
The upshot: Study philosophy if you are bothered by philosophical problems. Study history if you are interested in problems in history. Etc. If you are lucky, you will have an interesting career. If you are very good and also very lucky, your work will be relevant and useful.
The liberal arts can be invaluable when students are encouraged to think critically
Just saying the word makes my coffee-pouring hand start to tingle.
But are we history/philosophy/literature buffs really destined for a life behind the counter at Starbucks? Is the inherent value of a soft science subject essential to the holistic self? Or has post-secondary ideological warfare destroyed any worth to be found in Sociology 101?
Those seem to be the questions on the public mind these days. Paul Wells from Maclean’s and Margaret Wente from the Globe and Mail both printed pieces on the value of the liberal arts course a few weeks ago. (Note: all further references to “liberal arts” should be accompanied by a hissing sound.) They’re interesting reads, with starkly opposing views. You can check them out here and here if you want, but I’ll summarize below.
Wells’ “In Praise of the Squishy Subjects,” which was originally written for the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, emphasizes the value of soft sciences. He uses examples to show how funding research in fields like criminology and sociology can offer economical return, though that’s not really his main point. After all, “No social scientist can win a fight for scarce funds if the debate is framed in terms of return on investment,” Wells writes, “because nobody who will make the investment will be able to tear their gaze away from the competition’s lab coats and microscopes.”
Instead, emphasizes Wells, the value of a “squishy subject” is in its ability to evoke critical thinking.
If you spend a few years wrestling with the idea of society as propounded by Hobbes, Locke, Mill, Rousseau and Marx, you come away with a better understanding of all the alternative ways our own society might choose to configure itself, with their attendant risks.
[. . .]
This sort of study instills in the student an appreciation for the richness of our human enterprise. It shows that the way we live is not the way we have always lived, nor is it the way everyone lives. It demonstrates the role of ideas and the possibility of massive change.
You never know what you’ll need to know, Wells points out. And if you’ve studied the ambiguities of the social sciences, you’ll be a lot more comfortable making connections, accepting the possibility of multiple answers, and thinking outside the box.
But ask Camille Paglia about the value of the contemporary social science course and you’ll get a totally different answer. Paglia, a social critic and professor of Humanities and Media Studies at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, was interviewed by Margaret Wente for her article “A landscape of death in the humanities.” In the Q&A piece, Paglia argues that the current trend toward hyperfocused humanities courses (Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, etc.) has eroded the overall purpose of higher education, which, she says, is to provide a broad overview and foundation for learning. She says:
I’ve met fundamentalist Protestants who’ve just come out of high school and read the Bible. They have a longer view of history than most students who come out of Harvard. The problem today is that professors feel they are far too sophisticated and important to do something as mundane as teach a foundation course.
[. . .]
But instead of that, the kids get ideology. They’re taught that global warming has been caused by factories. They have no idea there’s been climate change throughout history. And they’re scared into thinking that tsunamis are coming to drown New York.
Exploring the disconnect between the experiences of immigrant parents in education and the environment their children will experience
Here’s some mail I’ve been meaning to reply to, from a U.S. reader. It’s edited down somewhat for length:
My son is in his senior year of high school and he has applied to quite a few universities/colleges. In his school years, he has demonstrated his interest and strength in fine arts and he has received three acceptance letters [for study in this area]. Meanwhile, he also applied to some non-fine art majors including business, environmental sciences, and psychology and already received a few acceptance letters from [other reputable schools]. Now he is struggling to make his final decision on whether to go with his relatively stronger interest and strength in fine arts or with a non-fine art major for a realistic job market (better and more secured salary compensation) taking fine arts as his hobby. Since our college choices were chosen quite blindly when we were young in our motherland, China, we really can not help a lot for his decision. I really appreciate it if you could provide us with more tips or guidance for consideration.
Now here’s a common situation. Immigrants often prioritize education very highly (for somewhat obvious reasons) but at the same time may not have a very good idea of what’s going on in North America. I credit the father in this case for realizing as much and for seeking advice about how things work here rather than simply pushing his own experiences as an example to follow. I believe there are very significant differences between educational culture in China and educational culture in North America. But I must also acknowledge that there’s nothing “wrong” with the lessons and assumptions associated with the parents’ experiences in China. Their experiences are different, and may not apply to North American culture, but that doesn’t make them wrong. We all have our biases, and so I’d like to examine my own.
I am very firm about my advice to students that they should follow their interests and their aptitudes. I advise students to take time off school if they aren’t ready. I absolutely advise students to take “less practical” degrees if that is where their inclinations lead them, rather than compromise on something that seems safer. And I fully believe that the best job security available is to be really good and to genuinely care about the field you are in. There will always be jobs for people who are good at what they do. Hence, the “safe” thing to do, in my opinion, really is to stick with what you care about.
Coming from a campus where there are a lot of first and second generation immigrants (I’m second generation myself) I’ve found that a lot of students get family pressure in the opposite direction. They are pushed towards medicine and science and business (regardless of inclination) under the assumption that that’s the way to succeed. Exactly as the father in today’s letter suggests. You care about art? That’s nice. It will be a good hobby for you in your future career. Now get a real degree.
All of this came very clear to me, one day, when I was called out for my own assumptions about education. My ideas were called Western-centric or something like that. And the truth is – they are. No sense denying it. When I advise students to follow their passions and their interests I give that advice not because it’s some universal truth but rather because it works, here, in our cultural context. And I’ll illustrate from my own experiences.