Skip to content

From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Can the Humanities Save Us?

The crisis in education, and the surprising uses of the liberal arts

Alexander Macleod , Harry Critchley , Laura Penny and Rita Shelton Deverell

In the shocked week after Americans elected Donald Trump their president, the beleaguered liberal arts received a shot in the arm. “Dear Artists: We Need You More Than Ever,” read a headline in the Huffington Post. An exhortation by American author Toni Morrison, beginning with “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity,” was passed around feverishly online.

It was a rare moment of optimism for the humanities, whose declining fortunes have been much lamented of late. Enrollment in programs has declined across the United States and Europe as students pursue professions such as engineering, law and medicine. Studies show earning gaps between graduates of programs of science, technology, engineering and mathematics—STEM—and those in the liberal arts. And business programs in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia have emerged as the biggest competitor, beating both arts and science programs.

Still, as noted by Mélanie Frappier, a professor of humanities at the University of King’s College, at a recent Spur Festival panel in Halifax, surveys show employers are looking for “the kind of skills that are developed in liberal arts programs: to be able to engage diverse communities, to be able to write, be able to talk, to be able to critically engage in an interdisciplinary universe.” And recent political events everywhere have pointed to the humanities’ ongoing relevance.

Frappier was moderating a panel addressing the question of the crisis in the liberal arts, and their benefit to society. She was joined by panelists Laura Penny (Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit), prison activist Harry Critchley, journalist and performer Rita Shelton Deverell and Giller-shortlisted writer Alexander MacLeod. The following texts, presenting four diverse ways of exploring the humanities crisis, are adapted from the panelists’ remarks.

Suharu Ogawa


Laura Penny

Just One Word: Plastics

I get a little nervous when we start to talk about the liberal arts as though they’re kale, right?—something that’s good for you, that we should all eat. I’d make a slightly more modest case, which is that I think we are already seeing the results of denigrating the liberal arts, lo these past 20, 30 years in North America. We’re seeing that in more polarized public discourse and less of a common vocabulary. To quote the poet William Carlos Williams, it is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

I do want to underline that I think it’s absurd that we keep having these discussions about whether we can afford Shakespeare or not, when we are the wealthiest people who have ever trod the face of this poor, beleaguered planet. A lot of this poor-mouthing that comes up in the general vicinity of the humanities is, to me, not wholly believable. And a lot of it seems to be ideologically motivated.

And, of course, the question of collective priorities is a little different from the question of what you tell the students who fear that following their interest in the humanities will leave them unemployed and living under an overpass. This is harder. The first thing I would say is that we are incredibly bad at predicting what we will need in five, ten, 15, 20 years. And that anyone who makes confident claims about this is full of codswallop. Or they are trying to sell something—a particular program.

These very predictions can become self-­defeating prophecies. For example, there is currently a glut of pharmacists in America. I mean, what career can you think of that seems more secure than giving people drugs they crave? But the fact of the matter is that years of telling people “this is a sure-fire bet, go be a pharmacist” is why you end up with too many pharmacists. Ross Finnie at the University of Ottawa has been doing excellent work tracking employment rates and salaries of graduates in a variety of fields, using Statistics Canada data and tax returns. He has found that grads in the humanities and social sciences have relatively low rates of unemployment, tend to have starting salaries in the $30,000 to $40,000 range and within ten years are making $70,000 to $80,000. So, sure, engineers may indeed make more. But they won’t if everybody tries to become an engineer.

I also find it a little disingenuous to blame people’s majors for their employment situation. The less than stellar prospects our young people face have a lot more to do with globalization, with the rise of contract work, with the decline of unions, with the boomers’ policy demands—sorry, boomers, education was cheap when you needed it. Now hips are free when you need them. That’s okay—that’s what people vote like.

The other thing is that a lot of this talk is about a job market that doesn’t exist anymore. You’re not going to graduate from whatever degree you take, go to Imperial Widgets, put in your 50 years at the factory, retire with a gold watch and then collect a pension. I don’t know what’s coming. You could be working on a bullet farm in a Mad Max world for all I know.

