Commercialization Redefined

It’s convocation season … that spring season when the University of Alberta commercializes 9300 new products into the Edmonton market … all of which walk across the stage on two legs.  Our new medical students can save more lives.  Our new engineering students can build better bridges.  And our business students can start new companies.

Everyone is excited about the possibilities … except … there is a quiet hush and whisper that surrounds the liberal arts graduates.  Engineers become engineers.  Teachers become teachers.  Nurses become nurses.  But arts grads … what do they become?  This is the question that stumps many of our elected officials, who are quickly swinging the education pendulum away from “intellectual exploration” and rapidly towards “technical training” such that our youth can immediately become … as we say in economics … factors of production.

So for the public policy pundits, whose vision for Alberta is to be the industrial engine of Canada and the Banana Republic of North America, I offer the following perspective for consideration:

  • Not all liberal arts graduates work as baristas at Starbucks.  This fact disappoints many who love to point to the liberal arts graduate as the poster child for unemployment … but it is far from the truth.  You see, only some liberal arts graduates work at Starbucks, and thank God they do … because someone has to be responsible for weaving human psychology, anthropology, addiction and economics into a $50 billion empire built on $5.00 non-fat lattes.
  • Not all graduates with history degrees are unemployed.  Some are.  Some probably should be.  But some make a lot of money understanding that societal unrest in Chile affects the price of copper, and thus the price of electricity and the price of houses … and they tend to make terrific long term investors.  History grads also tend to understand that markets are driven by world events, and world events are driven by markets … making events like the Arab Spring – Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain – highly predictable.
  • Not all political science programs are the same, contrary to what some people might think.  But what all programs teach in common is that empires always overreach and they always overspend … and that politicians will always come up with ways to create more money while finding creative ways to avoid discipline.  Political history shows that debt ceilings and quantitative easings are often a band-aid solution to a slightly larger problem called fiscal hemorrhaging.
  • Not all fine arts students are street performers.  Some work at Apple Computer … because a guy named Steve Jobs believed that technology needs to be married with the humanities, and human beings need to interact with technology in ways that bring both joy and productivity.  Not sure if Apple will remain as the most valuable company in the world, but I have a feeling it has forever changed the way the world sees industrial design.

The case for liberal arts education needs to be reframed.  Not only is there economic return as shown through these cheeky examples, but there is massive societal return given that the root causes of our global challenges are often grounded in human behaviour … and the understanding of how people live, think, co-exist, network and interact … and frankly I’m not imagining a world where adding more engineers will help us answer the most important questions that seem to all start with the word … why?

The public policy pendulum across the country is swinging, and I am gravely concerned with the narrow direction we are taking around technical training at the expense of intellectual exploration.  It is not one or the other.  We need both.  We need the technically trained, but not at the expense of our need for interdisciplinary, liberal arts graduates to help us shift from an industrial powerhouse to an intellectually curious city that embraces creativity, entrepreneurism, thought-leadership and democratic freedom.

Great cities, provinces and countries have great universities … and our University of Alberta must continue to commercialize liberal arts students as part of the portfolio of youth that will help make us remarkable.