Why Canada Should Care About Liberal Arts

"What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?"

So goes the perpetual refrain when the subject of my major comes up in discussion with Canadian friends and family. The humanities are impractical, they say, and assure me that in today's increasingly skill-based economy, there is a far greater need for plumbing than Plato -- an insatiable demand for those who do, rather than those who think.

This is an overwhelmingly common line of reasoning among Canadian students, educators, and employers alike. Sadly, it is also a mistaken one.

While data concerning the liberal arts in Canada is hard to come by, we need only look to our southern neighbors to understand that our antipathy towards the liberal arts is profoundly misguided.

Earlier this year, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems released a report detailing the long-term career success that liberal arts majors experience relative to their pre-professional counterparts. For proponents of skill-based education, the results may very well be shocking. Liberal arts majors earn more, are likelier to work in social services, and are employed at rates virtually identical to their pre-professional peers.

While this particular study relies principally on historical data, the evidence suggests that today's employers continue to value the skills that a liberal arts education provides in spades.

Indeed, a survey conducted last year by Hart Research Associates found that a staggering 93 percent of companies agreed with the statement that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major." More than 90 percent of companies say that they're looking for employees who can "demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity; intercultural skills; and the capacity for continued new learning," and a majority of employers further agree that both 'field-specific knowledge' and 'a broad range of skills and knowledge' are necessary for long term career advancement. By way of contrast, a meager 16 percent of respondents agreed that "having knowledge and skills that apply to a specific field or position" was sufficient for success in the workplace.

The implication of these results should be abundantly clear -- by itself, field-specific knowledge is insufficient to thrive in the modern workforce. The demands of tomorrow's jobs cannot be met with skill-based training alone.

Despite this, the Canadian post-secondary landscape remains stubborn in its efforts to stream students into 'practical' professions as early as it can -- to produce nascent coders, financiers, and accountants, instead of aspiring inventors, academics, and artists.

In British Columbia, the Liberal government is implementing a long-term education plan focused on the 'skills for jobs' pipeline -- redirecting provincial funding from universities to the trades. Money presently dedicated to supporting university scholarships will find itself reallocated to subsidizing skills-training, forcing universities to either produce a greater volume of trade laborers or to risk losing the funding that they already sorely lack.

Outside of British Columbia, the picture is similarly bleak. Students interested in the liberal arts are counseled towards majors that will ostensibly make them 'job ready.' For those who wish to work in business, pre-professional commerce programs remain the principal pathway to jobs in corporate Canada. Those who pursue a broad-based education are invariably penalized for what employers see as a lack of practical skills -- resulting in scores of overly-educated Starbucks baristas.

In many ways, the United States appears to be getting it right. As a Canadian studying south of the 49th parallel, I am comforted by the fact that I will likely have employment options after graduation, irrespective of my major. American employers of all breeds seems to recognize the unique value offered by an education that celebrates both breadth and depth -- that teaches to the person, not to the career.

Now, more than ever, Canada must begin to understand the merits of a liberal arts education. In the innovation economy, we will need dreamers, inventors, and scholars to lead our nation forward -- people who can think unconventionally, across disciplines, and beyond a single skill set.

We will, of course, require skilled laborers. Without them, our lofty ideas will remain just that -- concepts without application. But, in our efforts to modernize our economy, we must not prioritize skilled labor at the cost of the more abstruse academic pursuits.

Ultimately, progress will not consist merely in seeking more answers to the problems we already face. Rather, it will involve asking better questions, a task for which liberal arts majors are enormously well-prepared.