A lot of the things that we want to blame on the liberal arts, that we want to think of as a crisis in the university system, actually have to do with intergenerational inequality. Hopefully the humanities give us a civilized way to think about that. And I actually think that it’s a lot of ideas from business schools that have gotten us into this mess, and it’s going to be up to the sciences and the liberal arts to get us out of it.


Laura Penny is a professor of contemporary and early modern studies at the University of King’s College. She is the author of Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit (McClelland and Stewart, 2005) and More Money Than Brains: Why Schools Suck, College Is Crap and Idiots Think They’re Right (McClelland and Stewart, 2010).


Harry Critchley

Behind Closed Doors

A much smarter man than I once told me that education, particularly education in the liberal arts, represents an opportunity for people to come together in dialogue, to learn to know, love and live fully within the world. That has always stuck with me. But what I want to talk about is the opposite of that. It is the profound suffering and alienation experienced by people who feel cut off from or hurt by the world, and for whom there is no possibility of anything like the type of dialogue that we celebrate at universities across the country.

I’m the founder and director of the Burnside Prison Education Program, one of two university-affiliated correctional education programs in the country. We offer about 12 to 15 courses a year in the arts and social sciences for men and women at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility, in Burnside, in north Dartmouth. All our instructors are faculty and PhD students in Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. We are also working with the Department of Justice and Literacy Nova Scotia to develop a literacy tutoring program for the large numbers of men and women who are incarcerated in this province with very limited reading skills.

Angela Davis, the American prison abolitionist, writes that prisons are intimately tied up with and yet fundamentally disconnected from our day-to-day lives. We take them for granted, as a sort of grim yet necessary control mechanism on society, but we are often afraid to face the realities that they produce.

We can’t continue on this track, though. Canadian society has been ravaged for over a decade by draconian, tough-on-crime policies, with a dramatic increase in the overall prison growth in Canada, of 14 percent in the last decade, and record high incarceration rates among indigenous people, women and African Canadians. The politics of mass incarceration threaten to undermine the very possibility that our world can be something that we share together, the conditions in which it can be a common world.

However, despite all this, I still believe that we can reconstitute a common world. It is possible. And that the liberal arts can—and perhaps must—play a role in this. Last year, we offered a seminar on Sophocles’s Philoctetes, with Eli Diamond, from Dalhousie’s Classics Department. The play tells the story of a Greek archer, who, en route to Troy, is abandoned by his comrades on a deserted island after contracting a terrible illness. During our discussion of the play, one of the older men asked to read this passage that had resonated with him:

This man was born nobility, / From a house second to none. / Now he has lost everything. / Alone without a friend in the world, / Living among the beasts in the wilds— / Miserable, hungry and desperate, / Suffering incurable, endless agony. / The only answer to his hopeless cries is the perpetual call of Echo, / Far, far away in the distance.

Afterward, that man commented, “That is us. He could be describing life in here.” Many of the other students—and these were all men in what is perhaps the most hyper masculine, toxically masculine environment in our society—said the same thing. This is a radical, life-denying skepticism that is reflected in the rocky crags and the barren landscape of Philoctetes’s island prison. The fluorescent lights, the stale air and the very walls of our own prisons here in Canada likewise seem haunted by a deep and often times suffocating sadness.

Despite the daily realities of overcrowding in our prison system, and even double bunking in segregation cells, this sadness can and often does harden into an overwhelming sense of isolation.

Reforming our public perceptions about prisons means changing how we think about the people in prison. It means affording them the basic dignity and respect that Hannah Arendt calls the right to have rights: the right to appear and to be counted as one among many, and to have one’s thoughts and opinions recognized as meaningful and valuable. When ten men in orange jumpsuits shuffle into a cramped room to discuss Homer’s Odyssey or a poem by Audre Lorde or an article by Judith Butler, each reveals aspects of the world that the others could not have imagined.

A lot of men and women I work with have never had a positive experience with formal education in their life. They were always told, “This is not for you.” So when I bring a university professor in, who says “I’m really interested in your opinion,” that can be a tremendously positive experience. When I come to you and I take you seriously, you take your own opinion seriously. You apply a rigour to that.

In the United States there are 150 university-affiliated correctional education programs. Princeton has one, Columbia has one, Harvard has one. The biggest is at a place called Bard College in upstate New York, like a liberal arts college fancy dream. They graduate 400 people a year; they’ve been around 15 years. And they have a 0.08 percent recidivism rate. The recidivism rate in New York State is 75 percent. So give people a chance.

