News / Canada

How Justin Trudeau's liberal arts education is part of his political appeal

Researchers at The New School in New York City found that studying literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to empathize with others.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds his first caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, November 5, 2015.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds his first caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, November 5, 2015.

Stephen Harper warned that Justin Trudeau — an English literature grad and former teacher — wasn’t ready to be Prime Minister, but a Statistics Canada study released in April showed nearly a third of young humanities graduates are actually overqualified for their jobs.

Overall, humanities grads earn less money  and — according to a study by the Canadian Scholarship Trust Plan, or CST — less respect than their STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) contemporaries. In terms of both status and wealth, only fine arts majors bring in less.

Despite this, humanities subjects like English, history, philosophy and music remain a vibrant part of campus life, and the second-most popular majors at Canadian colleges and universities. (Business, management and public administration are most popular.) The humanities were once considered the cornerstone of education, and encouraging them is essential, says Martha Turner, VP of Marketing for the CST. Not only because they create well-rounded graduates, but also because the future market demands a broad skill set.

“With a global economy emerging, you have to be able to work with teams all over the world,” says Turner. “Empathy and teamwork are skills you could arguably learn in any discipline, but particularly in the humanities.”

Justin Trudeau isn’t your average humanities grad, and his climb to Canada’s top post was fuelled as much by personal ambition, political connections, and — let’s be real here — a fortuitous surname, as his appreciation for literature.

But now that he’s scored the job, the skills he cultivated in his undergrad will be useful, says University of Toronto English Professor and novelist Robert McGill.

“A lot of people talk about what they call his emotional intelligence, and when I hear that, I think about the skill of sympathetic imagination,” says McGill. “That’s the term literary critics use to talk about an ability to enter into the life of another person with rigour and compassion.”

Researchers at The New School in New York City found that studying literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to empathize with others. The study, published in the October 2013 issue of Science, asked people to read fiction, literary fiction, nonfiction and nothing, then take a test where they were asked to infer other people’s emotions. When participants read fiction and literary fiction, they scored significantly better on the tests.

“Novels are rather unique in getting us to listen to and identify with the lives of others and when I hear Justin Trudeau talking about his prioritization of listening to other people, I can’t help but think that reading literature will have fostered his abilities in that regard,” says McGill.

“And I think that aspect of him is part of his political appeal,” he adds.

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