The year is 2016, yet the value of an Arts degree in Singapore remains iffy.
A quick Google search of the term” Arts degree” garnered the following prompts.
In a society that insists on practicality, the Arts and pursuing further education in a humanities subject has become more commonplace. However, the “whimsical” Arts education is not quite yet viewed as favourably as a professional degree or one in the hard sciences.
The case in defense of the Arts degree or diploma has been pledged countless times before, but this writer thinks it comes down to two main things: Doing what you love and making what you do well count.
There has always been a significant dip in people studying humanities subjects, as students move from secondary to post-secondary and tertiary levels of education. A few years back, a report on the dramatic drop in students reading Literature at the “O” levels reignited questions about the place and value of the humanities in Singapore. However, perhaps these findings merely call attention to an attitude towards the Arts that hasn’t changed much over the decades. The study of the Arts for the most part continues to be seen as subsidiary and for “enrichment”—implying it is not essential. Studying Geography, History and Literature in schools thus become yet another compulsory rung to overcome in the education system.
As a result, students who choose to pursue the humanities at the tertiary level, in polytechnics or universities remain a rare bunch. I fell in love with Literature as a wide-eyed teenager in Secondary school and have never looked back since. The joy of reading and exploring an entirely different world without ever having to leave the comfort of my bedroom was a mind-blowing prospect—and remains so today. Yet the choice to pursue a “passion project” of a Literature degree continues to attract furrowed eyebrows and doubtful gazes from friends and family who don’t understand what a Literature degree could offer. The rejoinder of “You read a lot of books ah?” is so commonplace, us Arts students don’t even feel bad anymore.
So why do we do what we love? It’s because what we love is critical.
Robin Williams’ character in the classic film Dead Poets Society famously said:
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Not every humanities student likes poetry, but the sentiment behind these lines teaches us something important about the “fluffy” humanities subjects. In essence, it tells us that if the sciences are the body, the humanities are the soul—one without the other makes for an incomplete person. If we can move away from the view that the humanities are a supplementary facet of our lives, and understand the symbiotic nature of the “more concrete” sciences and the Arts, perhaps one could begin to understand the tremendous value of studying the Arts. If we understand the essential lessons that Geography can teach us about our relationship with the world in the context of climate change, or how learning History can help us avoid the political errors of the past, then perhaps we will see how there is nothing peripheral about studying the Arts at all, so don’t conflate passion with irrelevance. Such a change in mindset needs to go beyond official reports from the state that decree how the sciences and the Arts are equally valuable. I believe a real shift can come only from the ground up—how we as a society can achieve this is something we’re still trying to figure out.
The second thing I’ve learnt as a fervent believer in the study of the Arts is to make what you love to do count. Perhaps, the quickest and best way to convince someone of the value of your passions is to demonstrate its practical application in the real world.
My Arts degree has trained my ability to analyse problems and create solutions, think quickly on my feet, improvise in a time of crisis and craft arguments swiftly. In a world where we are preparing for problems we cannot conceive of in the present, such skills are not generic but are in fact useful and transferable. They are also the exact skills that a humanities student hones every day in the classroom.
In a literature seminar on factors that motivate characters in a Jane Austen novel, the Jane Austen part is probably not going to matter in your life beyond school, but practicing the skill of figuring out what makes people tick—that’s always valuable in or out of the workplace. In that sense, the humanities classroom affords its students the platform to emulate the problem-solving skills asked of them in the workplace.
Additionally, perhaps the product of tediously penning essays for the duration of your humanities course means that you inevitably become pretty competent at writing. “Oh, you’re an Arts student? So you like writing? But you cannot make money from writing in Singapore.” is something I stopped rolling my eyes at a long time ago. Yes, I am an Arts student and yes; I like writing (although I know several Arts students who are good at writing but don’t necessarily like it.) Either way, writing is far from irrelevant in Singapore.
The truth is, everyone needs a good writer. Every company needs a solid writer to think up engaging social media content, someone who can write coherent reports and proposals. Writing is an essential skill and although sometimes glossed over, a highly valuable one in the workforce.
In the end, Arts students do what we do because we love what we do. And we love what we do because it can guide us on how to solve so many of the problems that we see in the world today. What we love to do and what we do well is essential, and you maybe everyone could see the value in the Arts too, if only we could turn off the blinders and look ahead.