The University of Toronto has a well-deserved reputation for strength in medicine, engineering and the sciences. But U of T is also a powerhouse in the humanities. Recent rankings place us in the top 20 worldwide in English, philosophy, history and modern languages. Our Centre for Medieval Studies is world-renowned. Our faculty regularly win major national and international awards, such as the Holberg Prize, which is often called the “Nobel Prize for the humanities” (Natalie Zemon Davis, history; and Ian Hacking, philosophy) and the Molson Prize (Keren Rice, linguistics; Linda Hutcheon, English; and Wayne Sumner, philosophy). We host globally significant editorial projects such as the Dictionary of Old English, and our Jackman Humanities Institute is a hotbed of intellectual ferment.
Why do the humanities matter? The study of philosophy, religion, literature, languages, history, drama and art engages us in a conversation about what it means to be human. It enables us to think broadly and deeply about our problems and the values that guide us in forging solutions. The humanities foster cross-cultural understanding and engagement. They investigate the meaning of practices, texts and artifacts and thus encourage a critical rethinking of individual happiness and cultural vitality.
For these reasons, an education in the humanities provides its own intrinsic rewards. But a humanities degree also helps prepare graduates for a wide range of careers. As I noted in my column in the Spring 2014 issue, there is a great deal of pressure on universities these days to produce “job ready” graduates. Some see this as providing the rationale to give priority to the sciences and professional disciplines. On the contrary, experience indicates that a humanities education prepares students not only for specific jobs, but for a career and a lifetime of success.
In a 1985 interview, Northrop Frye said, “The businessman who hires someone totally inarticulate soon finds out that such a person is no more use to him than someone who falls asleep on the job. But the humanities graduate who has developed good verbal skills, whose mind has been framed to be flexible and adjustable, will find many options open.”
What was true three decades ago is even truer today. Many employers see great value in the competencies shown by employees with a humanities background. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences reported in 2013 that more than 90 per cent of business leaders regard liberal education as important because it imparts knowledge, both broad and specific, while fostering the qualities highlighted by Frye.
Still, there is work to be done. While defending the value of the humanities we must also help our graduates in these disciplines to extract the full benefit of their education. This is part of one of the three priorities for the university that I identified when I became president – to re-examine or perhaps even reinvent undergraduate education. To that end, recently Professor Donald Ainslie was appointed provostial advisor on undergraduate humanities education. Professor Ainslie has a great record of leadership and creativity in the field – both in his current role as principal of University College and from his time as chair of the philosophy department. In this new assignment, he will work with the office of the vice-provost (students), with humanities chairs on all three campuses and with Professor Susan McCahan, who was recently appointed to the new position of vice-provost for innovations in undergraduate education (see page 14).
I will return to the topic of liberal education in a future column. For now, I offer this additional argument for the enduring value of the humanities. In the digital age, facts are instantly available to anyone with an Internet connection. But one must also be able to analyze information critically and marshal key points to form persuasive arguments. And this is just a starting point. The study of the humanities empowers us to question our assumptions, to communicate and to collaborate, to understand our history and culture and those of others, to evaluate what is and to imagine what could be. The humanities, therefore, are not only relevant – they are crucial to individual and societal progress and well-being.