Full STEAM ahead!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Christine Tausig Ford, Interim Executive Director, Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences 

It’s been a few weeks since I took on the position of interim executive director of the Federation, and I’m reminded daily of why I believe so passionately in the value of teaching, scholarship and research in the humanities and social sciences.

Recently, thanks to a suggestion by Julia Wright, a member of the Federation’s Board of Directors and a professor of English at Dalhousie University, I spent some time re-reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry.  The famous essay was far more meaningful to me today than decades ago, when I was an undergraduate studying English literature at the University of Toronto’s Trinity College. Back then, I didn’t really understand that poetry would need defending, and that a liberal arts degree might someday be viewed as impractical, perhaps even frivolous.

Many critics of the humanities would do well to have another look at Shelley’s passionate defence of poetry – what he describes as “the expression of the imagination”.  Shelley writes of the pleasures of reading poetry, but he also talks about the value of poetry in terms that still seem relevant.  Poets, he says “are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers . . .”

Like poetry, the humanities overall teach us what it is to be human. To think creatively. To question, and wonder why. The humanities introduce us to different cultures and perspectives. From the humanities, we learn who we are, where we’ve been, and where we might imagine going.

Humanities are at the centre of a liberal arts education, and worldwide, many are beginning to better understand just why the humanities and social sciences are so important to our lives today. (After my undergraduate degree in English, I completed a one-year journalism program at Carleton University, adding valuable lessons from social sciences disciplines to my global worldview.)

Today, I remain a passionate defender of the humanities and social sciences. In this, I’m not alone.

 In an article about how to get a job at Google, Thomas Friedman wrote recently in the New York Times that “(y)ou need some people who are holistic thinkers and have liberal arts backgrounds and some who are deep functional experts”. In other words, employers need both STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math).

This year, in a study of Canada’s largest employers, business leaders said they look for “soft skills” when hiring entry-level workers. These include relationship-building, communication and problem-solving skills, analytical skills and leadership abilities – the very skills developed through a social sciences and humanities education.

And an editorial in the October 1, 2016 edition of Scientific American said schools need to teach both music theory and string theory if the United States wishes to remain a leader in technological innovation. “Promoting science and technology education to the exclusion of the humanities . . . is deeply misguided,” the editorial stated. “Studying the interaction of genes or engaging in a graduate-level project to develop software for self-driving cars should not edge out majoring in the classics or art history.”

Five years ago, I was invited to speak at a forum on liberal arts in Beijing, China. Organized by Mount Allison University president Robert Campbell, the forum brought together Canadian academics and university leaders to share ideas with top Chinese universities on how to provide Chinese students with the liberal arts skills they need in a knowledge-intensive world.

We’d been asked by the Chinese universities to share our ideas on curricular and extra-curricular experiences in the liberal arts because the Chinese, widely seen at the time as focussed on STEM disciplines, saw the need to make sure their students were equipped with a broad undergraduate education. Moreover, the Chinese university officials recognized Canada and its universities as leaders in delivering innovative undergraduate programs. Like the editors of Scientific American, the Chinese officials wanted to ensure the students graduating from their institutions were alive to poetry, music and philosophy – as well as string theory.

I think Percy Bysshe Shelley would have approved.




A Voice for the Humanities and Social Sciences