The Consequence of a HASS Education
INTERVIEWED BY JUSTIN ZHUANG • PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAM CHIN
HASS Dean Prof Alan Chan shares his thoughts on the relevance of the school’s disciplines in today’s job market and beyond.
What is the importance of the humanities, arts, and social science to the world we live in today?
There’s a good reason why the humanities, arts, and social sciences (HASS) have been a mainstay of university education. Understanding ourselves, our fellow human beings, histories, languages and cultures, the society in which we live, the economy, the relationship between human beings and the environment, the dynamics of geopolitics and the global conditions that impact our lives directly—these are among the issues HASS are concerned with. As an ADM graduate, you know that art is not just about making beautiful objects, it is always about understanding and reflecting reality, making clear what the issues confronting societies are, and what we need to do to foster a better tomorrow for humanity.
We are also living in a time of great technological disruptions. How does that affect the disciplines of HASS?
Technological disruption is not unique to the 21st century. Every age has to respond to the changes brought about by technology. However, today technology is developing at an unprecedented pace. This makes it all the more important for us to understand their impact on society.
On the one hand, it is evident that technologies improve the quality of life in many respects. Health care is a good example. The kind of care that we are able to provide for patients today is far superior to what was available before, and that’s in large part thanks to advances in medical technology. The widespread use of smart phones and the rise of social media are redrawing the landscape of communication, to take but another obvious example. We can now overcome the tyranny of distance with relative ease and keep in touch with our families and friends.
On the other hand, how does technology change the ways we behave and relate to other people, affect jobs, impact on the environment, and shape even our beliefs and value systems? Embracing new technologies also requires cognitive, affective and behavioural accommodations. These are the new issues that the social sciences and humanities must now address.
Sites of Convergence is interested in the dissolution of borders between creative disciplines. How does the school see this reshaping of fields?
I seem to remember a line in one of the Matrix movies that goes something like this: “Some things change; some things never do.” Definitely, technological innovation will create new opportunities. Without the internet and applications for mobile phones, for example, e-commerce and companies like Uber would not be possible. Our graduates must be open to and prepared for change. Rather than having one career throughout their entire working life, HASS graduates today are likely to pursue multiple careers in different fields. And to prepare them for that, the curriculum needs to be refreshed, widened to ensure sufficient exposure to different subject areas. In any case, knowledge never grows well in insularity, and the most exciting developments in learning and research today are in interdisciplinary fields.
Having said that, what are some things that don’t change?
Any curriculum change is always underpinned by the cultivation of fundamental critical thinking and communication skills. In any profession, in addition to the specialised skills that may be required, these basic skills remain crucial to success—the ability to sift through and analyse data; discern what information is valuable and what is not; make diagnosis; formulate options; defend, persuade and communicate the chosen option; implement decisions; and ensure that the desired outcomes are reached. If you think through the entire logical process, what kind of training would you need? Perhaps one day Artificial Intelligence (AI) could take over many of these functions, but until then there is no substitute for the ability to think, analyse, communicate and carry out whatever plans that have been decided upon. Indeed, even if AI could perform all these functions, new roles and responsibilities will emerge, which would still require careful thinking and clear communication. Those skills are best acquired through a broad education, and that’s where the social sciences, humanities, and the arts come in.
In an interview with TODAY, you talked of a need for Singapore to move away from the mindset that a university education is just about to get a job. How do we reconcile that with the government’s call for us to upgrade and stay employable?
Any government must try to make sure that its citizens are gainfully employed. Social stability and economic growth depend on it. What we are saying is that a good job should be a consequence of a good education, and not the rationale for entering university. A good education will equip and prepare our students for career opportunities when they graduate. But a good education does much more than that, because it also prepares our students to become responsible citizens and leaders of tomorrow. This is why we seek to provide a holistic education, and encourage our students to spend a semester studying abroad and take part in co-curricular activities, including community engagement. Education is not just about exams and grades. If you come into university wanting to grow as a person and to be educated, and not just getting good grades in order to land a certain job, I think you will learn more. I do understand that students are concerned because the job market is very competitive. But what I’m saying is if you focus on getting a good education, you will enhance your chances at getting good jobs afterwards. If you come to university with the wrong motivation, you may end up limiting yourselves to taking certain courses that you think may make you more “marketable,” for example, and in so doing missing out on the many opportunities that would furnish you with a well-rounded education. A good education will ensure that our graduates leave the university even more curious about the complexities of human behaviour and society and able to sustain self-learning. Life-long learning depends on that. So with the wrong motivation, it may actually hamper your chances of success after graduation in the workplace.
What we are trying to do at NTU is to provide a secure and comfortable environment for our students so that they can learn better, try different things, open their minds to different ideas, broaden their intellectual horizon, learn to work with people, and develop some leadership skills. Then, they will be in a good position to forge ahead after they graduate.
There is a perception in the industry that HASS graduates are not very employable. What is your response to this?
It’s not an issue unique to NTU or Singapore. It’s a wrong perception, I would argue. It really should be framed in terms of a contrast between a general education and professional training. If you go to medical school, and if you graduate, you will become a doctor. From that perspective, no, History or Psychology graduates do not become professional historians or psychologists. But in choosing a different educational pathway in HASS, our graduates are prepared for a variety of professions, both in public service and the private sector. It is also true that our graduates perhaps should be more flexible in exploring different career options. If they just look for one specific kind of work, they are not optimising the value of their HASS education. There are, of course, also opportunities for further studies if they want to pursue professional specialisation.
On that note, what would the difference be between HASS graduate who becomes a chef, and someone who went a vocational institute to be a chef?
Very good question! It applies especially to ADM which combines professional training with a strong liberal arts ethos. In your foundation year, you learn art history, criticism, and you take General Education courses. That’s how you begin to develop your intellectual habits and grow your skills. In addition to technical competence, we hope to instill in our students a strong measure of creative confidence. In terms of the kinds of training provided, our graduates would have not only outstanding technical competence in a specific subject but also strong critical thinking and communication abilities. These two components are “must-haves” for us.
Also, in a major global university like NTU, our students have the opportunity to go outside their discipline to take courses in other fields, where you may find unexpected connections and inspiration for your art practice. At any one time, there are always brilliant visiting scientists and scholars on campus, sharing their expertise and experience. This breadth of opportunities available to students at NTU would make a difference. So in the case of ADM, when we prepare students for the animation industry, for example, we don’t just want them to become an animator, but rather we also want to prepare our students to be able to direct a team of animators, and be the creative director of major projects. That is the difference we hope to make through our education.