In the COVID-era, the liberal arts are more valuable than ever

By Dr. Michael W.  Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Mark's at UBC

Pontifex Minimus blog

Special to The Globe and Mail on September 4, 2021

With an ever-oscillating mixture of trepidation and excitement as we near the return date to campus, students, faculty, administrative staff and parents juggle their conflicting emotions and wavering expectations in a climate so slippery that a firm footing remains frustratingly elusive.

Health protocols, labour laws, political priorities, deepening levels of social anxiety, and any number of other considerations combine to make a return to campus a less-than-normal occurrence.

Ideally, a campus is a sanctuary, not a field hospital, a place where the disinterested pursuit of knowledge is treasured as an essential good. But these days, appropriate pandemic-specific policies need to be enacted to ensure the physical well-being of all and we are enjoined to be patient in the whirligig of sanctions, advisories and cautions that have become our continuing reality.

But we should be impatient as well. Unsettled and impatient in the way that the arts – liberal and fine – force us to alter perspective, to rethink foundations, to broaden our understanding. Ideally, the kind of engaged academic environment we see in the Netflix series The Chair – with all its colourful dysfunction, problematic personalities, and intelligently empowered, if occasionally wayward, students – is what every arts faculty both aspires to and recoils from. Canadian actor Sandra Oh plays the role of Ji-Yoon Kim, the new chair of the Department of English at the fictitious Pembroke University, and her myriad minicrises would not be unfamiliar to any current chair of a real university. Collegiate life is a messy business, after all.

Even though we may not have the restoration we all want – a recognizable academic environment unhindered by health concerns – there is much we can recover. Most importantly, the cultivation of a critical approach to all things.

Never has it been more necessary.

Our public language has been compromised. Words as conduits of meaning have been suborned. Renegade political authorities have mercilessly exploited the credulous and we face, globally, a tyranny of unreason.

When speaking of what he calls the “personified state” in The Undiscovered Self, psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung argues that “belief in the word becomes credulity and the word itself an infernal slogan capable of any deception.” Awash in the rhetoric – anodyne as well as malignant – of the many purveyors of “truth,” entombed in the global membrane of social media, subject to competing constructs of reality (Trumpians, anti-vaxxers, religious zealots mapping the terrain of the Apocalypse) – we reel from the velocity of it all. As the American poet Thomas Merton observes in his verse play The Tower of Babel: “the words of this land/are interminable signals of their own emptiness/signs without meaning.”

When we see CNN and Fox News for what they really are – celebrity pontificating at the cost of objective reportage – and when we see Canadian politicians in the midst of a national election opt for posturing and preening over uncluttered truth-telling, we are reminded yet again of the need for dispassionate analysis, a hermeneutic of suspicion, a relentless unearthing of the verifiable.

That’s what the liberal and fine arts do. And that’s why we need them. They are not a divertissement for the privileged, a decorative element that adds lustre to our public image; rather, they are constitutive of human meaning. And they are the final guarantor of our freedom. They are the means of our deeper thinking, vehicles of our imagining.

I am beginning to sound like a recruiter trying to justify arts over its professional equivalents, trumpeting the value of the nonutilitarian over the practical, intellectual curiosity over pragmatic planning. And there might be something in that, but it is not a question of either/or.

I have been in the professoriate for over four decades, have held nearly every administrative post imaginable – institute director, chair of a department, associate dean, dean, vice-president, president and vice-chancellor – and I have wrestled with the personnel and ideological challenges faced by Professor Kim and then some. I have been chastened, corrected and on occasion a mite excoriated, because that is the price you pay to be part of that quarrelsome, opinionated, vigorously independent and yet fiercely territorial entity we call the university, and most prominently its arts faculty. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Out of this cauldron of debate and competing ambitions is forged the kind of mind necessary for survival in our increasingly constrictive environment. And that kind of mind is what the humanities and the social sciences are schooled to refine, a mind that knows how to read not glance, probe not accept, submit to scrutiny all claims to truth and fact rather than defer out of convenience or intellectual laziness. There is a cost to thinking clearly but a greater cost in supine conformity to prevailing orthodoxies.

Never in my professorial life has there been a more pressing need for the critical thinking provided by the arts than now. Conflicting claims to scientific truth in a pandemic, the proliferation of intolerance generated by a new absolutism, a miasma of misinformation, quasi-literate political leaders, institutional collapse – all these and more make for a lethal potpourri of end-of-days threats. Intelligent reading is a hopeful antidote, in part.

We are adept at acquiring knowledge and data by various digital mediations but there is no shortcut to wisdom. For that we need the arts.


This content is published with the permission of The Globe and Mail and originally appeared on September 4, 2021.


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