The Perils of Ignoring Humanities
Posted on July 4, 2013
One generation from now, parents and educators will reflect upon our era and wonder if we had ever bothered to consider the price for favouring technical academic subjects over the humanities.
In a recent piece on the New York Times, Verlyn Kinkenborg describes the dwindling interest for the humanities in higher education. Kinkenborg laments as an educator, “Each semester I hope, and fear, that I will have nothing to teach my students because they already know how to write. And each semester I discover, again, that they don’t.”
“Undergraduates will tell you that they’re under pressure — from their parents, from the burden of debt they incur, from society at large — to choose majors they believe will lead as directly as possible to good jobs. Too often, that means skipping the humanities.”
Singapore, a country with a bilingual education policy, faces a similar state as the number of upper secondary schools students (or high school seniors) who choose Literature as an elective subject has plummeted from 16,970 in 1992 to only about 3000 students today. Indranee Rajah, Senior Minister of State for Education and Law, notes that a “common perception (was) that it was difficult to obtain a good grade for the subject.”
“The main factor for the decline has to do with the introduction of Combined Humanities at the upper secondary levels, where students take social studies as a compulsory component and an elective which can either be geography, history or literature.”
Good Choices, Bad Choices
We are at a point of inflection in human history.
Since the industrial revolution, humans have pursued growth at a relentless pace. Mother nature and the livability in urban spaces are just part of the collateral damage that has surfaced from bad decisions made for the benefit of short-term gains.
In the award-winning documentary film ‘The Human Scale’, Jan Gehl, a Danish architect who has been studying human behavior in cities for 40 years, questions our assumptions about structuring our cities along roads and highway to ease traffic.
Gehl documents how modern cities repel human interactions and argues how we can increase liveability in cities when we take into account the human need for inclusion and intimacy. Gehl’s recommendations of linking streets for human traffic, including bike lanes and reclaiming public spaces from roads for people to sit and interact subsequently inspired city planners in Copenhagen, New York and Melbourne to reorganize and rethink the traditional approach of accounting largely traffic data and efficiency in land use into city planning.
The film concludes that these cities have now seen an increase in the number of human interaction within open spaces with Copenhagen and Melbourne taking the top two spots in Monocle’s Most Livable Cities Index.
Unfortunately, cities in parts of India and China continue to follow the traditional approach of city planning, structuring cities to ease traffic congestion instead of prioritizing human interaction, a price its inhabitants will pay dearly in future.
The Value of Humanities
“Writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities,” Kinkenborg writes in her New York Times article, “as essential as the knowledge of mathematics and statistics in the sciences. But writing well isn’t merely a utilitarian skill. It is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.”
The ability to appreciate the work of someone like Jan Gehl’s was developed from my work with OpenBrief, a publication I started with the intent to write about all things cultural and creative in Asia.
Back in school, I did not enjoy literature or writing English essays because my grades consistently indicated I was average at best and the ideas from literature lessons seemed so highfalutin. Though I kept to the habit of reading newspapers and non-fiction writing as an art/design student, I struggled whenever I had to write.
Fortunately, a few events reignited my interest to write. The first was the opportunity to write advertising copy—a few lines that tell a story in an entertaining and concise way. The barrier to entry was low and the only requirement was a willingness to be relentless at churning and eliminating multiple ideas.
The second was joining Toastmasters, an international nonprofit organization that helps its members improve communication and public-speaking skills. Though it wasn’t necessary to write well, I discovered the habit of writing your own speech as a means of preparation greatly boosts confidence during presentations.
Understanding the underlying structure that adds to a good piece of journalism from experienced writers in our team was the third event that got me writing regularly. What would make your article a compelling read? What is the objective of your story? What are the angles necessary to give a full picture? Those questions stretch my intellectual curiosity whenever I write.
Studying Humanities will pay off in dividends when you realize you not only gain a lifelong interest with the world at large but also the power to spread ideas in a succinct and engaging manner. Especially when the ability to assess information critically and repurpose it through writing is a necessary merit for professionals who wish to get ahead in today’s competitive climate.
Intellectual Curiosity and Stagnant Wages
“To make the next leap up in the income ladder, Singapore workers will have to be as good as those in Germany and Switzerland. But as the reader asked (“Do Singaporeans deserve the salaries they are paid?”), are they as analytical, creative, articulate and productive?”
Those were questions that hit home when Han Fook Kwang, the Managing Editor of The Straits Times, wrote in his weekly column on June 30. Han continued to conclude that a change in both the economy and local education/training is necessary. “Learning how to learn, whatever the subject, possessing deep capabilities in the jobs you do, being able to communicate well, having a lively interest and pride in what you’re doing.”
Are we already seeing the ramification of bad choices partly due to ignoring Humanities for the last decade? What can we do to course correct?
Echoing President Obama in a recent speech on curbing climate change in America, “The question is not whether we need to act. The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.”
Here’s hoping that the move to save the humanities in schools won’t come too late.∗