UBC president Santa Ono at a public lecture. Photo by Agnieszka Ruck

Liberal arts ‘never been more important’

By  Agnieszka Ruck, Canadian Catholic News
  • October 17, 2019

VANCOUVER -- University of British Columbia president Santa Ono watched the news in horror last spring as the burning spire of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris toppled and crashed during a fire at one of the world’s most famous churches.

The flames caused extensive damage to the cathedral, but before the dust cleared president of France, Emmanuel Macron, had already pledged to rebuild it. For that, Notre-Dame will need the support of engineers, artists and historians.

“People have been predicting that humanities and social sciences have been doomed for a long time. They dismiss the liberal arts as irrelevant in the 21st century,” Ono told a public lecture on the liberal arts a month after the April 15 fire. “I am here to argue the opposite — that they have never been more important.”

Ono said he’s increasingly heard politicians and media outlets argue that today’s world needs more STEM graduates rather than those in the liberal arts.

“I certainly agree that Canada needs more graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I don’t dispute that. I’m not anti-STEM or anti-technology. They are needed in a modern world,” said Ono. “What I’m here to say is at the same time, we need liberal arts: now, more than ever.”

For one thing, the historic Notre-Dame can’t be rebuilt without them.

“The humanities, philosophy, religious studies, history, architecture, artistry and more, even the sounds of the organ in that cathedral, should help inform that conversation. If we had a world of only STEM graduates, imagine the loss of perspective we would have in answering questions such as those.”

For another thing, liberal arts degrees offer a broad range of subjects, integrate information from multiple fields of study and require critical thinking, he said. Science researchers can tell us a lot about environmental destruction and climate change, while liberal arts graduates can consider the wider implications.

But the value of liberal arts go beyond that, said Ono, himself a liberal arts graduate. 

Ono’s lecture was part of the annual Carr Lecture series co-hosted by St. Mark’s College — a UBC affiliate and Catholic theological college — and the Newman Association of Vancouver. Both institutions are known for their liberal arts programs.

“It is through the understanding of liberal arts, through the study of civilizations gone past, through listening to music, through thinking about how art moves you, through thinking about very different philosophical questions, that you get a different kind of education. It’s not an education of the mind. It’s an education of the heart and soul,” said Ono, adding the liberal arts — humanities, social sciences and natural sciences — help make sense of the world.

“You can learn so much from understanding what’s happened in the history of humanity, and the history of planet Earth. You can learn so much from the exhibition of hatred, greed and prejudice that have happened in many different centuries in many different parts of the world.”

Ono received his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, a “bastion” of the liberal arts. He went on to receive his PhD in experimental medicine at McGill University.

“I believe I am a better scientist, I believe I am a better administrator, I believe I am a better teacher, I believe I am a better father and husband, and I believe that I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education. It was intentionally diverse and heterogeneous. It made me move outside of my comfort zone to areas of thought and discussion that were uncomfortable to me,” he said.

(The B.C. Catholic)

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