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Secret Ingredient for a Successful Economy - September 12, 2005
- Published on Tuesday, 11 July 2006 12:47
- Written by Robert Clift
Secret ingredient for a successful economy
Surprise: It's a liberal education. Here's why
Monday, September 12, 2005
by Norma Wieland, President and Robert Clift, Executive Director
Special to the Vancouver Sun
"A creative economy is the fuel of magnificence." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
Just as in Emerson's time, we must not become complacent about how we develop our economy. Like the 19th century British aristocrats described by Emerson, our province relied too long on our natural assets, and was slow to invest in the creativity of our people.
Fortunately, about 20 years ago, we finally recognized the value of a well-educated population and successive provincial governments have made great strides in improving post-secondary education opportunities.
British Columbians have taken up these opportunities and proved themselves adept at participating in -- and adapting to -- the knowledge economy.
To aid in this transformation, we are fortunate to have a system of public universities, university colleges, colleges and institutes.
This education system, although somewhat strained for funding, provides high-quality education and training programs and serves as the incubator for the new ideas that will become commercial products and services.
The market value of research in the sciences and applied sciences is well known and supported by government and the private sector. What is less well known, and less well supported, is the contribution the humanities and social sciences make to our economy.
More than half of the graduates from bachelor's degree programs at B.C. public universities major in the humanities or social sciences; about one-third graduate from the sciences or applied sciences, and about one in 10 receives a business or law degree. As a result, the majority of the innovators, managers and workers in the knowledge economy learned the finer points of thinking and communicating through what traditionally is called a "liberal education."
What exactly is a liberal education? Essentially, it is one that develops transferable skills -- analyzing information and writing about it, for example -- through the study of humans and their societies.
These fields of study can be about how we organize ourselves (sociology, political science and economics), how we relate to one another (anthropology, psychology and social work), how we express ourselves (fine and performing arts, literature, and languages), our achievements (history), or how we develop the intellect of future generations (philosophy and education.)
The economic impact of research in these areas revolves around an important idea -- adaptability.
Economic opportunities generated from research in the sciences and applied sciences cannot be acted upon effectively unless we are able to adapt to and embrace the changes that result from new ways of looking at the world.
Take communication technology, for example. The innovations of the past two decades have created the means for global communications unprecedented in human history.
This has opened up immense opportunities for commerce, not only in supplying the technology and related services, but also in using that technology to identify and act on business opportunities.
At the same time, instantaneous communication has magnified our ability to misunderstand and offend one another. This is why before the advent of this technology our diplomats were so important.
They were the people charged with understanding and bridging cultures for everyone's benefit. Today, we have become, effectively, our own ambassadors and the cultural knowledge available to us through humanities and social science research helps to build the roads leading to global economic opportunities.
A more immediate example for British Columbians is the adaptability of those communities formerly reliant on resource extraction. Using technology to work smarter in our resource industries means that fewer people are needed to achieve the same level of productivity. Unlike out-of-date equipment, however, we cannot simply toss people into the landfill.
Displaced workers not only need education and training opportunities, but their communities need to learn ways to survive economic upheaval and to creatively take advantage of new economic and social circumstances.
Social scientists study this type of change, and the results of that research can be applied not only to the community being studied, but also to other communities in similar circumstances.
A sustainable economy depends not only on new products and services, but on the people who develop, deliver and buy those products and services.
Research in the humanities and social sciences helps us to understand how to build adaptable, healthy, sustainable and creative communities that are able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and to create new opportunities for themselves.
Accordingly, a successful economic development strategy for B.C. will support research not only in the sciences and applied sciences, but also in the humanities and social sciences. The economy resulting from this approach will be a magnificent thing indeed.
Norma Wieland is the president, and Robert Clift is the executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.
© The Vancouver Sun 2005