THE realm of liberal arts, particularly humanities and social sciences, is experiencing a comeback of sorts. All universities and institutions of higher education worth their salt are now seeing an increase in enrolment in such disciplines.
While the pursuit of vocational and professional degrees is still the main thrust of most students, the non-conformists among them who are more interested in getting an education for life and learning – and not just for getting a job – embrace humanities and social sciences. Even in A and O Levels, besides choosing more career-oriented subjects, many students now take up a subject or two in humanities or social sciences to have a more rounded array of subjects to their credit and more flexibility later on when making a career choice.
Xeeshan’s choice of a career is as distinct as is the spelling of his name. Coming from a family of doctors, he is pursuing a degree in film-making from a local institute and is confident of his choice.
“My father and elder brother are both doctors and I have no intention of leading a structured and tight schedule like theirs. I want to make films, mostly documentaries, and this will give me a chance to work on my own terms and do something different each time,” states Xeeshan matter-of-factly.
“Yes, there were raised eyebrows initially at my choice, but, thankfully, my father understood my desire for forging my own path so things have worked out … at least for me. And it is also a great thing that such courses are being offered in Pakistan and those interested are able to pursue their dreams. Earlier, people could only go abroad, spend a huge amount of money and then study film and acting techniques and skills.”
People no more simply retire. They are now more likely to get fired, stagnated or even bored at some point in their careers. Having multiple options doesn’t hurt.”
For once, it is not a Pakistan-specific phenomenon. Liberal arts is now hip across the globe, and that is where a lot of action is happening as a study of trends in American universities shows that there is not just an increase in liberal arts majors but also a surge in students in career-oriented programmes taking up more liberal arts electives such as languages, religion, history and art.
Certainly the fact that there are now universities and institutions in Pakistan that have upgraded their liberal arts faculties with updated curriculum and better teachers, has had a lot to contribute to make these subjects more attractive to students here.
And there is no denying that most parents like to invest in a foreign education for their children only if it is a professional course such as medicine, engineering or a business degree.
But the winds of change are blowing and there are now quite a good number of students who fly off to fancy US or UK universities after A levels to graduate in humanities and social sciences.
Saira has just come back from a university in Scotland after studying subjects such as social policy, international relations and psychology. She is looking forward to doing a job in the public sector or with some NGO.
Certainly there are other factors prompting people to take up non-professional subjects besides their own inclination. Globalisation and the current economic trend are two such factors. A more ‘global’ environment of workplaces today means that employees need to be more diverse in terms of their skills.
The fact that there are now universities and institutions in Pakistan that have upgraded their liberal arts faculties with updated curriculum and better teachers, has had a lot to contribute to make these subjects more attractive to students here.“
Strong communication skills, excellent command of a language or two and a sound analytical approach are among the top qualities that employers look for. With liberal arts honing students’ interpretive, language and research skills, this field of studies is no more looked down upon as was the case less than a generation ago.
Economic factors also make it less likely for many people to have a single career for life. People now do not simply retire from a position they reached after years of hard work at a single company or career. They are now more likely to get fired, stagnated or bored at some point in their career. As such they need more flexibility in order to change their careers or reinvent themselves to suit the changing needs or their jobs.
Undoubtedly, liberal arts majors and graduates are more flexible and thus more suited for longevity in such tough economic times. Most jobs really require more knowledge than that of one field, so the diverse body of knowledge gained from a liberal arts education enables one to develop one’s own opinions and attitudes, and to think independently in the face of pressures.
Mr Kazmi (not his real name), a retired language professor, is happy with the fact that liberal arts education is becoming fashionable with students, though he is not quite happy with the term ‘fashionable’ being used in this context.
He expresses his point of view thus: “Liberal arts subjects feed the soul and enrich the mind. They allow people to experience the world in a richer, more meaningful and more satisfying way.
“Even those who are in professional careers must explore literature and philosophy in their leisure time to let their minds open up and relax. Ghalib, Mir and Bernard Russell make us understand and approach life better.”
They surely do, but are those opting for liberal arts actually inclined to have a taste for luminaries like Ghalib, Mir and Russell? The least said about this the better!
This article was originally printed in The Education Supplement of Dawn.