Sep 04, 2014

    Liberal arts can offer skills for life

    "IT'S a little bit easier for me to navigate through society because of how Bard prepared me. That's what a liberal-arts education can really do for a person," explained Donnel Hughes in a recent interview with National Public Radio.

    Hughes is an American prisoner who was given the chance to turn his life around through the Bard Prison Initiative, which allows prisoners to get a liberal-arts diploma while still incarcerated.

    There are many initiatives that try to help prisoners integrate back into society by equipping them with vocational skills. However, a liberal-arts education did more than that for Hughes - it changed his world view and allowed him to reflect on who he was, what he'd done and where his future lay.

    What are the liberal arts? And why did Hughes find his study of them so important in his journey of self-discovery?

    Many people wrongly assume that a liberal-arts education is one that is about the arts and humanities, and provides no exposure to Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).

    However, the hallmark of a liberal-arts education is that it requires students to gain foundational exposure to a wide range of subjects.

    As Asad Hassanali, a Singaporean studying liberal arts at Wesleyan University, comments: "In my first year alone, I've taken classes in computer programming, creative writing, music and history, and I'm an economics major!"

    This broad exposure teaches students to appreciate and comprehend multiple facets of knowledge, not just those relating to their chosen area of study.

    Thus, a liberal-arts curriculum emphasises the general intellectual literacy and critical thinking skills of students, and aims to give them the ability to absorb new concepts, think clearly, reason rationally, analyse new data and express this information in a coherent and logical manner - regardless of their specialisation.

    Some of us may be familiar with the liberal arts because the new Yale-NUS College espouses this method of education.

    Despite its benefits, most Singaporeans are unfamiliar with the liberal-arts tradition.

    Yet, perhaps, an education in the liberal-arts tradition is exactly what our children need.

    Education Minister Heng Swee Keat argues that our education system should be more holistic, becoming "less about content knowledge" and "more about how to process information".

    This policy shift is understandable - these skills are greatly sought after in today's job market.

    A 2013 survey by The Association of American Colleges and Universities of employers found that 74 per cent of them would recommend a liberal-arts education to their own children or a young person.

    A full 93 per cent also agree that "a candidate's demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major".

    Employers aside, there are many famous proponents of the liberal arts.

    The late Steve Jobs said the principle behind Apple's "DNA" is that "technology alone is not enough - it's technology married with liberal arts… that yields us the result that makes our heart sing".

    Mr Jobs spent some time at Reed, a liberal-arts college, before dropping out. Despite the short time he spent there, he credits the calligraphy course he took as the inspiration behind the variety of fonts the first Macintosh computer had.

    Of course, if a person is certain that he wants to be an engineer or a doctor, getting the appropriate professional degree is the sensible course.

    The lesson we can draw from the liberal arts is that - in a rapidly evolving world where the knowledge gained in classrooms can quickly become obsolete - teaching someone how to learn is more valuable than teaching them a trade.

    As Leon Bostein, who presided at Hughes' commencement, put it: "We live in a time when people don't really believe in education, and they don't believe in the liberal arts. They don't believe in studying something that isn't practical.

    "Where, in fact, everything you learn is unbelievably practical, because it allows you to negotiate life wherever you are."

    Fundamentally, a liberal-arts education is about inculcating a deep love of learning in people and equipping them not just with the tools they need to get a job, but also the lost tools of learning they need to make it through life.


    The writer is a co-founder of educational consultancy Cialfo and its two subsidiaries - Sitfor and Collegify Singapore. Sitfor is a preparatory centre for standardised tests (SAT/GMAT) and Collegify is a student-focused consultancy for higher education in the United States/Britain.