Alan Wildeman on Ignoring the Liberal Arts

The President of the University of Windsor, Alan Wildeman, has contributed a piece to the Globe and Mail titled “We Ignore the Liberal Arts at Our Peril.” In it he argues for the humanities and social sciences.

The exhilaration of the Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries has been replaced by the nervousness of what appears to be an Age of Justification in the 21st century. Modern society’s love of innovative gadgets and apps, pronouncements that youth can now be taught on the Internet (and possibly become high-profile entrepreneurs to boot), and social media outpourings that give falsehoods as much airplay as truths, have created a cocktail of rhetoric for critics who are sure that a liberal arts degree is a worthless investment.

Wildeman mentions research from the Education and Policy Research Initiative to the effect that humanities and social science students start with earnings of around CAD $40,000 after graduation and are earning close to double that 13 years later. You can read a summary by of the lead researchers, Ross Finnie, in an Ottawa Citizen piece, “How Your Degree Might Influence Your Earning Potential.” Too many people are basing their opinions on the liberal arts based on short-term employment.

These findings demonstrate the importance of having accurate data on student outcomes over a longer-run perspective than the usual six-month to two-year view which are the current norm – at least as most provincial “key performance indicators” attempt to tell the story. Quite simply, the short-run outcomes miss an important part of the story – and probably the most critical aspect: longer-run outcomes. …

This growth in earnings in the years following graduation should probably not be surprising, since these areas of study (social sciences and humanities) do not tend to be associated with particular skill sets which lead directly to specific kinds of jobs, but instead reflect the development of more general skills which open a range of employment opportunities and diverse career paths which often take some time to develop. This is normal.

By contrast, in many STEM fields earnings are volatile as sectors like IT boom and bust. Finnie ends by drawing attention to a widening gender earnings gap that needs further study.

The gender earnings gap is also worth mentioning since it grows over time among graduates of all areas of study. Engineering graduates are of particular note in this regard, as they start with a gender earnings gap of around $15,000, as compared to the negligible gap in some other areas, and then widens to $30,000 after 13 years. These gaps may be related to different career and family choices men and women make over time, or to gender-related labour market discrimination which evolves in the years following graduation. Our current analysis cannot separate these sources, but future work may help answer these questions.


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