On Campus

Relax, the liberal arts are not going anywhere

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.