Arts Degrees: Are They Really THAT Useless? | Campus

By Evan See

“I almost took arts in JC, but decided science was more practical.”

“Interesting…but what are you going to work as?”

“Can you really earn money doing that?”

Every Arts and Humanities student has heard these a million times. Whether it’s about your university major or your Junior College stream, we’ve all had to grapple with the inevitability of wondering what we could do with an Arts degree in STEM-loving Singapore.

For the unacquainted, “STEM” refers to the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. And for the sake of clarity, an “Arts” degree includes any humanities, social science, fine arts or liberal arts related degrees.

Growing up, you’ve probably heard your parents encouraging you to pursue prestigious degrees like Law or Medicine, or something “practical” like Engineering or Accountancy. But we rarely hear parents encouraging their child to pursue a humanities or liberal arts degree. Why is this the case?

For one, the Confucian focus on hard work and excellence rather than passion is prominent in many Asian cultures, possibly fuelling a parent’s desire to see their children in prestigious professions.

Additionally, many feel that arts degrees do not pay well. A survey by NUS showed that an Arts graduate could earn up to $3,750 as a starting salary (for the 75th percentile of respondents), as compared to an Engineering graduate with $4,200 or a Computing major with $5,000.

An Education Well Worth Pursuing

One common way Singaporeans differentiate arts degrees from others is the binary of “general” and “professional” degrees. This often implies that an arts degree encompasses “generic” or even “useless” skills, as compared to the “useful” training of a professional degree like Medicine.

I disagree. I believe a diverse arts education, offered by the likes of SMU’s School of Social Sciences or Yale-NUS College, allows students to develop flexibility in thinking. It inspires the thirst for knowledge which makes one an effective learner, and equips one with diverse problem-solving skills. These unquestionably groom students into valuable players in society.

In a speech at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School in 2018, veteran diplomat Professor Tommy Koh pointed out the importance of the humanities in a technologically-driven 21st century. “An education in the humanities trains us to think, write and speak clearly”, he asserts. “As long as we are human beings, the humanities will always be at the heart of civilisation.”

Professor Koh’s words definitely reflect the importance of the humanities in the modern world. For instance, studying literature exposes students to the numerous literary classics that offer valuable insight on the human condition. Political science offers one an understanding of the world that both the private and public sectors require to flourish. Studying history reveals to us the agonies of our mistakes and the blissful triumphs of the past, teaching our society important lessons for the future.

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Let’s not forget that people used to kill each other over the humanities

“But…can you earn money doing that?”

While employment is an issue that continues to worry many arts majors, there are numerous examples that attest to the career success of many arts graduates.

Current Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from NUS, while former President S.R. Nathan studied Social Studies at the University of Malaya. Noeleen Heyzer, former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) and Professor Kishore Mahbubani, former President of the UN Security Council, studied sociology and philosophy respectively at the University of Singapore.

Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, described how the factor that determined who advanced in his company often wasn’t their engineering skill, but their “ability to think broadly and read and write clearly”.

With the increasing emphasis on technology in the 21st century, it is important to have a workforce that understands the changes technology can bring into society. Professor Alan Chan, Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at NTU, told TODAY that “it is precisely that we are growing as a smart nation…that understanding society will become ever more important”, echoing Professor Tommy Koh’s belief that “we need technologists who understand the humanities and humanists who understand technology.”

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So fear not, would-be Arts, Humanities, Social Science and Liberal Arts graduates. You aren’t going to die broke and homeless. Granted, you may not earn big bucks immediately after graduation, but the world needs people who don’t just work for the “golden rice bowl” (金饭碗, or a secure and well-paid job) that Chinese parents often preach to their children. And if you ever feel like you don’t know what you’re doing with your life, just remember – you’re studying the very quintessence of humanity.