Despite having better access to world literature and more tools for creative expression, liberal arts enrollment at post-secondary institutions continues to decline annually.
In Ontario, Canada, enrollment fell by 6.5 percent in 2014 and is expected to continue on a downward trend until 2020. While the decline in enrollment was felt across all departments, the schools hardest hit — the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCADU), humanities-heavy Wilfrid Laurier in Waterloo, the University of Windsor, Lakehead in Thunder Bay and Nipissing in North Bay — are all considered arts-focused schools.
The reason students are foregoing humanities and arts is complex. It’s been partially attributed to better college and university level high-school courses, which earn student’s credits before setting foot on a post-secondary campus.
Another factor in the decline, especially in America, has been the removal of breadth requirements. Students at many colleges and universities are no longer required to have credits from disciplines like English, History and Science in order to fulfil their degrees.
Both of these factors have played a role in decreasing liberal arts enrollment. However, a larger factor has been the acidic idea that liberal arts studies are less important, less beneficial and less lucrative than business or science-focused studies.
Of course this notion that liberal arts studies are somehow easier and less valuable is completely false. In fact, in today’s hyper-connected society the skills taught through the liberal arts and humanities are more valuable than ever.
“I think it’s more relevant than ever before,” said David Sylvester, Principal of King’s University College Southwestern Ontario. “I think it’s amazing to me the lack of appreciation that has been developing (for the liberal arts) and in some sectors of government, who have adopted that old trope, ‘what do you do with a philosophy degree?’”
Despite the enhanced focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) studies, liberal arts still remains the foundation of society. English, philosophy and political science teach people how to think, write and communicate.
Not only are these skills transferable from industry to industry, they are also vitally important in the ever-changing digital economy that’s connecting us all.
In his book In Defense of a Liberal Education, CNN correspondent Fareed Zakaria highlights the importance of a well-rounded education that includes liberal arts studies.
“The future of a country like the U.S. rests on our ability to master how technology interacts with how humans live, work and play,” Zakaria writes. “And that depends on skills fostered by the liberal arts, such as creativity, aesthetic sensibility and social, political and psychological insight.”
Vancouver Island University (VIU) Business Law Professor Dana Collette is a strong believer in the importance of a broad education that includes multiple areas of study across a variety of disciplines.
“Liberal arts studies allow students to have a much broader skill set that can only benefit them in the working world,” said Dana Collette. “Studying liberal arts also has the ability to broaden the mind, which is incredibly crucial for business leaders and executives.”
Collette, who developed the VIU Law Network, which is a network of VIU students, alumni, faculty and staff who share an interest in a future in law, thinks a wide array of cultural studies programs is especially beneficial to students who will be working in a globalized world.
In a 140 character world that all too often seeks instant gratification, there is a lot to be learned from studying ancient civilizations and the history of cultural patterns. The critical thinking, collaboration and communications skills that the liberal arts offer are amongst the most in demand skills of the new digital age.