Sunday, September 19, 2010

The value of a liberal arts education

Last week, it was announced that there probably would be a liberal arts college in Singapore by 2013, thanks to a Yale-NUS tieup.

Quick on the heels was an interview with Prof Koh Tai Ann, senior associate of NTU's Centre for Liberal Arts and Social Sciences in the Straits Times on Thursday. I like the piece, you can read the full interview here. What she said about how the focus on hard sciences and professional degrees like engineering had contributed towards Singapore being a competitive society that looks down on non-achievers and softer disciplines like the arts particularly resonated with me.

I've experienced this my whole life, way back from when I was in secondary school. I may have mentioned previously that at sec 3, the girls at my school were segregated into the science and arts streams, not based on interest or ability in specific subjects but purely based on overall grades (as was the common practice in most schools then). The top 40 girls were streamed into the pure science class, the next 40 into sub-science, followed by the arts streams. I was placed in the "privileged" pure science class but since I had no desire to learn about the anatomy of a frog or the thermal properties of matter, I asked the principal for a transfer to the arts class. She granted my request but expressed surprise that anyone would choose to move "downwards".

In JC, unsure what I wanted to do with my life, I took up Accountancy and Econs upon the advice of my very pragmatic accountant father and entered the most dreary two years of my academic life. In NUS, I switched back to the arts faculty and went on to do my honours in Sociology. I remember I had a couple of friends who implied that I was wasting my time, that the only courses worth taking in the arts faculty were Econs and Statistics (not you, Lilian!)

There was a prevalent attitude that the arts and humanities were fluff, unworthy of serious attention. This mindset extended to all realms, even that of books. Fast forward to many years later when I went for a job interview with a polytechnic principal. He asked me what the most recent book I'd read was. Now, I've always wondered about this question because it's a very difficult one for an avid reader to answer. What if the last book I'd read happened to be Calvin and Hobbes? Would that somehow diminish my status even if I'd been reading Sun Tze's Art of War before that?

Anyway, I had just finished reading Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, the recent Pulitzer Prize winning book at that time, and said so. He hadn't heard of it so I said I read a lot of John Steinbeck which was true as I think The Grapes of Wrath is one of the most memorable classics of all time. However, if I'm being honest, part of me said that only to appear knowledgeable because it's easy to take seriously someone who reads Steinbeck.

I got the job but later, I found out that he considered fiction to be a waste of time. He is a very well read man himself but his reading consisted mostly of management, IT, business and other "serious" non-fiction publications. (Which made me wonder how I got the job!) No surprises, he's an engineer by training.

Just a couple of days ago, Lilian and I were discussing Literature (and how much of it is bedek, lol). She feels that sometimes, in analysing texts, we read underlying meanings in sentences that weren't actually intended by the author. The skeptic in me is inclined to agree, I suspect Lit students and teachers sometimes get carried away by the literary exercise of analysis and they project their own beliefs onto the author's work.

But you see, that's the beauty of fiction - it really doesn't matter. Good fiction provokes thought and I've found that from decades of reading fiction, it has broadened my worldview and deepened my thought in a way that couldn't be gleaned from just experience alone. Fiction opens up worlds and in doing so, opens up minds, gives wings to creative thought. To put it rather simplistically, non-fiction tells you what to think, fiction teaches you how to think.

Ironically, I never studied Literature beyond O levels because being a Singapore product at heart, I still believe that what we learn has to be useful in some way, ie thought for thought's sake is too idealistic. That's why I never became an academic. My Sociology education taught me how to look at issues critically, to never accept anything without question, to consider people and actions from different perspectives, all of which were invaluable traits when I entered the workforce. Much more than my two years studying Accountancy and Econs ever did for me. (Ok, I did learn to balance my accounts for my business but that's something I could have easily picked up later.)

The move into liberal arts is a signal that Singaporeans are starting to realise the value of an education that not only teaches you how to do, but how to think. It's not all hoopla and airy fairy stuff. Yes, we still need people who can build bridges and calculate rates of returns but in a new millennium where knowledge changes by the day, what we truly lack in our society are dreamers, analysts and thinkers who can see issues and take on challenges across disciplines. And really, that's what a liberal arts education education is all about.
"When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before." - Clifton Fadiman


Anonymous said...

Hey Mon, I am PURE Science-trained too all my life but I am working on Art stuff now. Like what you mentioned, during my time, Science-trained would help me make a living easier and it was certainly true. My natural self is perhaps more inclined towards arts and music as I am a person who enjoys things like interior designing, fashion, craftwork, singing etc.. In fact some people thought I was professionally trained in arts. *blushed* My disposition has never come across as a Science person so the education of Science has failed to transform me physically. LOL.


monlim said...

QX: It's good to know you didn't give up on your Arts interests despite your Science background! Actually, a liberal arts education has a science component too but it's general science, to develop critical inquiry, instead of a vocational or professional slant. So I think it grooms more of an all-rounder.

Michiamochiam said...

Hey there...

It took the government that long to realize that Liberal Arts is the way to go.

But actually, it is also a by-product of the sad fact of life in Singapore - that you can only earn a living when you do the sciences, the engineering, the doctors, the lawyers. This Liberal Arts thing is probably the las thing that parents want their kid to do cos their first question is " What will you do after you graduate".

It remains a problem deep rooted in our society.


Jason Chiam :)

monlim said...

Jason: Hey! Good to see you here. Well, to be fair, the pragmatic approach was necessary cos we're a young nation and economic survival was always top priority, so fill the country with engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc first. But now that we're past that phase of development, we're ready for liberal arts. Nowadays, I come across more parents who want their kids to work at what they enjoy, instead of just to earn a living. So maybe there's hope yet!

Liberal Arts Degree said...

A liberal arts education can be extremely beneficial to individuals due to the fact that it teaches individuals how to think and how to solve problems.

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