Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Arts or the Sciences

Written by johnleemk on 12:28:10 pm Jan 28, 2007.

The debate over the superiority of the sciences or the arts is an age-old one. Considering how broad the terms of reference for this debate can be, it would seem wise to draw up some defining terms before we begin. For the purposes of this discussion, we will only be considering whether it is wiser to select the sciences or the arts in one's studies. We will not be examining which contributes more to society, or what have you.

Although it might seem that there is a lot one could write about this argument, this is actually, in my view, a difficult subject to write on. The reason for this is simple: there are far too many factors involved in each individual's choice of studies to make it possible for anyone else to even begin to make a broad general recommendation of what field to concentrate on. As a result, it is difficult to provide a decent treatment of the topic in a middling essay of about a dozen paragraphs or more. Either one must write a whole book on how to choose, or one can write a short paragraph along the lines of "It depends on YOU." Each individual will have their own preference for the sciences or the arts, and there is no single cookie-cutter approach that will work for everyone. Some people's minds are suited to science, some to arts, and some both.

Now, having said that, it might be wise to consider alternatives to the traditional dichotomy between science and arts. Especially in Malaysia, we tend to believe that a decent education can only follow the traditional academic route. Often not considered at all are vocational skills, which can often be a better choice for students of lesser calibre. I have seen many students who are woefully out of their depth doing the usual academic subjects in school, and as a result either drop out or consistently fail their exams. These people would often be better off in training for some skill such as carpentry, farming, etc. They do not have a place in the academic system - after form three, they should ideally be placed in a third stream for vocational skills, instead of being forced to take academic subjects in the arts stream.

In the first place, it is absolutely ludicrous that we in Malaysia denigrate the arts by designating it as a stream for poorer students. The inevitable result is that arts teachers tend to be demotivated, harming the students who take arts courses because of actual interest. At the same time, many students interested in the arts tend to opt for the science stream simply because the latter is viewed as more prestigious. This is an ill-founded view, in my opinion.

First of all, it is helpful to further divided the arts into two categories: social sciences and the humanities. The social sciences are those that apply the scientific method to the study of society and/or humanity. Examples include economics and sociology (although some would call these pseudo-sciences). In both economics and sociology, wherever possible rigorous experiments are carried out according to the scientific method. Studies are often based on empirical facts and data - you cannot get by with artsy-fartsy bullshit alone. The humanities cover what you might usually consider "arts" - philosophy, literature, and so forth. In these subjects, although critical thinking skills are also applied, the focus is generally more on subjective opinions instead of empirical facts, and how well you can justify those opinions.

Those taking up the arts must then decide whether they would prefer the sciences, social sciences or humanities. I believe each has its own qualities. The sciences demand rigorous and objective facts, and the ability to apply those facts in the study of the world around us. The humanities ask that you be able to hold your own subjective opinion of the world and society around you, and justify that opinion so it holds up under critical evaluation. The social sciences in turn require both - you must be able to take facts, apply them to human society, derive an opinion from that, and be able to justify it. (The reason that there is room for disagreeing opinions in the social sciences is that it is simply impossible to perfectly scientifically study society - humans are odd creatures whose thought processes and emotional behaviour cannot be studied in the same way you might study a frog's anatomy or critically discuss Plato's Republic.)

Each person will have their own strong suit. Some will find it difficult to explain their reasoning for their opinion in the humanities, or even to develop an opinion, and as such stick to the natural sciences. Others may be turned off by the "boring" task of memorising data and applying facts in the sciences, and prefer to churn out essays on the meaning of life. Still others (and I count myself in this group) feel able to handle both, and as a result can end up in any three of the fields.

Let us now look at the various factors students may involve in their decision. One obvious one is probably ease - which field will be easiest? The answer differs for every student. As mentioned earlier, every individual's mind has its own framework, and is particularly suited for a certain field. Ideally, then, students will have found out what they like best from their earlier general education, which should have exposed them to a certain amount of all three fields.

Earning potential is also an important consideration for many - including (ahem) nosy and bossy parents. I would submit that if you are unhappy about your job, you would never reach your full earning potential - but let us assume that all other things are equal. In that case, what provides the most money? We now must delve into the different possible career choices. Most traditional occupations involving a background in science, such as physicist or chemist, don't exactly pay well. Most people, though, expect science students to end up in medicine or engineering, so let's have a look at those. Doctors tend to get rewarded quite well, but the hours are long and (depending on your jurisdiction) qualifying as a medical practitioner can be difficult. Engineers have it even worse off - the pay isn't great unless you're at the peak of your profession.

