In his first policy speech of 2023, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak talked about wanting to make the study of maths compulsory for all pupils up to the age of 18.
“Right now, just half of all 16–19 year-olds study any maths at all,” Mr Sunak said. “Yet, in a world where data is everywhere and statistics underpin every job, our children’s jobs will require more analytical skills than ever before. And letting our children out into the world without those skills is letting our children down.”
Maths is a pure science. No one can argue that its study is valuable. Or that being accomplished in maths is more useful than being poor at it. But Mr Sunak’s statement also holds a mirror to a global obsession with maths, and a growing belief that being successful at that one subject will become synonymous with success in life and earning a livelihood. It speaks to the primacy of Stem (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) within the university system across the world, the largesse being granted to Stem by universities to the exclusion of every other field of study.
Amid this craze, it escapes many of us – including education administrators and academics – that the study of a certain field other than maths equips pupils to navigate their way through a world and jobs which, as Mr Sunak put it, “require more analytical skills than ever before”. That field is the liberal arts.
We can all agree that the liberal arts develop soft skills in its students. In a world in which communication is the key, a liberal arts graduate is likelier to be a more effective communicator than, say, an engineering graduate.
Much more importantly, however, the study of the liberal arts hones the powers of logical reasoning (and, therefore, analytical skills), critical thinking, rational analysis, and problem solving. An astute liberal arts graduate ought to be able to deconstruct any text or situation. When confronted with, for instance, a major global event, they should be able to place it in a historical, cultural and sociological context, spot connections and patterns between the past and the present, join the dots, break down a complicated set of circumstances and explain it with perceptiveness and fluency.
A wide range of interests, vast reading, as well as broad and deep exposure to literature, philosophy, the arts, film and popular culture – without which no liberal arts graduate is worth their salt – broadens the mind and imparts erudition. It also makes for a versatile, cosmopolitan, well-rounded human being, who is steeped in a variety of influences and can use them to untangle a knotty conundrum. Not for nothing are liberal arts graduates now much in demand in sectors like tech and AI – fields distinct from the ones with which they were traditionally associated.
The fetishisation of maths as a subject (something that has existed for ages in countries such as India and China) means that 17- and 18-year-olds who are not as proficient in it as some of their peers are somehow perceived to be lesser pupils. Worse, forcing them to study maths even if they have no knack for it results in their being unable to explore subjects that excite a passion in them, areas of study that they may really want to explore.
In a 2019 lecture titled "The Liberal Arts in the 21st Century: More Important than Ever", Santa J Ono, currently president of the University of Michigan and at the time the vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, drew attention to the book Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change, by Nathaniel Rich. “I urge you all to read its compelling narrative about climate change and the chance we had to save the Earth three decades ago,” he said.
“The author of Losing Earth was not a climate scientist; he was a liberal arts graduate. I would argue that his humanities background helped make his message even more powerful, because his liberal arts education gave him the critical thinking skills, and the perspective to bring home the poignancy of our lost chance to save the Earth’s environment.”
Dr Ono himself is a widely respected immunologist. He did his undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago, one of the finest institutions in the world. But he believes that the liberal arts courses he took at university made him a better scholar and human being. “I believe that I am a better scholar because of my liberal arts education, because it was intentionally diverse and heterogeneous, because it made me move outside of my comfort zone into areas of thought and discussion that were uncomfortable to me ... it broadened my mind, it exercised my mind,” Dr Ono said.
Maths deals only in black and white; there is only right or wrong. By nurturing complex life skills, the liberal arts teach its students to navigate a world that is in many shades of grey.