Tackle world’s prob­lems – with an arts de­gree

Simcoe Reformer - - OPINION - — Kevin Kee is dean of the fac­ulty of arts at the Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa. Kevin Kee

This week my son begins his first year of uni­ver­sity. Like al­most a quar­ter-mil­lion other young Cana­di­ans, Jacob is start­ing a new ad­ven­ture, with a cu­rios­ity about the world around him, an eye to the job mar­ket and a re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy that some­times baf­fles his dad.

Like all par­ents, I am con­cerned for his fu­ture. But as he set­tles down in a new city and prov­ince, ea­ger to get away from mom and dad, I am con­fi­dent that he will suc­ceed, and that the four years, and thou­sands of dol­lars, will be worth it.

Why? Be­cause my son wants to go into busi­ness, or per­haps law or maybe com­mu­ni­ca­tions — like most 18 year olds, he’s still mak­ing up his mind — and he has cho­sen to en­roll in a bach­e­lor of arts.

To some peo­ple, his choice will come as a sur­prise. Con­ven­tional wis­dom — and be­lieve me, Jacob heard it reg­u­larly from his friends — is that an arts de­gree is a one-way ticket to life be­hind a barista bar.

The facts tell us oth­er­wise. While grad­u­ates from science, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math have higher start­ing salaries, those with arts and hu­man­i­ties de­grees catch up over time. Ac­cord­ing to Sta­tis­tics Canada, Cana­di­ans with a de­gree in geog­ra­phy earn an av­er­age of $72,000 a year, about the same as those with de­grees in the bio­med­i­cal sci­ences. In other coun­tries the pic­ture is sim­i­larly rosy: in the United King­dom, 55 per cent of pro­fes­sional lead­ers are lib­eral arts grad­u­ates.

When it comes to of­fer­ing ca­reer ad­vice to my son, I have an ad­van­tage on some par­ents, be­cause in ad­di­tion to be­ing his dad, I’m also a dean of a fac­ulty of arts. As a re­sult, I know that in his B.A., Jacob will be able to wres­tle with some of the most press­ing is­sues of our day. En­vi­ron­men­tal change may take him to classes and pro­fes­sors in geog­ra­phy. The rise of social me­dia may bring him to com­mu­ni­ca­tions. The need for inclusive eco­nomic growth, across all re­gions and classes, may mean he’s in eco­nom­ics. And in these cour­ses he won’t be do­ing rote mem­o­riza­tion, he’ll be en­coun­ter­ing dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and de­bat­ing so­lu­tions.

For his part, Jacob knows that when he en­ters the job mar­ket, he will be com­pet­ing on a global scale, and he in­tends to be ready. As his dad, I rec­og­nize how quickly the world can change. One of our Uni­ver­sity of Ot­tawa arts alumni, a self-de­scribed “his­tory nerd” and now CEO of a se­cu­ri­ties ex­change, points out that sev­eral of the world’s largest com­pa­nies, by mar­ket cap­i­tal­iza­tion, did not ex­ist a decade ago.

My hope for my son, as we look to an un­cer­tain fu­ture of reg­u­lar dis­rup­tion is that his de­gree will help him learn to learn. I’m con­fi­dent that in his B.A. he’ll prac­tise how to re­search thor­oughly, an­a­lyze care­fully and tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween facts and opin­ions.

What­ever prob­lem he de­cides to tackle, he’ll do it through both quiet re­flec­tion and in­tense use of tech­nol­ogy. And here is where I have an­other ad­van­tage over some other par­ents. Be­cause in ad­di­tion to be­ing a dean, I’m also a his­tory and dig­i­tal hu­man­i­ties pro­fes­sor, who teaches stu­dents with pa­per and pen as well as data­bases and apps. This may be the big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween Jacob’s de­gree, and the bach­e­lor of arts I took nearly 30 years ago. I re­mind stu­dents such as Jacob, who have never owned a phone that wasn’t smart, that solv­ing the chal­lenges of to­day re­quires book learn­ing and deep think­ing, as well as the full weight of con­tem­po­rary com­put­ing tools.

“It’s hard to pre­dict, es­pe­cially the fu­ture,” goes the old saw. My son will be spend­ing the next four years study­ing for his B.A., wrestling with many of the most press­ing ques­tions of our time, learn­ing to learn and us­ing con­tem­po­rary tech­nol­ogy to pro­pose an­swers. He’ll be ready for what­ever awaits him.

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