Recent Posts



Is this not your Father’s Oldsmobile?

Over the course of a year, I typically attend a few meetings of Deans from various universities – each with its own geographical “catchment” and each related to a different decanal portfolio. For example, in March, I went to Salt Lake City to attend a conference of the Deans of Arts and Sciences in the Pac 12 + 3 (the Pac 12 “football” conference universities plus UBC, Hawai’i and Alaska-Fairbanks).  And recently in April, I attended the meeting of the Canadian Deans of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (CDAHSS) in Victoria. These are great opportunities to discuss the issues confronting deans these days (diversity, general education requirements, distance education, budget challenges, interdisciplinarity, and so on) but I also find it particularly encouraging to encounter people struggling with the same kinds of issues.


At the latter meeting, I participated on a panel called “Strategies for promoting and advocating for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences”.  The following are my remarks followed by a brief note about the presentation by my co-panelist and the discussion amongst the deans.  (full disclosure: For anyone who has read my previous posts, they will likely encounter a few repeated themes!)


THE PROBLEM.  Imagine that we’re the Oldsmobile Company in the late 1980s.  The world is changing and our brand is tired and in decline.  I’d be up here saying that, sure we have a branding problem, and I have a great new idea for a campaign slogan.  Here it is: “This is NOT your father’s Oldsmobile”.  Clever, huh?  But we have another problem – the car still looks and feels like your father’s Oldsmoble.  So we have to change the advertising, sure, but first we have to start changing the design of car.


We’re in a similar situation with postsecondary Liberal Arts education in North America.  It still looks a lot like your father’s Liberal Arts education.  In the early 20th century, Liberal Arts was the alternative to professional training – it was the gentleman’s education, and it aspired to the enoblement of character and of mind.  But we have no more “gentleman” in the old sense, and yet we’re left a residual version of this distinction.  How often does a professor say something to a student akin to: “Hey, it’s NOT practical – don’t worry about getting a job, don’t decide soon, explore the curriculum, become a critical thinker.”  Do we really think that this appeal has a heartfelt resonance for the bulk of today’s students or their families?  Too often we sound cartoonishly academic.


The audience for postsecondary education in North America (and this is perhaps even more true in nations with emerging economies) has become much more instrumental in their interests in education, especially as postsecondary education becomes more expensive, exacerbating the tension over value for investment.  When I face thousands of new students at our Imagine Day Meet the Dean event – on the first day of school – I’ve asked “Now how many of you have had your parents say something to the effect of ‘An arts degree – what are you going do with that?’” and laughter ensues and hands go up all around the room.  The parents and their children are full of anxieties about the future and they want security – most want recruiters standing at the door at career day.  And they are seeing the Arts degree as not particularly well calibrated to the needs of the market.  So my first suggestion today is to recognize and not dismiss that anxiety.  It is played out in the steady decrease in the proportion of Arts majors in universities from the 1970s to today.  Students and their parents are voting with their feet and their pocketbook.


I know this is a panel intended to promote and advocate for Arts education, not on reforming it, but my second point is this: that we can’t change the brand unless we change the product.  There is a persistent and intergenerational concern about the value of an Arts education and for the value of Arts research, and although out-of-date and exaggerated, some of it is based in fact.


What are the concerns of critics of Liberal Arts education, however mis (or partially)-informed?


  • They see an education delivered almost exclusively in bricks-and-mortar environments and using an outmoded delivery system (the lecture), failing to capture and apply advances in technology and the understanding of learning.  This is a university-wide problem, but it sticks to the Social Sciences and the Humanities in the public imagination.
  • They see some faculty and departments being dismissive of students going on to professions and careers, focusing primarily on the minority who will attend graduate school.  They’ll point to a lack of career preparation that leaves students wondering what to do with their lives in the months or even years following graduation.
  • They view our research as narrow, too-specialized, and not productive of social and economic value, and they become especially worried if they think that these narrow specializations are being translated into curriculum to produce a host of boutique courses that aren’t well-integrated into an intentional curriculum.
  • They see a lack of focus on teaching, and a system oriented to doing less of it and producing buy-outs and releases for the best research faculty members.
  • There are of course a myriad of criticisms about Arts education out there in sectors of the public consciousness, but most will cluster around the notion that what we do is trivial and useless.  Instead, the public views the STEM disciplines and business education as the engines of value and innovation – what we need more of if we are to grow GNP and become a world-leading economy.

Of course my Faculty — and I assume almost all of yours — is working hard to address the problems that do help to encourage these views, and in fact much of what I’ve just enumerated is at best a minor echo from the past.  But there’s still work to do.


We’ve all seen the cataclysmic changes roll through the music industry and then the publishing industry in the wake of the digital revolution.  This level of change is coming to postsecondary education.  We have, I would argue, a small window within which to both change the product and change the brand.  We are still viewed as conferring enormous advantage to our graduates as a globally respected postsecondary system.  We’ve also been lucky to have provincial governments that still see themselves involved in the provision of postsecondary education, so the proportion of government funding is still often around 40% as opposed to, say, the 5% it has become at some American so-called-public universities.  Will this last forever?  One cannot be sure, but it will be sure to decline or to decline more quickly if we’re not seen as delivering high-quality and relevant liberal arts education in a reasonably efficient manner.


