‘Don’t neglect the humanities’

TWENTY-FIRST century universities must not neglect the humanities in the pursuit of nurturing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talents.

STEM and humanities, Perak Ruler Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah noted, should go hand in hand.

While the demand for STEM subjects is on the rise, varsity leaders play a crucial role in advocating for humanities subjects like history, philosophy, literature, religious studies and the creative arts.

He said STEM subjects are essential to prepare students for the 21st century, but the humanities are important for them to discover themselves.

“We must make sure that today’s students have both the skills to take practical action, and the wisdom to direct those actions to productive and worthwhile ends,” he said in his Royal Address at the Higher Education Leadership Academy (Akept) Global Series at Universiti Malaya (UM) on Feb 8.

Sultan Nazrin, who is also the varsity’s chancellor, said higher education institutions (HEIs) nowadays have to provide students with skills that are relevant and marketable, while recognising that core skills cultivated by the humanities such as communication, decision-making and the ability to synthesise huge chunks of information are very valuable to be imparted to students.

Students who graduate from 21st century varsities should have good common sense, he said.

“A crucial function of the 21st century university is to train and guide students to be better able to distinguish the mind from mindlessness, historic truths from fake news, and the beautiful from the ugly,” he added.

Engineers and scientists are needed for the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) but philosophers and theologians are required to weigh in on the gains, risks and moral consequences of such innovations.

“We need historians who can tell of occasions in the past when apparent progress had unintended or unexpected catastrophic consequences, and creative individuals who can dream up unimagined new solutions to the various problems we face.”

Citing climate change as an example, Sultan Nazrin said technological solutions and change in human behaviours need to happen simultaneously in order to effectively address it.

“Literature and the arts can teach our students the true beauty of the vanishing natural world, which in turn will foster their desire to be good stewards of the earth, the oceans and the air above us.

“In negotiating the perils of conflict and rivalry – whether ethnic, national or international – we need not only lawyers and political scientists, but also theologians, anthropologists, linguists and historians who have been trained to understand the customs, beliefs and value systems of different cultures and faiths,” he said, while stressing the role of varsities in ensuring the brightest young people are able to communicate with their peers globally.

“This vital ability to communicate and, even more importantly, to understand, is another skill fostered in the study of humanities,” he added.

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