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Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Arts
May 27, 2015
Canadian Excellence

Dean of Arts, Mike Carroll

Let's get academic about academics

Mike Carroll, Dean
Faculty of Arts

In a recent (May 2014) essay in The Globe and Mail, David Hefland talked about a meeting organized by the Conference Board of Canada. The meeting brought academics into contact with business leaders who hire University graduates so that the academics could find out what these business leaders felt was “missing in the candidates they interview.” And what did they feel was missing? “They wanted (and were not finding) people who can communicate effectively and persuasively, people who can collaborate across departments to solve problems, [and] people with emotional intelligence who can transcend age and cultural differences.” 

In short: it appears that employers are looking for, but not finding, people with the skills that a liberal arts education is best at conveying.  Yet another justification for the value of a liberal arts education, right?


The fact is that we now have lots of reports, all solidly rooted in both Canadian and US data, that pull in the same direction:  there is no technical skills gap; a University degree is still the best predicator of a good salary over the course of a career; liberal arts graduates have a high employment rate; the salary gap between liberal arts graduates and other majors narrows over time; etc.

But this gives rise to an obvious puzzle: despite the oft-demonstrated economic value of a liberal arts education (not to mention the value in terms of personal growth and the value of an educated citizenry in maintaining democracy), enrollments in liberal arts programs are declining across the board in universities throughout Canada, the US and beyond. Instead of endlessly repeating the rational arguments that counter the “liberal arts are worthless” mentality we perceive to be out there, shouldn’t we do what academics love doing, solve that puzzle?  My vote is yes.

And as a start, let’s start with Socrates, the Ur-proponent of a liberal arts education, and his oft-repeated “the unexamined life is not worth living.”   I doubt that many of us in Faculties of Arts, especially faculty members in the Humanities, would take issue with this particular aphorism. Indeed, most of us would likely see it as an argument (to the extent that a single sentence can be an argument) justifying the liberal arts.  But do we really take Socrates seriously, that is, do we really examine our own business-as-usual practices in the academy with a seriousness that would do papa Socrates proud?  Many faculty do, but a lot, well, do not.

Consider one small example that I came across while reading T. Mills Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age. Kelly points out that one of the core competencies always associated with a liberal arts education is the ability to communicate effectively, orally and in writing.   Fair enough.  But how do we do that?  As regards “writing” the standard pedagogy is to assign a term paper – and term papers are central to a lot of courses (indeed, they’re typically abandoned these days only if the class is too large because providing feedback seems too onerous).  It might be heresy, but Kelly – while acknowledging the value of essay writing – makes a simple point: once graded and handed back, what happens to the paper?  Is it handed out to friends?  Is it shared with a larger audience who communicate with the student? No.  A student writes the paper, gets feedback from the professor, and that’s it.  Only two people are involved, and even then, communication is fairly one way. Many papers aren’t even picked up given that students can get their grade in other ways.

Contrast this with the “reading” and “writing” that students do in other areas.  Thus, Kelly points out, a 2007 survey found that in a year students might read 8 books, compared to 2,300 webpages and 1,281 Facebook profiles, and write 42 pages for class essays, compared to 500 pages of email text – and these numbers (possibly excluding the number of books read) have only gone up since then.  After students enter the workforce, of course, the number of emails and Facebook profiles written and read might go down (maybe), but the number of term paper-like essays will not likely go up – and yet the term paper still reigns supreme.

Kelly is not arguing for classroom exercises to abandon a concern for argument-building and for evidence; his point is only that if we want students to be engaged in a course, the writing (and reading) assignments we embed in our pedagogy should be closer to what they do in the rest of their life. 

This, as I say, is just one tiny example of what we would be thinking about if we truly Socratized what we do as professors in order to make the liberal arts more engaging and so more appealing to students, and more relevant to employers.

But of course we’re still stuck with the puzzle mentioned above: why are the liberal arts declining to such a extent given that the economic arguments used to disparaged the liberal arts are bogus.  Lots of reasons, I suspect, but let me end with one suggested by Bronislaw Malinowski.

A century ago, Malinowski (born in Poland, but moved to England) was Mr. Anthropology, and his Anthropological fame rested in large part on his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia.  One of his most well-known arguments had to do with magic.  The Trobriand Islanders derived much of their sustenance from fishing on the open ocean, and every aspect of open-ocean fishing (building the canoe, deciding where to fish on a particular day, etc.) was surrounded by magical practices. Why did they do that? Simple, of course: they used magic because they wanted to catch more fish!  But wait: if people turned to magic simply to ensure success at something they valued, then all cultures would be as magic-ridden as Trobriand culture - and they’re not.

Malinowski’s explanation:  fishing on the open ocean was a dangerous and uncertain activity. People lost their lives on the ocean, and deciding where to fish was never clear. In dangerous and uncertain situations, human beings (everywhere) embrace beliefs that reduce their sense of danger and uncertainty.  Magic is one such belief pattern: magic allows you to believe that you have control over danger and uncertainty – and that belief is enough to reduce the anxiety.  And if it doesn’t work? Likely, you did the magic wrong!  Moreover, Malinowski had a test case: the Trobrianders also fished in a lagoon where fishing was  safe and predictable. If magic was a response to danger and uncertainty, you wouldn’t expect it to surround lagoon fishing – and that was the case.

And so to the point: the economic and social climate facing students and their parents as a result of the greed-inspired collapse of 2008 (have to get in at least a little social commentary!)  is producing a sense of danger and uncertainty, and so people gravitate toward magical thinking to reduce their anxiety  Does a degree have “business” in the title? Then of course it leads to a good job in business.  If you’re trained for a  particular job (education, law), then the job will be there (and never mind the evidence suggesting a glut of teachers and lawyers!).

Not the full answer, I concede, but maybe part of the answer, and something that we need to take into account in promoting the liberal arts.