How do we talk about the Liberal Arts?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ryan Saxby Hill
Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

Several hundred researchers, educators and students gathered at St. Thomas University from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1-2 to discuss the future of the liberal arts. For St. Thomas, celebrating its centennial year, this conversation on the future of the liberal arts is literally a conversation about the future of St. Thomas University itself. St. Thomas carries a strong reputation in liberal arts education - especially at the undergraduate level.

According to the University's Vice President Academic, St. Thomas carries this commitment to the liberal arts throughout their programming. In designing even applied programming in both journalism and criminology, the school ensured that the programs were rooted in Bachelor of Arts programs. Students get BA degrees in journalism or criminology, rather than Bachelors of Journalism and Bachelors of Criminology.

The introduction for the conference program on Thursday evening started to frame the discussion within the context of neo-liberal commodifcation and corporatization of education. As the values and motivating ethos of our post-secondary education system become more instrumental and rational in their disposition, the focus of education is on outcomes, employability and cost benefit.

Trying to frame the "value" of a liberal arts education within these terms gets complicated for a set of disciplines concerned with aesthetics, language, discourse and culture. When values of beauty, democracy, wisdom are taken out of our educational value system, the liberal arts loose a key discourse through which they can define their value.

For those of us charged with defending, explaining and trumpeting the value of the liberal arts to the public, government and media this is a critical question. We're faced with stakeholders who are framing their questions for us in terms of utility: how can your researchers help with my research goals? How can your educators train students for high paying jobs?

How can we start to approach these questions? I think that we need to take on this challenge from two sides. We need to both remind the public, the media and policy makers that a well-functioning democracy, an examined and ethical life, and a vibrant culture carry an intrinsic value outside of the narrow frame of neo-liberal utility. We also need to ensure that the liberal arts community has the opportunity to communicate their research work and articulate their value as teachers and mentors for Canada's undergraduate student population.

I would look forward to hearing your thoughts on how we can overcome this communication challenge. Comment below or email me at and I can post your thoughts here.