The Bachelor of Arts degree: an education for our times

Mike Smith, Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Recently, the Chancellors of Ontario Universities declared, “The liberal arts … must continue to be a seminal part of Ontario’s higher education. This is a practical idea as much as a philosophical one. A number of recent studies have clearly underlined that a well-rounded, general education—learning to think, to write and to express one’s ideas clearly—is as valuable to future employability as technical or technological training.”

Employers in today’s knowledge economy are looking for people with creative and critical reasoning skills, research ability, communication skills, and self-direction—the essential abilities that are nurtured and developed in a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree program. It is not surprising, therefore, that the demand for arts and social sciences graduates is increasing.

Studies of unemployment, occupation and income data reveal that an arts degree offers better prospects for long-term career success than university education in high tech fields such as computer science and engineering. The reasoning, thinking, and communication skills learned in a B.A. are of enduring value, leading to good jobs, high levels of satisfaction, and greater prospects for advancement. So, while technology graduates tend to start at higher average salaries, B.A. graduates often rise further up the income ladder over a career.

However, education involves more than the pursuit of a career. The cognitive skills developed in a university education cannot be separated from content. University education resides in the study of significant and challenging issues as the means to develop intellectual and practical skills. The growing interest in the B.A. reflects the desire of students to come to grips with the great issues of the arts and social sciences.

The subjects of the arts and social sciences are an abiding attraction to students, dealing with all aspects of the human imagination, creativity and their consequences: how we relate to one another and to our environment; how we give expression to the worlds we inhabit and have created; and how all this relates to individual identity and well-being.

Such questions take on a special significance in our knowledge-based society, as we confront the personal, social and ethical dimensions of rapid technological change, human rights, the impacts of globalization, geopolitics, environmental stress, the Internet, genetic engineering, and so on.

So, students do not have to choose between preparing themselves for a successful career and the enjoyment and excitement of studying something they love. In selecting a B.A. degree program they get to do both. In learning about our modern world, they also develop essential abilities—strong reasoning, research and communication skills—that are in demand in that modern world.

In more ways than one, the Bachelor of Arts degree is an education for our times.

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