This op-ed was published in Research Money on July 31, 2012.
By Paul Davidson
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada
For generations of Canadians a postsecondary education in the social sciences or the humanities has been a viable — and valuable — path to a fulfilling and rewarding career. That’s still the case today, especially in the face of a global culture and economy fueled by technology and innovation. Despite what some pundits will argue, a social sciences or humanities (SSH) degree is not only relevant given the demands of the 21st century knowledge economy — it’s indispensable.
In fact, many high-tech and business leaders have recently acknowledged the significant role that SSH graduates have played — and will continue to play — in their companies’ successes.
Damon Horowitz, director of engineering at Google, is a vocal public advocate for the power of an education in SSH. A self-described “serial tech entrepreneur,” 10 years ago he found himself struggling to develop better, smarter artificial intelligence systems at a burgeoning Silicon Valley startup. The solution to his dilemma? He quit his well-paying, high-profile tech job and enrolled in graduate school at Stanford University to study philosophy. He ended up graduating with a PhD in philosophy, which he calls one of the best decisions he has ever made. During a May 2011 speech at his alma mater, Horowitz said that he considered his PhD in the humanities a “rite of passage to intellectual adulthood” that allowed him to better understand how the products he helped develop were reshaping the culture he was living in.
To him, a social sciences or humanities education was the best way to cultivate the kind of perspective that he thinks is critical to dealing with the identity and privacy issues raised by new technologies. He added that a university education in the humanities was the best way he knew of to advance a person’s career. And his employer seems to share his outlook.
Google recently announced that it expects the majority of its 6,000 new hires in 2012 will be filled by people with degrees in the humanities or liberal arts.
Closer to home, Mike Ashar, president of Irving Oil, has come to rely on the benefits of a well-rounded business and liberal arts education throughout his career.
A firm believer in the value of lifelong learning, Ashar has four degrees to prove it: an MBA, a bachelor of applied science in chemical engineering and two BAs, one in economics and one in philosophy. Though he originally took the latter to scratch what he calls an intellectual “itch”, he now says it’s the degree that he relies on most regularly in his day-to-day work as head of one of Canada’s largest resource companies.
Ashar believes that success in business entails the ability to evaluate multi-disciplined causes and complex systems, something that his education in the humanities has prepared him to do. “My philosophy education allows me to use critical thinking and multiple perspectives,” he says. “In addition to the traditional science- and economics-based mechanistic solutions, a broad philosophical background has allowed me to gain sharper insights into business strategy and execution.”
Unfortunately not everyone sees it the same way. Some of the skills associated with SSH — including critical thinking, creative problem-solving, the ability to collaborate and to react well to change — are often written-off by those in business and media circles as so-called “soft skills”. But let’s take a look at some hard numbers.
According to a September 2011 report prepared by Torben Drewes, a professor of economics at Trent University, in 2006 the employment rate for SSH graduates was 95%. About two-thirds of these jobs were in professional fields, or were management or supervisory positions.
And for those who still believe that an SSH is not worth the investment, the study shows that they in fact do yield a positive rate of return.
Dr Drewes calculated standard rates of return for bachelor degrees in SSH in order to compare them with other investments. He found that a humanities degree had a rate of return of 4.1% for men and 10.5% for women, while the rate for social sciences degrees was 8.6% for men and 12.2% for women. No matter how you look at it, those are impressive returns on investment and certainly better than any you might get on the stock market these days.
What’s more, the skills that SSH are so good at cultivating also prepare graduates to be true global citizens — the exact kind that today’s workforce is recruiting.
Studies show that 91% of employers have identified an understanding of other cultures as an asset when it comes to hiring new employees. It’s the ability to understand, engage and collaborate with others that is one of the key dividends of an SSH degree.
Graham Carr, dean of graduate studies at Concordia University and president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, says it well — and eloquently. Just like physicians, engineers or scientists, he says an SSH education involves “a broader type of intellectual formation” that equips graduates to interpret information.
“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, says Carr.”
SSH has always been a reliable way of opening people to larger worlds. That’s why they’ve long been a home for those interested in exploring their intellectual passions. So, perhaps it should come as no surprise that these same qualities make these grads perfect candidates for our global knowledge driven economy.