In my Faculty, we’re refocusing on undergraduate education, enhancing the method of delivery, incorporating educational outcomes and renewing the curriculum on an ongoing basis.  UBC stresses Enhanced Educational Experiences, which include global travel for research and education, small-class and one-on-one research experiences from the first-year on, community learning initiatives, co-op, internships, and career training, all of which, when applied to an ever-changing Arts education, can help to produce students ready to engage with the world on graduation, more quickly able to navigate a global, competitive environment, or, as I often put it, “life ready.”


THE MESSAGE.  As we renovate the education we provide, we need to develop a much more focused message about what it is we do.  Of course one of the benefits of an Arts education is that it is an education in thinking that is not tied to specific career or profession.  With the global economic landscape and the “ideascape” changing so rapidly, narrow training becomes obsolete.  So we’re caught in a paradox that, just as we need more than ever a flexible education geared to critical thinking, problem solving, and communicating, this kind of education should receive such a bad rap.


My spiel is simple, and this is my third point – it’s that an Arts degree is the degree for the 21st century.  There was a pretty good distillation in Globe and Mail op-ed from October 2011, an article critical of contemporary university education, and it encouraged universities to “spell out what an undergraduate education is good for.  Here’s one definition:  It ought to produce critical thinkers, scientifically and culturally literate people who can assess evidence, connect the dots and communicate with clarity – the key skills that, in a fast-changing economy, prepare people for the jobs that haven’t been invented yet.”  Not bad, but I think we would add that the same training should help to produce people who will be curious throughout their lives and for whom learning doesn’t stop at graduation.


If you think of it one way, we’re training lifelong children – people whose brains are stimulated for lifelong neuroplasticity – people who wonder, explore, play, create and innovate.  Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of consumer products said last year “We’re going through a period of unbelievable growth and will be hiring about 6,000 people this year – and probably 4000-5000 from the Humanities or liberal arts.”  Why?  Because Google is looking for “people who are smart and get things done.”  As another article recently pointed out, it was no accident that the founders of Google,, and other innovative engines of technological and economic growth were trained in Montessori schools where play and creativity and the arts were emphasized.


It is more likely that the chief contributors to social, cultural, economic and even technological innovation will come from those with a powerful Arts education than it will from those with a limited, technical, and careerist education.  This is a great message and one that resonates with Canada’s focus on innovation.  In Business schools around the country and in the US and Europe, programs are emerging to put commerce and business students together with philosophers and visual artists and historians, videographers, and geographers to help stimulate creativity and innovative thinking amongst the business students and to ground the creative thinkers in the means of applying their work, being entrepreneurial, and in developing (dare we say it?) business plans.


These are powerful messages about arts education, but how to get them out – how do we tell the story?


STORYTELLING. It is certainly a useful strategy to attempt to capture the economic impact on the economy and on regional economies from the creative industries, but it is immensely difficult to quantify all of the activity of social science, humanities and creative arts graduates, and it is certainly not enough to use this kind of rather reductionist approach.  We need to show productive, successful arts graduates in their careers.  If you were going to promote one image, my recommendation would be that this be that image: graduates of Arts programs serving as leaders changing the world and living rich, full lives.  And everywhere we communicate, we can tell this story:  in discussions with students and their parents, on the web in your deans’ messages, in your blogs and in op-ed pieces, and in encounters with government ministries.  Find your own way to express the power of an arts degree for the 21st century and for its capacity to stimulate creativity, change, citizenship, and innovation.


Presentation from the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciencs.  My fellow-panelist, Jean-Marc Magnin of the Canadian Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences, noted that while Government is interested in jobs and innovations, most faculty are allergic to the terms.  But the facts work for us.  He pointed out that 50% of Fortune 500 employees have Arts degrees and that 60% of influential people identified in a survey in the UK also had Arts degrees.  Studies have also shown that after five years from graduation, the income of Arts grads is equivalent to those with professional degrees (there is a differential in the years in between, however).


Mr. Magnin also noted that all of the major issues before the public  that require public policy and decision-making as a society, are informed by Arts scholarship.


Most of the deans who spoke up saw that updating and enhancing Arts education goes hand-in-hand with the need to aggressively promote the enduring value of a Liberal Arts education.  It’s encouraging to note that there are lots of great ideas out there in the front trenches of Liberal Arts on how to do both.  I look forward to a day when proponents of the Arts no longer have to argue defensively but instead can simply point to the myriad ways in which the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences influence, transform, and improve lives and society.

3 Responses to Is this not your Father’s Oldsmobile?

  1. Alayne

    This is certainly an important subject. I felt the full impact when I left with a BA and struggled to find work. I found that industry (government, corporate, NGOs) don’t hold as much respect for Humanities and Social Sciences and one reason (among many) is that they see little interaction in research or lesson planning with the ‘outside world’. In Science, it is perceived that teams often work with industry or community partners.

