Liberal arts and the humanities

  • Letters
  • Friday, 06 Dec 2019

TO be an alumnus of the oldest university in Malaysia is a great honour. To have graduated from Universiti Malaya (UM) during its heyday in the 50s and 60s is an academic privilege. To join the ranks of UM alumni in contributing to the nation’s early development is an accomplishment indeed.

Last month, UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science (FASS) celebrated its 60th anniversary with a gathering of graduates at the Homecoming event in the arts concourse and at a Royal Gala Dinner.

The original Faculty of Arts established in 1959 changed its name to Faculty of Arts and Social Science to include a wider and more modern curriculum. Since its inception, the faculty has attracted the most number of students because of the vast range of courses available in the humanities and the marketability of the Bachelor of Arts degree acquired after three or four years of study.

One only has to look at UM’s alumni roll to see the huge number of graduates who have taken up the academic offerings of the faculty over the last 60 years and have played key roles in Malaysia’s post-independence growth through their various careers.

These include many of Malaysia’s most distinguished civil servants, diplomats, lawyers, academics, lecturers and teachers.

These outstanding men and women are products of an era when the humanities were considered key to the educational development of an individual, and where the breadth and scope of knowledge were contained in subjects like Language, Literature, History, Law, Sociology and Anthropology. What they acquired from their alma mater was exposure to knowledge and a world view expounded by the best academic minds. The medium of instruction then was English, which opened their minds to the best scholarly works in the world.

Today, the faculty continues to offer traditional and newly-defined undergraduate courses in Anthropology and Sociology, Chinese Studies, East Asian Studies, English Literature, Environmental Studies, Geography, Gender Studies, History, Indian Studies, International and Strategic Studies, Media Studies, Social Administration and Justice, and South-East Asian Studies.

Graduate programmes include full-research MA and PhD, mixed-mode master programmes in English Literature, Malaysian History, South-East Asian History, South-East Asian Studies, International and Strategic Studies, and a full-course programme in Media Studies.

Sixty years ago, education in science and technology was still in its infant stages and was represented mainly in the faculties of medicine, dentistry, engineering and science. Students in these faculties were viewed with awe for having achieved good Higher School Certificate (HSC) results in the pure science subjects such as Physics, Chemistry and Biology, and in the much dreaded Additional Mathematics. As doctors and engineers, their future was assured since their professions were very much in demand due to the nation’s development needs.

Today, there is rising popularity of science and technology-related subjects, in particular Information Technology. The prolific expansion of the Internet and social media has made these subjects among the most viable in terms of employment opportunities and career development. An IT qualification is considered a boon to one’s employment and business prospects.

Although science and technology have remained keys to modern civilisation as they were in the days of old, there is growing belief that the humanities open doors to man’s more enduring inner stability. Subjects dealing with philosophy, law, history, ancient and modern languages, culture and religion as well as the visual and performing arts open students’ minds to what constitutes human society in order for them to better understand social phenomena, human behaviour and interaction.

Not everyone’s brain is partial to the precision in scientific and mathematical logic; many of us are better at a different form of thinking, creativity and flexibility which education in the humanities offer.

Arts and the social sciences offer numerous study options and combinations of disciplines at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, thereby expanding job opportunities. Graduates also gain a good liberal arts education, which exposes them to current global issues such as poverty and its attendant problems, human rights and gender studies as well as media, culture and communication.

Environmental studies, politics and public policy, sociology and psychology add to the life-long potential of expanding one’s mind to the things that matter in the day-to-day life of a society, its communities and the people who constitute them.

Without sounding too biased, it would be fair to conclude that

people with a liberal arts education make more interesting communicators because of the breadth of knowledge they have acquired through their multidisciplinary reading and references. They assess and evaluate things more critically and broadly, going beyond the borders of a strictly scientific and mathematical logic. The logic of linguistics and pragmatics coupled with the encyclopaedic knowledge of their various disciplines allow for a much broader cognitive basis in reasoning.



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