UHUM(e): No Cheers for the Liberal Arts

It’s back-to-school time, and I’ve recently come across several articles in newspapers and magazines about education-related issues.  One such article was the feature article in the weekend edition of the Vancouver Sun on September 8th by the Sun’s senior writer, Stephen Hume: “Three cheers for the liberal arts.” 

I would have expected a more sophisticated argument from someone whose views I generally respect, and whose writing style I admire–and who, moreover, should have a good knowledge of what has been going on in our universities in recent decades since, as I learned when I did a little on-line sleuthing after reading his article to find out more about Hume’s own educational background, for close to two decades he has been teaching writing part-time in the Department of Writing at the University of Victoria (or UVic), which is also apparently the one and only university at which he studied.  (I also was interested in learning when he did his BA at UVIC, although I couldn’t find any information in this regard.)

I completely agree with Hume’s basic assertion that knowledge associated with the liberal arts can be a great asset in life in general, including in the workplace.  But I disagree with Hume that universities are a good place to acquire that knowledge–and my opinion is not based only on financial concerns.

Hume suggests that financial concerns are the single reason that an increasing number of university students are shunning university humanities programs and, it follows, he devotes a large portion of his article to arguing that these concerns are actually unfounded.  This portion unfortunately suggests that Hume may have ended up in the humanities not by choice but, rather, because logic and math were not his strong suits.

Hume refers to studies conducted in both Canada and the United States showing, in Hume’s words, “while graduates in the applied sciences enjoy an initial recruitment and wage advantage when entering the workforce, this advantage evaporates over time.  Once career mid-points are achieved, wages even out … “.    I wish Hume had provided some references for these studies, because there is some critical information Hume has left out, including the ages of the study subjects and when those studies were conducted.  For data to be available on earnings at “career mid-points”, the subjects, or at least a significant number of them, would have to have been at least 40 to 50 years of age.  Furthermore, if the mid-career humanities graduates in the study generally were as well-off financially as Hume reports, I suspect at least many of the study subjects, if not all of them, are by now closer to Hume’s age, in his mid-60s (his short biography on the Sun’s website says he was born in 1947), than to my age (about 10 years younger–and still waiting for many of those baby-boomers to retire).   Also missing from Hume’s discussion of these studies is any information about how the statistics showing high earnings for humanities graduates were derived.  (Anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics would know there are three basic ways of calculating an ‘average’, that can lead to very different results.  Maybe some of the ‘outliers’, like rich lawyers and super-rich dotcom moguls, were eliminated from the calculation of averages, or maybe they weren’t.)  But even without delving into the statistics, just based on age considerations, and significant changes in workplace economics in recent decades, those studies are of little, or no, relevance to the situation of young people today who have just entered, or who will soon enter, the job market.  It’s highly irresponsible for Hume to suggest they are.

Besides the probable future difficulties of today’s humanities students in earning a decent living, many such students are likely to encounter difficulties while they are still students, due to the politicization of humanities (and social science) departments that has occurred in universities throughout North America (and the rest of the Western world) in recent decades–or at least in those universities that tend to attract the more outspoken students and teaching staff.  Hume makes no mention whatsoever in his article of the sometimes fractious nature of university humanities programs, which has made me suspect that the humanities types at UVic generally are a much tamer lot than those I’ve encountered at the universities I’ve personally attended.  (For readers who may not be familiar with UVic, it is a medium-sized university on Vancouver Island, a couple of hours by ferry from Vancouver, that serves mainly the local community.)  There is absolutely nothing wrong, in my view, with bringing political sensitivities to the study of subjects associated with the humanities; however, when the comparative ranking of students enters into the picture, which is a key feature of most university programs, the politicization of the humanities is highly problematic.  Students may suffer in terms of marks, and in other types of evaluations like recommendations for graduate programs or professional degree programs, due simply to their political views not conforming with those of some, or all, of their professors.

Even though Hume’s experiences at UVic, as both a teacher and a student, may have been highly genteel (chats about favourite authors over tea and cucumber sandwiches at the Empress Hotel?), surely he was aware of two headline-grabbing incidents in recent decades at the University of British Columbia (or UBC) in Vancouver that illustrate my point.  In 2001, Cynthia Maughan, an Anglican Christian doing an MA in English, claimed there was an agenda of atheism in one of her classes and that her religious and academic freedom had been denied, and sued the university for $18 million dollars.  I’m not a religious person myself, but when I heard about this, I thought good for her for speaking up.  (I’m not in a position to know for sure if she actually was deeply wronged; but based on some of my own experiences as a student, and her decision to sue, I’m inclined to believe she had a reasonable case.)  Unfortunately, though, Maughan suffered greatly for speaking up: in 2008, UBC finally won the court case, with  Maughan being left deeply in debt and, presumably, without an MA.  (I suspect that if she’d sued for a more moderate amount, like a couple of hundred thousand dollars, she would have had greater success with her lawsuit.)   As a second example, in 1994, the Political Science Department at UBC was accused of systematic sexism and racism towards its graduate students, which led to escalating conflict over political correctness at the university.  In this case, the outcome generally was positive for the protesting students, with certain professors in the Department found to be in the wrong, and various changes made to UBC’s Political Science program–but I do wonder how a politically conservative student would have done in that department subsequent to the changes.

I’m probably at least as much of a fan of literature, and art, and history as is Hume, and I also believe that there are various career benefits to being knowledgeable in these areas–even if monetary reward isn’t necessarily one of them.  But, unless we are prepared to do away with grading in university humanities programs, or unless some significant changes are made in the grading of students in university humanities programs–further discussion of which I’m saving for a later post in the ‘UABCs’ series of posts in this blog–I believe that the humanities, as such, no longer belong in our universities.

Fortunately, in part due to recent technological advances, it’s very easy for young people today who possess an interest in the humanities to pursue this interest on their own, outside of the formal education system.  (In the past year, since I got my iPad, I’ve downloaded several classic novels for free onto the device.)  Their university years, and the many thousands of dollars that university students now have to pay in annual tuition fees, could be much better spent acquiring practical skills and knowledge that prepare them for careers that are likely to provide them with relative financial security, now and in years to come.

One thought on “UHUM(e): No Cheers for the Liberal Arts

  1. Shirl

    Great article Pam – especially from someone who has spent a lot of time in the education system and realizes the shortfalls!


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