    Where is the MITACS that focuses on the Arts? Arts gives the impression of an ‘ivory tower’ area of studies – out of touch from the reality below, snobby, and uninterested in making community connections. Academics in the field often try to justify their research as having an ‘impact on public policy’ but how many policy analysts do you know who have time to read one of so many 300 page documents on a relevant subject matter. ‘Policy impact’ becomes nothing more than a hollow term used to justify spending tax payers’ money.

    I sometimes think that UBC needs to develop stronger programs of accountability. However, knowing how difficult it is to get faculty consensus, I know that won’t happen.

    But maybe the best way to address the public prejudice isn’t through storytelling along, but through listening – bring community partners and alumni into advisory committees as far as the Department level, set up forums for students, professors, and community members to discuss research and curriculum together.

    There is so much fear in universities of corruption from neo-liberalism and the loss of their important idealism that they often forget they are servants to the people (in and outside of university) and that just because university administrators have a lifetime of expertise in their area of subject, doesn’t mean that they know what is best for UBC.

    Ideas and diversity are keys to innovation and this includes everyone, not just university members. It is not an issue of funding community projects in the Arts, it is about changing the culture of the university.

  2. Girish Chandra

    The past few days I have been exploring career choices for Arts students, and I stumble on this article. I have also interacted with over a dozen Art graduates in the process. Like Alayne, The general opinion seems to be “Arts is good only as long as we are in school, but it does not help me for the real world outside, and the program did not prepare me too”.

    I found that some of the insights and support provided in this article were fresh, interesting and worthy of serious consideration.

    I think there are many aspects to consider beyond the changes in the academic structure – curricula and so on:
    1) Arts is probably going through what HR is going through – an identity and existential fight. HR department in any organization is the backbone, but is often taken for granted. Similarly Arts is the subtle backbone on which science and technology is resting.

    2) Engineering or other programs are useless without the co-op component. Arts programs with the co-op and internships have added that edge.

    3) Every industry needs Arts graduates, there is no denying that fact. However not many students realize this or understand this. Every technology needs an artistic view – user experience, design, look, feel, functionalities etc. Art students can help in a number of areas, sometimes as subject matter experts. This is why industry visits, informational interviews, co-op, internships and mentorship programs, inviting guest speakers etc are critical. There is a strong need for cross-industry communication.

    4) I think this is where the Career Services has a major role to play. The Career Services at Arts have a much stronger role to play – to bring the industry and the students together. While Tri-mentorship, Co-Op and such programs are helping in that direction, there is a strong need for dedicated Industry Liaisons, who can build relationships with industry players who hire Arts graduates. Industry liaisons can also help create the image with the employers.

    I am a trained science (Engineering) graduate, who is a huge fan of Arts. People call me “An Engineers with a Arts Heart”. I sincerely wish it well. World would be a boring place without the creative geniuses coming out from the arts program. I strongly feel – “Art is the Heart of the society”.

  3. Bentmol

    I used to work at UBC, so I read your blog with interest. I am sorry that I do not agree with you when you say, “an Arts degree is the degree for the 21st century….should help to produce people who will be curious throughout their lives and for whom learning doesn’t stop at graduation.”

    Actually, it is STEM graduates who are constantly learning new things. Today, I attended a training session on new software. Every few months, STEM graduates have to learn something new, just to stay current in their fields.

    Secondly, your article does not explain why one needs an Arts degree to know about the arts or to become cultured. An intelligent STEM graduate can learn about the Arts on his own.

    As the Sokal affair proved, an intelligent STEM graduate can write a nonsensical paper on post-modern cultural studies and get it published in a reputed Humanities journal, after a superficial study of the meaningless jargon used by Humanities majors.

    A STEM Ph.D dissertation has to substantiate the theory or model being proposed in it. A Humanities Ph.D is under no such obligation. One can get a Humanities Ph.D after writing 500 pages of nonsense about supposed proto-feminist themes in King Lear, for instance. Never mind that Shakespeare would not even have understood what ‘proto-feminist’ means.

    Many engineering drawings have far more artistic value than a Jackson Pollock painting. You may call me a philistine, but I once spent 30 minutes admiring Michelangelo’s David at the V&A Museum even though I knew it was just a replica of the real thing.

    You talk about how Arts majors learn critical thinking skills. But the truth is that art critics are the easiest people to fool. I remember that a few decades ago, a Kandinsky painting was mounted upside down for weeks in a museum frequented by artsy types, before anyone noticed. I forget the name of the artist (if he could be called that) whose ‘painting’ consisted of a blank canvas. Art critics explained it away by saying that it was the viewer’s responsibility to imagine a painting on the blank canvas. If Humanities majors can believe that, they will believe anything.

    The truth is that in these tough economic times, arts education should not be subsidized by the public purse. Because of their inherent appeal to the human psyche, the Arts will not die away when Humanities departments are shut down. People will always appreciate the Arts and will try to learn more about them through self-study.

Leave a Reply

Spam prevention powered by Akismet