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Op-ed: Dr. Jennifer Simpson

Humanities and Social Sciences are ‘exactly what we need,’ says HSS dean

By Dr. Jennifer Simpson

As dean in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) at Memorial, I am often asked about the benefits of an HSS degree.

Graduates of professionally focused faculties, such as education, nursing or engineering, have clear contributions to make to society. For students who study classics, political science or linguistics, the value of such a degree, to both the student and to society, may be less obvious.

Foundational skills

HSS includes 15 departments, from sociology to gender studies to English to geography. Over half of those taking HSS classes at Memorial each year are from non-HSS faculties.

Why? Because topics of study in HSS courses and programs are relevant to a range of professions and community settings, and essential to meeting the demands of our ever-changing world.

“There is a  growing “demand for foundational skills such as critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.”

Research demonstrates, and employers confirm, that what HSS students learn during their time at university is increasingly important in a variety of settings.

An RBC study has reported that there is a  growing “demand for foundational skills such as critical thinking, co-ordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving,” all capacities that students strengthen in HSS programs, and that have long been understood to be crucial to maintaining healthy and vibrant communities.

Human skills and social concerns

Areas of study in the humanities and social sciences provide careful attention to the practices of living together well: students and faculty consider and assess the world we live in, and identify ways to build a more promising future.

In sum, as noted in a study by the World Economic Forum, “human skills” are critical in regard to social concerns such as global warming, and will be crucial for an increasing number of professional roles.

Further, again referencing the RBC report, “virtually all job openings will place significant importance on judgment and decision-making” and “active listening, speaking, critical thinking and reading comprehension will be “relatively” or “very” important for nearly 100 per cent of job opportunities.”

Other capacities that employers will be seeking in graduates include communication, emotional intelligence, analysis, inter- and intra-personal competencies, and co-ordination and social perceptiveness.

The increased significance of technology, big data and artificial intelligence amplifies the crucial importance of graduates who can think analytically and across ideas, constructively responding to conflict, working in teams and ethically engaging with diverse communities and varied worldviews.

HSS = leaders

Study in the humanities and social sciences also contributes to stronger forms of civic engagement and success in significant leadership positions.

One article, written by D. Sunshine Hillyguss, notes that students in humanities and social science programs are more likely to be engaged with the political process.

“All of Canada’s past 10 Prime Ministers have held degrees in the humanities and social sciences.”

A 2015 report on leadership, with a focus on leaders in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, analyzed which fields of study leaders pursued as undergraduates, and notes that over half of the leaders were humanities and social science graduates.

This study bears out as related to Canadian political leadership: all of Canada’s past 10 Prime Ministers have held degrees in the humanities and social sciences.

‘Describe, analyze and respond’

Finally, the capacities of humanities and social science graduates will benefit not only society as a whole and employers; degrees in these fields will also contribute to the well-being of graduates themselves.

The Education Policy Research Initiative, based at the University of Ottawa, has closely studied earnings of graduates from bachelor programs at universities across Canada. This research shows that:

  • HSS graduates have virtually the same employment rate as graduates across all fields of study (Edge, Martin, and McKean, p. 13).
  • Humanities and social science graduates saw their incomes rise by 40 per cent within eight years of graduation (Edge, Martin, and McKean, p. 17).
  • “On average humanities graduates have a comparable employment rate to graduates with other degrees.” According to the 2006 Canadian census and a humanities infographic, the national employment rate is 94.6 per cent, the employment rate for history graduates is 94.6 per cent and the employment rate for religious studies and theology students is 96.4 per cent.

Through the study of human behaviour, ethics, languages and images, and social norms and institutions, students in programs such as folklore, economics, religious studies and anthropology strengthen their capacities to describe, analyze and respond to a variety of challenges.

Such capacities are precisely the types of qualities that employers and communities can use.

When people ask me about the benefits of a degree in the humanities and social sciences, I am glad to confirm that studying philosophy, history, languages or archaeology, or any of the other disciplines in the faculty, will support both the student’s professional interests, and will benefit society.

In their careful attention to human diversity, ethical relationships and social interaction, programs in HSS are exactly what we all need.

Additional sources

Edge, Jessica, Martin, Elizabeth, and McKean, Matthew. Getting to Work: Career Skills Development for Social Studies and Humanities Graduates (Toronto, Ontario: The Conference Board of Canada).

Feloni, Richard. “Microsoft’s president says liberal arts majors are necessary for the future of tech.” Business Insider (January 21, 2018).

Hillygus, D. Sunshine. “The Missing Link: Exploring the Relationship between Higher Education and Political Engagement.” Political Behaviour 27, no. 1 (2005), pp. 25-47.

Teaching for Tomorrow: Building the Necessary Skills Today.” 2018. Institute for Competitiveness and Prosperity.


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