What can you “get” from a degree in the humanities, arts and social sciences?

October 07, 2011

It’s a question our community faces regularly from parents, students, donors, and even some colleagues in other disciplines. As a dean of graduate studies and president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, I hear it a lot.

In many ways, the question is tied to a larger discussion about the role and purpose of universities in society. Canadian institutions’ relationships to their communities, regions and the country are continuously evolving. And, they face undeniable pressures from governments, employers and students to align the benefits of a university education with changing marketplace realities, and to ensure that university research and teaching contribute tangibly to bettering all aspects of society.

In the current political and economic context there is a justifiable preoccupation with jobs, returns on investment and struggling global financial systems. Canadian universities increasingly face competition from international institutions where investments in education, particularly in sci-tech fields, are churning out highly trained graduates in astonishing numbers.

So how will the education that Canadian humanities, arts and social sciences students receive equip them to contribute effectively to changing workforce and societal needs? It’s partly a matter of disciplinary training. Be it early childhood education, public policy, translation studies, or comparative religion, disciplines impart knowledge, instill theory and develop methodologies and research expertise in a particular field.

And yet, as is the case with well-trained scientists, physicians or engineers, study and training in the humanities, arts and social sciences involves a broader type of intellectual formation that privileges how one interprets information, rather than simply what one knows. Whether students are immersed in the study of medieval courts or fascinated by the impact of urban renewal on homelessness, fostering their ability to think critically, broadly and flexibly is integral to preparing them to meet workforce and societal needs.

In a rapidly changing world, perhaps the most important knowledge students can acquire is that no discipline has a monopoly on understanding. Graduates in the humanities, arts and social sciences are fortunate that the scope of their education offers a wonderful point of departure and a reliable (re)positioning system as they navigate the 21st century’s complicated pathways.

Recent news from Google illustrates the point. According to one of the company’s Vice-Presidents, the high tech powerhouse expects to hire 6000 people in the coming year. But the kicker is that 4000 – 5000 of those new hires will likely have degrees in the humanities and liberal arts. None of the digital media industries would exist without technology, science and engineering—nor would they succeed without literature, language, creative writing, sociology and communications grads who generate narrative content and can situate new technologies in wider cultural contexts.

Nor is it just the high tech world that is thirsting for what researchers and graduates in our disciplines have to offer. In the History department at Concordia University in Montreal, where I work, the public’s desire to know is visible in the astonishing success of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling. The Centre has become a magnet for students and researchers working together across disciplines, and for multiple community partners who use advanced digital technology to capture the lived experiences of individuals and groups from a wide spectrum of society. These partnerships are expanding as Canada leads in the development of the digital humanities. The Global Campus Network at Toronto’s Ryerson University illustrates how something first created as a teaching tool for radio and television arts can lead to extraordinary world-wide institutional partnerships, research collaborations and creative interactivity between students. The initiative has not only helped academics re-imagine the culture of the ‘classroom’, but the networking capability has also grabbed the attention of the broadcast industry.

While these projects are sophisticated and impressive, it is important to remember that not all knowledge is digital. It would be a mistake to underestimate the sense of excitement and capacity to transform that more traditional forms of humanities, arts and social sciences evoke. The quest to understand the human condition and to acquire knowledge for its own sake, can inspire productive new modes of thinking about the world in which we live, including about the structural, cultural (and disciplinary) determinism of thought itself.

Across the spectrum of society and the economy, in both the private and public realms, there are exciting, imaginative and practical roles for graduates of the humanities, arts and social sciences. Ironically, what many graduates ‘get’ from a degree in these disciplines are the knowledge, skills, inspiration and creativity to go in directions their professors and mentors, let alone their parents, never anticipated.

16 Comments on What can you “get” from a degree in the humanities, arts and social sciences?

  1. [...] What’s not fine, though, is taking government subsidies and student tuition money on the pretext that a university education improves employability and then ignoring how students do in the labour market. And that’s true whether the improved employability comes from specific technical training, or if it comes from having a broad intellectual formation (Concordia’s Graham Carr makes a good case for the latter here). [...]

  2. Dave says:

    What a joke. Graham Carr should be ashamed of himself. Bottom line: many of these graduates go on to customer service roles at low wage rates. I know, I work with many of them, and am one myself. Worst decision I ever made. I will never own a home.

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