Include humanities in NUS lifelong learning initiative

I am heartened to hear that the National University of Singapore (NUS) is offering lifelong learning courses (NUS launches centre to promote lifelong learning; June 18, 2016).

However, with the exception of two, the courses available are all related to the fields of business and engineering.

Two assumptions underpin this decision - that continuing education exists purely for pragmatic purposes; and that the arts and social sciences lack instrumental value in the workplace.

Business and industry do not exist in a vacuum; they are deeply influenced by social forces.

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Political developments in Myanmar or tensions in the Middle East, for instance, have a significant bearing on how Singapore conducts its business, making the study of international relations key to the workplace.

Moreover, soft skills imparted through the study of the humanities have become increasingly important, with big firms in Wall Street and Silicon Valley even preferring liberal arts graduates to those from science, technology, engineering and mathematics faculties.

NUS has actually recognised this by starting Singapore's first liberal arts college, Yale-NUS College.

Continuing education in the arts can also yield significant non-tangible benefits, such as developing a more creative and dynamic population by opening up new ways of seeing the world.

The late Apple founder Steve Jobs, for example, came up with the idea of having multiple fonts on computers from a calligraphy class he took at Reed College, enabling the machines to perform more versatile design tasks.

Furthermore, an arts education can help develop better citizens. The Bard Prison Initiative in the United States, for instance, which enables inmates to earn a liberal arts degree, has led to lower recidivism rates, allowing participants to better reintegrate into society.

Although these benefits cannot be measured in dollars and cents, they contribute towards building a more dynamic and cohesive Singapore.

Ng Qi Siang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 13, 2017, with the headline 'Include humanities in NUS lifelong learning initiative'. Print Edition | Subscribe