UBC president Santa Ono watched the news in horror as the burning spire of Notre Dame Cathedral toppled and crashed during a sudden fire at one of the world’s most famous churches.

The flames caused extensive damage to the Paris cathedral, but before the dust cleared president of France Emmanuel Macron had already pledged to rebuild it. For that, Notre Dame will need the support of engineers, artists, and historians.

“People have been predicting that humanities and social sciences have been doomed for a long time. They dismiss the liberal arts as irrelevant in the 21st century,” said Ono during a public lecture on the liberal arts May 8. “I am here to argue the opposite – that they have never been more important.”

Ono said he’s increasingly heard politicians and media outlets argue that today’s world needs more STEM graduates rather than those in the liberal arts.

“I certainly agree that Canada needs more graduates in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I don’t dispute that. I’m not anti-STEM or anti-technology. They are needed in a modern world,” said Ono. “What I’m here to say is at the same time, we need liberal arts: now, more than ever.”

For one thing, the beautiful, historic Notre Dame can’t be rebuilt without them.

“The humanities, philosophy, religious studies, history, architecture, artistry, and more, even the sounds of the organ in that cathedral, should help inform that conversation. If we had a world of only STEM graduates, imagine the loss of perspective we would have in answering questions such as those.”

For another thing, Ono told about 140 local students, professors, and alumni, liberal arts degrees offer a broad range of subjects, integrate information from multiple fields of study, and require critical thinking. Science researchers can tell us a lot about environmental destruction and climate change; liberal arts graduates can consider the wider implications.

But the value of liberal arts go beyond that, said Ono, himself a liberal arts graduate and the president of a university with well-established liberal arts programs.

“It is through the understanding of liberal arts, through the study of civilizations gone past, through listening to music, through thinking about how art moves you, through thinking about very different philosophical questions, that you get a different kind of education. It’s not an education of the mind. It’s an education of the heart and soul,” said Ono.

The liberal arts – humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences – help make sense of the world.

Santa Ono meets audience members after the guest lecture.

“You can learn so much from understanding what’s happened in the history of humanity, and the history of planet earth. You can learn so much from the exhibition of hatred, greed and prejudice that have happened in many different centuries, in many different parts of the world. We can learn from that.”

He worries a world lacking appreciation for history, the arts, philosophy, and the study of fossils, can lead to a repetition of mistakes.

“In an age of runaway technological change, the humanities can give us the critical thinking skills and the perspective from history to deal with these issues. We need to learn from the wisdom of those who went before us.”

Ono received his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, a “bastion” of the liberal arts. He went on to receive his PhD in experimental medicine at McGill University, and credits his diverse education for many of his accomplishments.

“I believe I am a better scientist, I believe I am a better administrator, I believe I am a better teacher, I believe I am a better father and husband, and I believe that I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education. It was intentionally diverse and heterogeneous. It made me move outside of my comfort zone to areas of thought and discussion that were uncomfortable to me,” he said.

Ono’s lecture on liberal arts was part of the annual Carr Lecture series co-hosted by St. Mark’s College and the Newman Association of Vancouver, which are located on campus at the University of British Columbia. St. Mark’s has been associated with UBC for more than 60 years; both are known for their liberal arts programs.

“UBC is in many ways an outlier. Where many universities south of the border and in other parts of the world are closing programs,” UBC is expanding its programs in the liberal arts.