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.