Realizing the importance of humanities education

I grew up in a school environment where it values math, and science, and devalues liberal arts. At the second year of high school, we have to choose between science and liberal arts as the major focus, in order to prepare for College Entrance Exam. In a school of 13 class groups for each year, we have 2 aiming for liberal arts, and the rest 11 aiming for science. Students who get lower scores in science exams will be assigned to the 2 liberal arts class groups, and the undertone message is that “they are not intelligent”. Somehow, I can always feel the discrimination towards the liberal arts class groups in my high school years. This is the poor reality in Chinese education. But we still have literature reading classes in science groups. I remember the teacher would repeatedly emphasize that the importance of her class, and that to learn literature reading is the foundation to get a good grade in math. I thought they were just struggling to get students’ attention at that time.

Then I read the article by Dan Edelstein about humanities education, and some other articles about how the training of arts empowers the creativity in students. I realized that it’s the trick of cognitive thinking training. I do agree that students will be exposed to cognitive processes more often in humanities than in science or engineering classes. As Dan Edelstein talked in his article that America takes ambition to create independently minded individuals, and encourage students to reach conclusions on their own. I now see clearly what deficiency does Chinese education have.

11 thoughts on “Realizing the importance of humanities education”

  1. Thank you for your post! It is very interesting to hear a different perspective. In my high school, we all had to take a variety of courses, including language arts, American literature, psychology, and writing. I attended a liberal arts college and I noticed the difference between majors. More women chose liberal arts and more men chose sciences. As discussed in class before, this difference should be addressed. Yet I think instead of pushing women towards STEM, as I’ve often encountered and thought about, we should encourage a more well-rounded education in general, for both genders. I was a psychology and physics major in college, and both majors helped me better understand how to approach problems. I also experienced the stereotypes of both majors, and I hope that with time, we can find a way to eliminate such stigmas.

  2. The processes found in cognition and meta-cognition are the foundation of any Ph.D. The unfortunate reality is that more and more doctorate of philosophy in [insert subject] degrees have less and less to do with the act of understanding thinking and the process that can assist us in discovering not only to think, but why we think and why we think about it.

    When I tell someone about architecture, I am often asked why I am not an engineer. China is not alone in a valuing of quantitative thought as the STEM fields in the US also receive much attention and perceived increase in importance. If fact the opportunity for interesting research is often found at the intersection between these two groups.

    However, taking a step back from what is right and wrong, and binaries in general, there is a whole spectrum of thought and cognition. If you happen to be interested, the philosophy of science is a very interesting way of understanding the thought behind what seems to be only quantitative processes in sciences. I have benefited from reading on this subject as a part of my dissertation in architecture and design research.

  3. I think it’s interesting how you mention the devaluation of liberal arts in favor of math and hard science is systemic. My public school experience wasn’t quite as divisive, as we were required to take courses in a variety of STEM subjects as well as the arts, but there was certainly a separation between the “normal” students and those that showed proclivity for STEM. Many of them were pulled out of regular classes and cordoned off in a special “governor’s school” that specialized in prepping high school students for entry into universities with strong STEM programs. The rest of us were pretty much left to fend for ourselves.

  4. Thank you for your post! Very interesting. It is great to hear about another country’s education system. However, I’m not sure the US is much better than China – as the US as well does not emphasize much in the liberal arts. And in fact, many liberal arts majors in college have a tendency of being ‘looked down’ upon, because people will ask them, “so what job will you have when you graduate?”. I would imaging that it can be condescending. I can definitely see how a broader, more well-rounded education would make us all into better learners. I think its important for us humans, to be humane! Hard to do when education is teaching us the opposite.

  5. While I myself enjoyed taking classes from the Humanities and Social Sciences classes during my undergrad in India in Electrical Engineering, I saw a lot of people devaluing Humanities and social sciences as academic disciplines. So, my education experience was not very different in terms of how STEM fields were given more importance. However, I now see how Humanities and social sciences are important for all the people irrespective of whether they are pursuing STEM or something else. People design systems or technologies for the society and the people living in t and hence they need to know different aspects of human life. Fortunately, people in engineering, at least, have started recognizing the value of liberal education. In fact, my PhD research somewhat overlaps with making engineering education more liberal.

  6. Hi ping, thanks for the post. I definitely can relate to this. Right now, I still have classmates complaining that they should have chosen Art instead of Science back then. The dominating idea of Science is so pressing that as 14- or 15-year-old kids, some don’t even have the courage to say no. I do see the importance of Art in all-round education. My major, Economics, requires a lot quantitative skills, however, it is a more and more important skill to tell a good story, which the math doesn’t really help. Only people with solid quantitative skill and inspiring way of telling a story can succeed in selling the paper to journals and also in teaching in class.

  7. It is always interesting to hear from other cultures. I came from a high school that focused on STEM. I feel that in the U.S. we have two groups of high school graduates, similar to in China. We have the ‘smart’ students who have always pursued STEM and will continue to do so in college, while the ‘not so smart’ students will side with the softer sciences. Similar to what Kristine said, there is definitely a stigma that follows those majors.

  8. I think the strong focus on STEM in highschool and university is a common problem throughout the world. When I was in highschool in Spain, even though I was in science, not in humanities/arts, I still had to take two years of Philosophy, one year of Latin and a comprehension and discussion essay of a reading was a major component of the exams to access college. Nowadays, in STEM highschool, Latin isn’t a requirement anymore, and the Philosophy requirement has been reduced in half. I find this very unfortunate and a great loss to future generations. As a teenager, I remember complaining about having to take Philosophy and Latin. Now not only I am glad I had to, but I wish I would have been required to take more of it.

  9. Great post. I understand more the need for Liberal arts and humanities major now more than ever. As part of the Preparing Future Professoriate class, we did one session where we learnt theatre techniques to improve communication skills. I found the class very rewarding as it teaches us to learn, listen, and focus on the people around us. As an engineer, I feel like each engineering student should take this class. It really helps you understand society and the world we live in outside our small engineering bubble.

  10. That is somewhat surprising to hear that such a country so independently rich in history could take such a dim view of the role that humanities play. I imagine this is based on an economic focus, but I would not be surprised to see a shift in the future towards a more innovation nurturing curriculum.

  11. Nice post that I really connect with. This is my third engineering degree and I couldn’t have done it without my musical background. I’ve had so many eureka moments (solving some engineering problem) while practising a piece that I really cannot see myself without my art. Take the art from me and the engineering falls apart. Arts (liberal or performing) and STEM are seen as mutually exclusive vocations in most parts of the world. Men are discouraged from doing anything artsy while women are discouraged from science and math. Hence people end up with lives not lived to its full.

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