• November 14th, 2019

Liberal arts education – a holistic education for all


It is common practice that when universities are faced with the problem of budget cuts, degree programmes that usually get negatively affected most are in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

These disciplines are sacrificed because they are usually considered worthless and valueless when compared to natural science disciplines. It is not a figment to say that universities and governments have promoted sciences and mathematics at the expense of arts, humanities and social sciences. 

Students who study physics, mathematics, chemistry, electronics, biology, computer science and engineering consider themselves more superior and intelligent than students who study African languages and literature, philosophy, sociology, music, visual and performing arts, English, Afrikaans and history.

Governments and universities have been obsessed with the promotion of the so-called STEM curriculum which has seen the inexorable and unjust advancement of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in schools and universities. To put it more precisely, STEM disciplines are sacrosanct in the world view of those who promote them – so sacred that no one should criticize them.  Although the interdisciplinary approach in the teaching of the four science subjects is plausible, it is undeniable that the thrust and emphasis on STEM have downgraded disciplines in arts, humanities and social sciences. Some universities and schools have worsened the situation by offering higher salaries to lecturers and teachers of STEM disciplines and subjects than to academics in arts, humanities and social sciences. This is not only a discriminatory practice, but also a demeaning practice that demoralizes academics in arts, humanities and social sciences. The practice rubbishes arts, humanities and social sciences.

The promotion of STEM disciplines at the expense of arts, humanities and social sciences has been heavily condemned by the proponents of liberal arts education. The practice of liberal arts education is deep-rooted in universities in Western, developed countries dating back to its inception in the ancient Greek tradition in the 8th century BC. Since then liberal arts education has spread to other parts of the world in different forms and with varying degrees of success. In some countries liberal arts education came to a climax, then declined and was later reintroduced. Research has shown that there are huge benefits that come with liberal arts education as opposed to compartmentalized education which tends to place knowledge or subject areas in rigid silos.

When a student graduates with a degree whose curriculum includes subjects from arts, social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences - there is no doubt that such a student has received a broad-based and well-rounded education. To be specific, this student might have taken courses in music, literature, theatre arts, sociology, mathematics, astrology, chemistry, religion, law and information science. Instead of taking courses from one discipline, for example English literature, the student, with the help of his or her professors, has carefully selected courses from a wide gamut of disciplines to constitute his degree. This is an example of liberal arts education that produces a holistic person in the student. It is that kind of education that liberates the mind.  

Scholars in liberal arts education propound that liberal arts education promotes the full development of the human soul. Liberal arts education proffers the essence of humanity in human beings. It also produces an all-rounded individual. 

Liberal arts education enables an individual to appreciate different world views. Subjects like literature, philosophy, anthropology, and political science assist the development of a critical thinker in the student. Hence, liberal arts education also makes students develop critical thinking which is needed in the ever changing workplace. Critical thinking is an invaluable attribute that is essential in problem solving in different situations. 

The other benefit of liberal education is that it develops creativity in students. Creativity is essential in various contexts, both at the workplace and in social life. Also, a student who goes through a liberal arts education curriculum has a wider choice of careers than the one who goes through the traditional route. 
 Effective communication is an asset for students when they attend interviews after graduation and at the workplace. Liberal arts education trains students to be effective communicators. This brings me to the importance of rhetoric in our lives.  Rhetoric, which is ubiquitous, is the art of persuasive communication.

When rhetoric is taught in a liberal arts degree, it complements other interdisciplinary courses in developing how students can marshal their arguments in communication. The scientist needs rhetoric; so does the biologist; the medical doctor, the engineer; the pastor; the politician and the literature lecturer. They all use persuasive communication in the undertaking of their professions. The argument here is that after going through a liberal arts education, each of the professionals mentioned above is able to function properly in terms of persuasive communication.

In this article I have highlighted some of the benefits of offering liberal arts education in our universities. I remember that when I was at the then Polytechnic of Namibia, it was mandatory for us in the Humanities to include science and mathematics modules in our degree programmes. Our students did not understand why they were asked to study mathematics, principles of accounting and science in an English degree. It was later that they appreciated the benefits of the interdisciplinary approach of the degree programme. 
Similarly, there are some interdisciplinary degree programmes at the University of Namibia and the International University of Management.

Concerted efforts must made to place more emphasis on liberal arts education in our higher education institutions even in the fourth industrial revolution. An interdisciplinary approach in higher education is good for our students and our nation.  Liberal arts education frees the minds of our students.

• Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com


Staff Reporter
2019-09-06 08:44:30 | 2 months ago

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