Traditional "arts" professions, such as law or accounting, also pay about equally well and carry about the same disadvantages as medicine (long hours). I believe that in this case, the traditional inferior reputation of the arts is simply ill-founded. You will end up in about the same position whether you are a doctor or accountant. Furthermore, the skills you often learn in the arts such as principles of accounting or business will probably be of greater relevance to you throughout your life rather than the ability to calculate the velocity of an unladen swallow.

If you're a glutton for punishment, you may prefer to examine which subject is harder - which carries more academic rigour and tests your mind more. Personally, I feel that the social sciences are the unqualified champion here simply because they call on you to be able to handle both the natural sciences and the humanities. It is not everyone who can deal with the formulae and data of the sciences and at the same time write an essay developing a critical view of the data collected and ably justify the conclusions drawn.

Those considering reputation will probably go for the sciences - at least in Asian societies. For some odd reasons I am incapable of fathoming, people here look down on the arts. This is quite strange, considering that our continent produced, among other things, the Kama Sutra, The Art of War, the Buddhist and Confucianist philosophies, and some of the most hardnosed business-minded people in the world (business is, after all, a traditional arts subject).

I have no hard evidence to base this on, but I would submit that the reason for this is that it is not considered becoming to participate in the arts for a living. Buddha, after all, was not a professional philosopher - he was a monk (and we all know how much money monks earn). The fellow who wrote the Kama Sutra probably didn't do it as his day job. And in every caste-based society, be it Indian or Japanese, businesspeople often ranked nearer to the lower than the upper end of the social strata. In turn, I believe it could be argued that the reason for this is that Asians often prioritise society over the individual, and thus professions that benefited society as a whole such as physicisn were given greater respect than those that benefited only the individual, such as banker or trader. (I am aware, of course, that businesspeople contribute to society as well by providing necessary services - I am just noting that the traditional stereotype holds otherwise.) The end result was that professions we tend to associate with the sciences, such as medicine, were given great respect and that this reputation has carried over to the present day.

This in turn raises an interesting question - if such is the case, why don't we see so many more doctors and engineers among the Asians? Why is it that the average Asian is more likely to be a petty trader or restaurateur than a medical practitioner? (There are a lot of Asian doctors and engineers to be sure, but their numbers remain dwarfed by those of the Asian entrepreneurs.) I believe the answer is simple: medicine and engineering demand a high amount of skill from their practitioners. As a result, it is inevitable that most people, no matter what their cultural or ethnic heritage is, will not measure up to the standards of these professions. This contributes as well to the prestige of doctors and engineers, since it's presumed that if you qualify to be one, you have to be pretty damn smart, even though those who end up in the world of commerce often tend to be more successful than the typical science student. After all, in Asian societies, entrepreneurs are pretty common, perhaps to the point of becoming devalued in the eyes of the public - and this further reinforces the prestige of the sciences, simply because not everyone has the book smarts to be a science student.

Still, I think the fact is that traditional arts subjects like commerce tend to provide a better foundation for leading life - and as a result, even science students should not be wholly confined to their little realm of test tubes and data. The communications skills developed in the course of learning how to justify your opinion will always be more relevant than knowing that force is mass multiplied by acceleration. I feel that ideally, students should be able to handle both science and arts disciplines, because both impart crucial skills.

At the same time, I think the arts subjects are often unfairly devalued and ill-regarded. Those who assume that there is nothing to be learnt in the arts, that "soft" subjects are meaningless, often overlook the ability to reason and communicate that the sciences usually fail to inculcate. I still feel strongly that whether you opt to specialise in the arts or sciences should be entirely up to you (not your parents or your teachers), and should be based on your individual preferences and abilities - but, if at all possible, attempt to take courses in both the sciences and the arts. Some school systems, such as the Malaysian education system, tend to discourage this (the hierarchy of prestige tends to place the sciences at the top, the sub-science courses combining science and arts in the middle, and arts at the bottom, when perhaps all three should be ranked equally). But where it is possible, I see no reason to steer clear of one subject or the other. The foundation provided by the sciences in gathering data and analysing it is crucial for the ability to critically reason, and so is the ability to justify your reasoning that can only be imparted by the arts.

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