Though often extremely painful, the kind of revelation I’m talking about here, the kind of revelation that is facilitated by the liberal arts and open discussion is vital if we are going to affirm and love the world in the fullness of its joys and sorrows.


Harry Critchley is the outreach community coordinator for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University, and founder and director of the Burnside Prison Education Program.


Rita Shelton Deverell

Just What Is Work?

I’m not sure that liberal arts can save society, but I am sure that the liberal arts saved me. I was born in Houston Negro Hospital in 1945. As I sometimes say, for the record, I have been black and a woman ever since. The earliest profession that I thought I wanted to have was to be an actor. I did everything that a child through high school could do to bring that about. And I wanted to go to a theatre school. My parents, who were extremely wise people, said, “No, no, no, you’re not going to do that. We will only pay for a good bachelor’s degree.” So I indeed did go to Adelphi University on Long Island, and I was able to get an acting scholarship.

But after I got to the university, majoring in drama, I thought, “This is really stupid. The thing I know the most about is the theatre, and I know almost nothing about things that universities are really good at.” So I changed my major and I got a BA in philosophy three years later. I remember my father being terribly puzzled about this change. He said, “What do philosophers do?” I said they are lovers of wisdom.

I had gone to segregated schools in Texas to the end of high school. I was in no way prepared to study philosophy in a liberal arts university. But I clawed my way to a fairly decent average, and by the time I graduated I knew a lot more. So then I decided that I was going to take a degree that would be even more useless. I decided that the basis of the arts was religion. So I would get a degree in the history of religion. I went to Columbia University and the Union Theological Seminary and got an MA.

By the time I finished the thesis, I had immigrated to Canada and I realized that I was totally unemployable. It was quite a culture shock to move from Manhattan to St. Thomas, Ontario. I’m in a new country and my life is a mess, but I’ve got these arts jobs put together. We’re talking 1968. Fanshawe College hired me to teach extension courses in the history of religions. I’m 25 years—no, I’m not even that old, and all of these very mature people, mainly farmers, are taking these courses, and we are having a wonderful time.

I did that, and I did arts therapy with disturbed children. I found a very adventuresome major at a Salvation Army children’s centre, who hired me to work in music and drama and movement with these children, and James Reaney, who was at the University of Western Ontario, got me to work in his theatre centre. So now I had a job!

Then lots of years go along and I’m doing this and that, and I get this horrible boss at CBC Saskatchewan. I think I’ve got to quit this job, and I would like to do something more socially acceptable than say I am quitting because you are an idiot. So I decided to go to graduate school. And I applied to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

What this strange education did, and I realize that I have used it every day of my adult life, is teach me flexibility in what I thought of as work and how I could work. And it gave me confidence that I could learn a new body of material relatively quickly, which, for a broadcaster, is a wonderful skill. That, in fact, is the main skill I got out of my doctoral degree.

I’ve been doing a fair amount of mentoring over the last number of years, and it frequently has to do with refocusing what it is I know how to do that makes me employable. When I came out of school and there was no place for me to work, I learned a very valuable lesson in how to match myself up with work. And this was in the good old days. It was just that I hadn’t made any kind of bridges between what I knew how to do and what some people out there could want.

It’s not the sciences or the organized professions that are the opposition. I think that the opposition to the liberal arts is a fundamentalist education. Memorizing stuff, wherever you do it and however you do it, is a fundamentalist education, and it’s only by having a diversity of perspectives to be able to see multiple realities that we break through the problems of a fundamentalist education.


Rita Shelton Deverell is a broadcast journalist, playwright, performer and activist and one of the founders of VisionTV, the world’s first multi-faith and multicultural network.


Alexander MacLeod

Think Outside the Book

I teach reading books and writing books. It’s a curious job to have. When you teach the reading of books, there is an assumption that the book has a message to deliver to you, and that by educating yourself as a careful reader you will somehow receive this message. Reading in some fundamental way is posited as a decoding of messages. Talented readers, we are told, get more messages than untalented readers. Oh, you can’t read that book. The messages that book is sending you shall never receive. If you yourself believe you are a talented reader, put that on the pegboard for a second.

