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A short history and economics lesson for Kevin O’Leary

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Jean-Marc Mangin, Executive Director, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

In a recent BBN interview, Kevin O`Leary offered unsubstantiated commentary about liberal arts degrees, and History degrees in particular. He stated: “…stop going for liberal arts degrees because it is useless”; “come out with a History degree, you are going to zero…”; “you can’t get employed [with a History degree], … it is impossible”; “you want to learn to make a movie, you will starve to death” and implied that, if somehow you managed to avoid death, a liberal arts degree gives you a one-way ticket to ending up on the street “…with a blanket over you, reading poetry”. With his well known bombastic style and ideological devotion to “the market”, many listeners take his commentary with a grain of salt.

Nonetheless, an interviewee on a serious business news channel should take care to link his arguments to facts. To note, Jon Stewart (who studied chemistry/psychology) and Stephen Colbert (philosophy/theater) have buoyed their ratings recently simply by comparing the gaps between the real world and the vacuous, evidence-free statements of assorted media and political personalities.

For O’Leary not to end up as cannon fodder for late night comedians, I offer some facts for him to review his position.

I am thinking specifically of some of Canada’s leading historians and the impact that they have on our understanding of who we are. Take the First World War and how it keeps shaping today's world. Margaret McMillan and Tim Cook have shed essential new light and have each been awarded an Order of Canada for their contributions. Or Ed Clark, former President of TD, and another Order of Canada recipient who has a BA in Arts from the University of Toronto. Mr. Clark has devoted a great deal of his philanthropy to help homeless LGBT youth find safe shelter and pathways to education and employment. This is a shining example of how a liberal arts degree can provide the perspective required to address some of society’s thorniest challenges. (Or perhaps this is what O'Leary meant by pointing to how a liberal arts degree may bring you to the street, though somehow I doubt it…)

As for starving to death through movie-making, I see it differently. Philippe Falardeau’s (studied Political Sciences) latest movie, The Good Lie, focuses on the experiences of Sudanese boys fleeing the horrors of civil war; and Jean-Marc Dalpé’s (film studies) Wild has Reese Witherspoon on a 1,000 mile hike struggling with hunger, blisters and never-ending sand and mud to work through personal trauma. Both are great works of art that owe their success to a skill set based on understanding humankind and what makes us tick. Incidentally, they seem to be able to make a good living.

I could go on with other successful liberal arts graduates. But, as my professors often reminded me, anecdotes are very useful to relate to actual life experiences but they must be complemented by rigorous data analysis.

Despite the cuts at Statistics Canada, revealing data is available. Its Labour Force Survey shows that between May 2008 and May 2014, more than twice as many net new jobs were created for university graduates than for college and trades graduates combined (878,000 and 437,000 respectively). Over their careers, university graduates typically earn 50% more than other full-time workers without a university degree—that is an average premium of nearly $1M.

Not convinced that this applies to Liberal Arts graduates? Statistics show that liberal arts graduates' employment rates are actually on par with sciences graduates. And a recent study by the University of Ottawa’s Education Policy Research Initiative, led by Professor Ross Finnie, found that humanities and social science grads had more stable careers over time than business, math and natural science grads. In a CBC Ottawa Morning interview, Ross Finnie called into question that “Engineers earn way more than history grads, right?”. “New research, tracking the salaries of Ottawa students, says it ain't necessarily so.”

Of course, there are real challenges in Canada`s labor market that warrant attention: youth unemployment, especially for those with only a high school education; the transition between school and that critical first job; rising inequalities; the largely untapped potential of Aboriginal youth; poor recognition of international education credentials of immigrants. Let`s deal with those very real and tangible issues instead of making baseless attacks on a liberal arts education and unfairly juxtaposing trades people against university grads. A complex economy like ours needs both.