By Elizabeth Khoo (21-U1), Emma Lee (21-O1), Katelyn Joshy (21-U1), Saara Katyal (RGS)
“Wait what, you’re taking the arts stream?” I remember my neighbour reeling back in surprise when I told her my plans for Junior College. “How about your future? Won’t the sciences prepare you better?”
In Singapore, the pursuit of the humanities has often been a trivial consideration and its relevance to modern day society is continually in question. Singapore is a deeply competitive society and many Singaporeans (especially older generations) are pragmatists who view the mastery of the sciences as the key to success, causing them to neglect the arts. To them, the science stream, the ‘tried and tested route’, promises stability. Thus, this explains the high subscription to the STEM pathway. However, what does our current generation have to say about the value of arts in our current lives? We surveyed some students from EJC and RGS to find out.
There has been a shift in our perception of the importance of the arts, as over 90% of our survey respondents from Eunoia Junior College and Raffles Girls’ School / Raffles Institution have indicated that the arts (history, literature, geography, fine art and music, economics, etc.) are of the same importance in society as the sciences. Furthermore, almost all respondents rejected the notion that the arts stream was an easier pathway than the sciences. This reveals a considerable progress from the usual view that the arts are ‘useless’ or ‘easier’ subjects.
However, there are contradictions between the progressive stance that students have chosen to adopt and the academic choices they have made. For example, 59% of students who entered science stream stated that they did so for ‘practical reasons’ in university applications and educational opportunities; whilst 46% of these students perceived taking the sciences as more rewarding career-wise in the long run. These statistics show that although students claim that their attitudes towards the arts have shifted, they still have subconscious presumptions which cause them to choose certain academic pathways. These all point toward hidden biases and prejudices that are reminiscent of traditional Asian mindsets.
We have also heard of many Singaporean parents who make their children enroll in university courses such as medicine and engineering simply because they think that these paths will lead to future financial stability. Comparably, we rarely come across families who readily encourage or guide their children to pursue the arts. This corroborates the research we conducted on the point that Singaporeans, including youths, still more or less subscribe to the traditional ideas of success which reject the arts as a potential career path, hence disregarding the importance of the arts. This can be attributed to parental moulding in their perceptions of what a ‘successful’ career path consists of.
Most alarmingly, more than half of the respondents believe that enrolling in a humanities or arts stream will lessen your career prospects. This is one of the longest standing misconceptions of the Arts. Since the arts are broad-based and multidisciplinary in approach, they are “less closely linked to a well defined job path after graduation”, and thus this leads people to assume that taking the arts will hinder your career progression in the future. This unfortunate misconception has only been reinforced by other external forces. For instance, UK education minister Gavin Williamson introduced schemes to focus on “subjects which deliver strong graduate employment in areas of economic and societal importance, such as STEM”. In Australia, the prejudice against the arts is even more blatant, as university students enrolling in humanities courses must pay higher school fees, in order to incentivise taking other courses which are more “job relevant” choices.
Contrary to popular belief, however, the Arts provide students with invaluable soft skills and 21st century competencies that will help them excel in the workplace. These skills include critical thinking & analysis as well as good communication. For example, in an Arts education, students are exposed to disciplines like history where they learn that historical events are the result of an interplay of factors. They learn to weigh these factors in order of their importance and ascertain which factor was most influential in leading to the observed outcome. Humanities students are also taught to express themselves eloquently through debate on various issues, thereby developing them as natural presenters and communicators that exude confidence. Moreover, geography also equips students with essential data handling skills. The lack of these skills has been shown to hinder 94% of productivity at work. As a result, liberal arts graduates are highly sought after. For instance, a recent study by Singapore Graduate Employment Survey found that Yale-NUS class of 2017 graduates achieved an employment rate of over 93 percent within the first six months of graduation, as compared to the overall employment rate of 88.9 percent. Furthermore, these graduates are shown to compete well even in technological fields. Therefore, it is incorrect to say that an Arts student would be at a disadvantage when pitted against his/her STEM counterpart when vying for a job position.
THE WORTHY IN THE ‘WORTHLESS’
An arts education exposes us to a wide range of disciplines. This encourages flexibility in thinking and allows us to approach problems from multidisciplinary lenses, thus enabling us to adapt better to the changes in the world. For example, at Yale-NUS, a college known for its liberal arts education, students are required to read classics of literature and philosophy from all over the world, such as India, China, Africa and Europe, as well as study scientific inquiry and quantitative reasoning. Thus, contrary to popular belief, the liberal arts / humanities and the sciences are not mutually exclusive. In fact, a liberal arts education actively includes the sciences, where these subjects are studied as distinct and interesting ways of thinking, rather than a set of tools to solve a specific problem on, say, engineering. Therefore, choosing to focus on the humanities equips us with the skills to learn new things fast and apply them across many disciplines.
In conclusion, it is heartening to see more students being aware of the merits of an arts education. However, due to various misconceptions and external pressures, there are many who still feel pressured into taking the sciences anyway. We have already made the first step forward, but more work needs to be done if we truly want to integrate the humanities into our everyday lives.
- BBC. (n.d.). Why ‘worthless’ humanities degrees may set you up for life. BBC Worklife. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20190401-why-worthless-humanities-degrees-may-set-you-up-for-life.
2. Guardian News and Media. (2020, September 10). ‘Humanities graduates are just as employable’: do the sciences really lead to more jobs? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/sep/10/humanities-graduates-are-just-as-employable-do-the-sciences-really-lead-to-more-jobs.
3. Myths vs Reality: Busting 5 myths about Humanities. National Skills Network. (2020, December 17). https://www.nationalskillsnetwork.in/myths-vs-reality-busting-5-myths-about-humanities/.
4. Nardin, T. (2021, February 21). Commentary: A liberal arts education in Singapore and the usefulness of ‘useless’ knowledge. CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/commentary-a-liberal-arts-education-in-singapore-and-the-10155030.
5. Subhani, O. (2020, July 6). Report: Lack of data skills hinders productivity of 94% of employers. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/business/companies-markets/report-lack-of-data-skills-hinders-productivity-of-94-of-employers.