The liberal arts and social progress
This article appeared in a special issue of the National Post’s Business magazine, which was published in November 2005.
We live in a knowledge-based society in which economic and social progress depend directly on education and fundamental research. In Canada, education and fundamental research are largely publicly funded, and if governments neglect them, our country will suffer serious reductions in our standard of living and quality of social services.
Both our national and provincial governments have responded to this challenge over the last decade, first with significant new investments in university research, and then with more recent commitments to postsecondary education, as exemplified in the Ontario Budget of last spring and the recent conference of premiers, in which the funding of postsecondary education was given great prominence.
The knowledge-based society is sometimes taken to involve an economy driven by technology, in which the traditional liberal arts - the humanities and social sciences - have little role to play. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The modern economy is driven by knowledge broadly conceived, requiring cooperative work by groups of people, where communication, team play, and cross-cultural understanding are at the heart of the enterprise.
The knowledge economy is in fact strengthening the economic returns to university education in the liberal arts, whose graduates have the skills in language, communication, team building, and creative thinking which are so valuable in the new economy. Humanities and social science graduates in Canada earn higher incomes and have lower unemployment rates than the average graduate of community colleges and private vocational schools, institutions nonetheless often praised in the media as being more attuned than universities to the labour market.
While graduates in the life sciences and physical sciences, and professionals in health, engineering, business and law are also critical to a modern economy, we must not neglect the central role played by the liberal arts. Many of the key issues facing Canada and other developed countries - the ethics of biotechnology, the management and celebration of cross-cultural differences, the proper scope of government in a mixed economy - are issues of the liberal arts which do not have technological solutions.
While the liberal arts are thus important to the economy, they are equally important to our national discourse on values and policies. As an economist and university president, I believe the rising standards of living associated with the new economy will increase the desire of students to come to investigate the great questions of the liberal arts: Who am I and why am I here? What are beauty, virtue and justice? How can we build societies that reflect our values of justice and compassion?
These questions are not new, and indeed they help define us as a species: we humans alone among living things can contemplate them. Such questions take on a special urgency in the knowledge-based society, as we confront the social and ethical dimensions of rapid technological change, from protecting our environment to managing the results of genetic discoveries in human reproduction and health care.
Recent books by scholars such as Robert Fogel, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Robert Lane, a political scientist at Yale, have focused on what Lane calls “the diminishing returns from money” in contributing to human happiness, the latter being more dependent today for most people in the United States on personal knowledge, culture, companionship, and spiritual beliefs than an additional personal income. Far from obliterating the liberal arts, the knowledge-based economy and its associated prosperity may well contribute to the growth of the arts in education and research, as young people and adults turn more of their attention to issues of individual and social values and the foundations of a good society.
In universities, research in the humanities and social sciences will continue
to probe the depths of human feelings and beliefs, and explore the complex
interactions among individuals, groups and nations. Universities are among
the most enduring of humanity’s institutions because the human imagination
has no boundaries. As a species we will never tire in our efforts to understand
better who we are and how the natural world around us works.