I also spend a lot of time with writers. Do you know the person that writers hate? They don’t like to talk about readers. In my workshop I stand up for the reader. I say, what about the reader, my friend? Because most writers are dramatically interested in the messages they are sending. Are these messages to be received? Are such messages to be sent? These are questions that seem distant. If you bring them up, it’s rude.

If you spend all your day with people who think they are sending messages and people who think they are receiving messages, you start to get a very problematic understanding of reading—as the Beastie Boys say, “ill communication.” We’ve got some ill communication here.

My deep sadness about our contemporary period is that I don’t think that the liberal arts are in crisis at all. I think that society is in crisis, because the medium through which these messages are to be sent is profoundly corrupted. We have all put ourselves in these ­creative-writing echo chambers where I only get the messages I want to get, and I only send the messages that I want to send.

My second problem with the liberal arts is that I have a big problem with liberalism, a notion of individual, purely individual rights and freedoms, as if you could construct a mechanism of community and communication off such an intellectual framework. We see on the basis of arguments of intellectual freedom the exact basis to reject messages you don’t want to receive, which is a direct challenge to reading or interpretation at its most basic level.

Last year I had to read all the books for the Giller Prize. There were 168 novels published by Canadians. It was amazing. But what was mostly amazing about it was the incredible consistency of the message. And the consistency of how it was delivered. There were about nine things you could say, about 29 things you couldn’t say. And I too worked in the prisons in the Northwest Territories and neither are books sent there, nor do they come from there. So I say to my own students sometimes: What are your fundamentalisms? And if you really believe that someone could have a thesis and present that argument with careful evidence and then you would be convinced—but you have nine things that you could never be convinced of—how are you any different from the people that you polarize and hate so much? So the crisis in the liberal arts is definitely there. But that’s different from a crisis in communication and in community and in a way that we can close ourselves.

I was in China recently. There is a partnership between St. Mary’s University and Beijing Normal University, and there was a student who was coming to Canada, and she said, “I don’t think I’ll ever be okay in Canada,” because she had seen all these pictures of the mountains. She said, “This is all I like to do: I go to school, and I come home, and I want to get ice cream, and I want to sit with my laptop”—she didn’t have the right word—“and I just want to starving watch my shows and eat ice cream.” And she said, “Does anybody ever do that in Canada?”

She was very sad. She just said, “I’m just going to be so lonesome.” And the Canadian kids literally started laughing. To me, this becomes really important. Because that’s the image I think all humanities scholars should think about: the starving person. And if you’ve ever binge watched, where you’re like, “I need more, it’s two o’clock in the morning, this is going to cost me tomorrow, this is bad, I shouldn’t be doing it”—that precise kind of hunger, that precise desire, is connective tissue. You go to America, all these people who hate each other, they’re all eating ice cream and binge watching exactly the same way. There really is something powerful about this longing to be in the story or to understand the story or to get that power of story out of art.

She was so sad. She thought she would be the loneliest person in Canada, and it was going to be horrible. And then someone turned to her and said, “If you do that in your residence room, you will be like every single other person in the residence room. Everybody will be doing that.” And then she was like, “With the ice cream?” “With the ice cream.” It was this glorious moment, which seems like it’s nothing. Except that it’s everything. That desire is just like the thing that makes Sophocles work in 2016.


Alexander MacLeod is a professor of English and Atlantic Canada studies at St. Mary’s University. His short story collection, Light Lifting (Biblioasis, 2010), was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.

Alexander MacLeod is a professor of English and Atlantic Canada studies at St. Mary’s University. His short story collection, Light Lifting (Biblioasis, 2010), was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Prize.

Harry Critchley is the outreach community coordinator for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Dalhousie University, and founder and director of the Burnside Prison Education Program.

Laura Penny is a professor of contemporary and early modern studies at the University of King’s College. She is the author of Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth about Bullshit (McClelland and Stewart, 2005) and More Money Than Brains: Why Schools Suck, College Is Crap and Idiots Think They’re Right (McClelland and Stewart, 2010).

Rita Shelton Deverell is a broadcast journalist, playwright, performer and activist and one of the founders of VisionTV, the world’s first multi-faith and multicultural network.