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Arts and social science degree programmes becoming more popular: part 2.


More students are opting for the study of arts and social science degrees in Singapore. Employers will increasingly see the value of arts and social science degrees, as these disciplines inculcate multiple knowledge and skills that are applicable and transferable across a range of jobs. Part 2 of this article looks at the reasons behind this trend.

THE recent emphasis on the knowledge-based economy, driven by the latest advancements in technologies, has all but relegated the arts and social sciences to the background. Yet, it is also undeniable that the skills one acquires in the arts and social sciences are just as essential for the smooth functioning of today's global economy.

In this second part of our contribution, we outline some of the essential skills developed in the arts and social sciences.

Artful Insights and Perspectives

Cynics have commented that there are not many jobs that writing a dissertation on Jane Austen's novels or on Robert Frost's poetry can prepare one for--certainly not in the way that studying medicine or engineering can. But increasingly, potential employers are beginning to recognise the intrinsic value of the study of literature. In a fast-changing world, we need skills that are expandable and can be applied to different contexts: skills such as how to think independently, how to ask relevant questions, how to reason, how to construct arguments, how to understand the human experience, and to see the similarities in seemingly disparate contexts, and very importantly, how to use words effectively.

A study of literature across the world helps the student recognise cultural differences and understand cultural preferences. Because we meet characters from extremely varied backgrounds, we acquire a better understanding of humanity, and that awareness goes a long way towards a culture of acceptance and appreciation. In an increasingly interconnected world, a global mindset and an intercultural outlook can only be an asset.

Also, because there are no "right" answers in literature, we find ourselves engaged in never-ending enquiries, debates and discussions, and thus acquire insights into experiences we have lived through and those we will never know at first hand. A study of literature opens up one's mind to new ideas and exposes one to different perspectives on and diverse approaches to wider literary, cultural and social developments. It reinforces the idea of a common humanity which transcends geographical and spatial borders.

We begin to recognise the relevance of the many insights and teachings that we acquire from our reading of, say, Shakespeare. His plays are cautionary tales which contain nuggets of wisdom about human strengths and limitations, achievements and frailties, about love, integrity, ambition, failure to recognise hypocrisy, relationships, and the whole tangled web of humanity.

And, if that were not enough, the relevance of Shakespeare's plays to modern management issues has recently been acknowledged by a number of readers and critics. Shakespeare provides thought-provoking insights into issues related to power, authority, leadership, management of risk, of crisis, of emotion: ubiquitous issues in the contemporary business and management scene. Incredible as it may seem, a number of his plays dealing with monarchs, historical changes, wars, manipulations, failures and successes can be read as lessons in leadership and management, the use and abuse of power, the importance of balancing values and responsibilities and the skills crucial to a leader's success. These lessons transcend barriers of place, space and time, and are equally relevant in today's context. The principles of good leadership and the hazards of incompetent authority are the same whether applied to sixteenth century England or contemporary management boards.

In Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama noted how "with the right words everything could change--South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world." The study of literature helps develop one's sensitivity towards language with all its subtle nuances, connotations, and complexities. This ability enables one to communicate both simple and complex ideas with clarity and eloquence. As an added measure, the study of literature fosters effective reading and writing skills and makes one more articulate. A tangential but equally valid point is that literary texts can be highly enjoyable to study, as is the opportunity to critique and comment on those texts.

Relevance of Social Science to Today's World

This sensitivity and critical thinking are also one of the hallmarks of social science training. With globalisation and growing international migration, multinational companies were among the first to realise that in addition to good management and negotiation skills, their employee's level of cultural understanding and sensitivity to different cultures was what could make or break that million-dollar deal.


It is precisely this curiosity in the world around us--the ability to recognizes interesting social trends, to make systematic comparisons and analysis in a bid to understand the reasons for the trends and the stories behind the numbers, and to finally arrive at well-grounded conclusions in a logical manner--that make the knowledge and training in the social sciences valuable.

The social sciences are particularly relevant to our everyday lives because they give us the means to makes sense of the world. We are challenged to reassess our long-held assumptions, be more sensitive to other perspectives, practise logical thinking and judgment, and form well-grounded and reasoned opinions bases on the facts and figures we have at hand.

This critical and logical approach to processing information in the social sciences also helps nurtures creative thinkers. With creative thinking, we are constantly encouraged to question the norm, to identify problems before they occur, and to think outside of the box when searching for alternative approaches and solutions. What makes creative thinking particularly valuable to business is the added edge they gain over their competitors when it is harnessed for problem solving and process management.

However, in Singapore, a worrying trend seems to be emerging. A recent survey of companies in Singapore revealed that managers here see their Singaporean employees as "reliable, diligent and productive, but lack[ing in] creativity and leadership" (The Straits Times, 10 August 2009). And this may be a little discomforting for business, especially since these employees are likely to be their managers of tomorrow.

On a broader scale, the social science line of inquiry also equips us with ways of grappling with larger social, political or economic issues by systematically breaking down the overwhelming mass into manageable component parts for analysis. In particular, social scientists learn to clarify and think through in a clear-headed manner the process of their inquiry every step of the way. With a keen eye on distilling the facts from the figures, social scientists flesh out the stories behind statistics by providing grounded interpretations of and explanations for social trends.

China's Revived Interest in the Social Sciences

Already, the importance and relevance of social science training have not escaped China's leaders. China has lost several generations of social scientists ever since the social sciences were banned following the Cultural Revolution, and later relegated to the back burner. Now, its leaders are eager to make up for lost time.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, China is beefing up its social science programmes through institutional research partnerships and exchanges with foreign universities. This move is fueled by its leaders' determinations to "transform China's universities into world-class institutions", a strategy that includes bringing American faculty to China to teach short courses at the Chinese campuses. At the forefront of this push is Peking University, which has formed partnerships with American universities such as University of Michigan and University of Southern California (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 February 2009).

This shift in China's focus from finance and hard sciences to the social sciences isn't surprising, given its recent astronomical growth and accompanying social change. Once viewed with suspicion, the social sciences are now seen as vital to understanding the rapidly changing Chinese society, and formulating well-grounded national policies.


What we've sought to show from the foregoing is the fact that unlike a professional degree in, say, medicine or law, students enrolled in the arts and social sciences do not simply acquire a specialized set of skills that comes with a definitive price tag. As a result, one commonly heard lament, especially among administrators of these programmers, is the inability to pin down specific career routes for students in the arts and social sciences. That is the end--and the ultimate return on investment--that pragmatic students and their parents look for before placing their bets on a particular degree.

Interestingly, however, it is precisely this adaptability that makes the knowledge and skills acquired in the arts and social sciences transferable across industries. More importantly, these are versatile skills that will never diminish in value and will, in fact, get sharpened with experience in different jobs.

Putting aside the pragmatic experiences in different jobs.

Putting aside the pragmatic benefit-cost analysis, there is no denying that the skills and training acquired in the arts and social sciences help prepare the individual for a fulfilling life as a contributing member of his or her community and society.

And that, perhaps, is the biggest payoff of all.

Associate Professor Neelam Aggarwal is Dean, School of Arts & Social Sciences: Dr Selina Lim is Head of Social Sciences, School of Arts & Social Sciences; and Dr Brian Lee is Head of Communication, School of Arts & Social Sciences, SIM University. A short version of this article was published in The Straits Times.
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Author:Aggarwal, Neelam; Lim, Selina; Lee, Brian
Publication:Today's Manager
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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