The future of the liberal arts: A global conversation is the latest in Universities Canada’s ongoing work as a convenor of dialogues on topics of importance to Canadians.
Organized in partnership with the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the two-day workshop brought together leaders from 40 Canadian universities and external stakeholders in Montreal in March 2016 to discuss the future of the liberal arts for the benefit of Canadians.
Presenters included higher education leaders from the United States, Asia and across Canada. The sharing of ideas and promising practices touched on topics from employer demand to re-envisioning the academy.
“Many students and their parents now seek a clear and early connection between the undergraduate experience and employment. Vocationalism exerts pressure for substantive changes in the curriculum and substitutes a preoccupation with readily marketable skills.”
That message could explain, in part, why Canada has seen an average decline in liberal arts enrolments of 20 percent in recent years. But the quote was actually written in 1977 by the late Donald L. Berry, professor of philosophy at Colgate University in the United States. Concern about the future of the liberal arts is not new.
What is new is the serious decline in liberal arts enrolment at Canadian universities in recent years, particularly in certain regions, and the abundance of attacks on the value of the liberal arts in media commentary – the latter doing much to drive the former.
This matters because Canada needs the liberal arts. In our global knowledge economy, employer demand for the skills and abilities nurtured through the liberal arts is growing. And more broadly, our increasingly complex, multicultural and technologically advanced world needs the knowledge, skills and adaptability that are integral to an education in the humanities and social sciences.
The liberal arts help us navigate disruptive change and build an innovative, prosperous and inclusive Canada. This growing economic and social imperative was the impetus for Universities Canada to organize an international forum on the future of the liberal arts in March 2016.
“You’re not just going to get narrow specialties. You’re going to get the ability to innovate and adapt in an economy in which the jobs most of you are going to have don’t even exist yet. In an economy where, on average, you will change jobs 15 times before you retire. If you’re too narrowly specialized, you’re not ready for that economy.”
“How do you prepare students for a life of careers, not a career for a life?”
“Since the turn of the century, we’ve seen a surge in experiential learning in engineering, business and medical science, and as a result, general arts students are being left behind. While the talent pool is improving overall, the erosion of liberal arts is a problem for universities and business. In business, we need a lot more of the soft skills that campuses were traditionally good at.”
“Employers increasingly want employees with global understanding and cultural sophistication. That is what a liberal arts education [gives]. The value of a liberal arts education is worth the private and public investment — engaged citizens, workforce development and a strong society.”
“There must be bold action to cultivate an entrepreneurial and creative society. Can we get to a place where “innovation” is thought of as a core Canadian value? I believe so, if we properly leverage our talent and our diversity.”
“As a multicultural country of Indigenous peoples and immigrants playing in the global arena, Canada needs a citizenry that learns and studies human differences, social behaviours and cultural traditions. It needs a citizenry that encourages respect for human rights. It needs a citizenry that encourages artistic creation and appreciation of the arts. The humanities and social sciences engage in these intersections, and contribute to what makes us human.”
“The arts teach you how to learn and how to interpret information in different ways … and help students be adaptable and able to meet changing demands.”
“Research must transcend university walls; it must be open to the world and it must, more than ever, be the result of exchanges: of collaboration between disciplines, of the meeting of cultures, of partnerships between academia and practitioners, and it must address both scientific and public concerns.”
“[Interdisciplinarity] is important, because how do we communicate science in a way that makes sense to people? …Pairing my environmental science [degree] with Indigenous governance was a perfect meld for me in really understanding how humans and the environment interact.”
“Technologies will require us to reset, rethink and reimagine what we can do for education.”
“I had a ton of different opportunities especially in liberal arts. I had the opportunity to go on multiple kinds of exchanges, I got to be part of different student associations, I had the opportunity to work really closely with my professors and do research, so many things I never anticipated.”