Education without liberal arts is a threat to humanity, argues UBC president

UBC president Santa J. Ono is a renowned biologist and award-winning professor but he says the liberal arts courses he took as an undergraduate gave him the wisdom he needed to flourish. He's concerned that the liberal arts are no longer held in high enough esteem in our society.

Santa J. Ono says studying the liberal arts made him a better scholar, scientist, teacher and father

UBC President and Vice-Chancellor Santa J. Ono is concerned that the liberal arts — including the sciences — are no longer held in high enough esteem in our specialized, technologized society. (Paul H. Joseph / UBC Brand & Marketing)

* Originally published on January 14, 2020.

From engineering to medicine, we have more elaborate and specialized professions than ever.

But the academic programs that prepare people for them will have little impact on the health of society unless we develop a sense of the human condition. That's 'job one' for the classic liberal arts education: philosophy, history, the great books, art, music and the sciences, too — at least according to Santa J. Ono.

The president and vice-chancellor of the University of British Columbia argues that these disciplines are often underfunded and under-promoted, a refrain he's made repeatedly over the years because he feels he has to. The reason: he's seen a steady decline in the study of, and support for, the liberal arts over the past 10-15 years. 

I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education, because it was intentionally diverse and heterogeneous, because it made me move outside of my comfort zone.- Santa J. Ono

Prof. Ono is himself a medical biologist, and has made breakthroughs in his own specialized field. While he appreciates the value of STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), his own thoughts never stray far from the liberal arts courses he took as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, which have still left their mark on him. 

"I believe I'm a better scientist. I believe I am a better administrator. I believe I'm a better teacher. I believe I'm a better father and husband," Ono said in his 2019 Carr Lecture, Liberal Arts in the 21st Century: More Important then Ever.

"And I believe that I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education, because it was intentionally diverse and heterogeneous, because it made me move outside of my comfort zone into areas of thought and discussion that were uncomfortable to me...  it broadened my mind, it exercised my mind."

Ono says a liberal arts education is critical if we are to arrive at a moral foundation that will lead to sustainable peace and progress. 

"Individuals [who] have had a broad liberal arts education will understand previous conflicts. They will understand conflict resolution ... when they're in a position to make difficult decisions," Ono explained.

"They will have that moral compass. They will make the right decision, not for themselves, not for their enrichment of their bank accounts, but what's best for humanity."

Santa J. Ono is a renowned biologist, award-winning professor — and cellist. (Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images)

The liberal arts involve historical and philosophical inquiry, and the study of ancient cultures. Learning for its own sake, some have called it. But Professor Ono maintains that principle doesn't mean the liberal arts are useless or frivolous. Quite the contrary. 

"Take, for example, political science, thinking about what's at the core of a democratic institution. What's at the core of a balance of power between different parts of government? We're really at the cusp of a constitutional crisis south of the border. Having politicians and leaders that don't understand the basic principles of democracy puts at risk nations and the entire world. That's why I say we need liberal arts now more than ever before."

In his Carr lecture, Ono gives examples like the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and — as he puts it — "the sustainability of this planet."

"Scientists alone cannot solve the issue of global warming … You need to really be at the interface of activism and policy change. As you know, there's a short period of time before a catastrophe that we face. And it's going to require individuals that understand history. They understand that we'll learn from the mistakes of responding to much smaller challenges. We have to learn from all of that. And without that, I'm rather pessimistic."

Ono also points out that the oft-repeated claim of poor employment prospects for those who study liberal arts simply isn't true, especially in the longer term. Ono says the most successful people in nearly any endeavour often have some core arts studies in their past. He also asserts that augmenting a vocationally-oriented program with some liberal arts courses can make a big difference in a student's life, even after graduation.

"It gives them time to love what they're studying for the sake of learning as opposed to it being a means to an end, to a job or to a paycheck," Ono said.

"There's something elegant or romantic about it. I believe in those things. I think it is the elegant romantic things about one's life that are the moments that you will remember and cherish. It's not the everyday things that you have to do because it's part of the job. It's those moments that are beautiful or elegant or romantic that make your life worth living."

* This episode was produced by Sean Foley.

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