The arts and humanities are as important as Stem disciplines

Technology without a social or moral purpose can create rather than solve problems

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 25, 2020.   
  The Louvre , Abu Dhabi after 100 days of being temporarily closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Victor Besa  / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  Saeed Saeed
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Anyone who has graduated from high school has probably experienced this simple truth: there is usually a disproportionate focus on Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects while humanities and arts are seen as less important.

This is as much the case in today's highly competitive world as it was 20 years ago. In equipping future generations with tools to navigate the world though, we need to view academia not through the binary of science versus humanities, but as collaborative and concurrent domains which when studied together can make a big difference to lives.

Across the world, educational systems benefit and students prosper when equal attention is paid to both streams.

Take the UAE, for example. The country has seen phenomenal growth in the state-funded and private universities. And the recent law passed by the President Sheikh Khalifa to establish the Mohamed bin Zayed University for Humanities (MBZUH) reflects a focus on contextualising knowledge and bringing empathy and critical thinking into academia. It also indicates how the UAE is emerging as a hub for seeking knowledge while reviving the centuries-old intellectual tradition of the Arab world.

This healthy emphasis on the liberal arts is changing the way we live and work. A renewed interest in "soft disciplines" demonstrates the vision for developing an ecosystem of higher education where knowledge emerges from the intersection of disciplines and the multiple perspectives of teachers from backgrounds of both, science and the arts.

We cannot deny that we live in a world of rapid new inventions, constant disruption and technology that we must engage with. Whether it is the internet of things, fintech, artificial intelligence, robotics, 5G connectivity, data sciences or the revolutionary changes in biomedical fields, human beings are the beneficiaries of all these discoveries and developments, at least for the foreseeable future.

And this is where humanities, social sciences and the applied arts become especially relevant – when social good and technical literacy are blended to create solutions.

There are numerous instances in the recent past when mistakes involving technology has led to disasters.

The liberal arts and humanities help us make sense of the rapid changes we see around us and teach us empathy

One example of using technology without taking cognisance of the human factor was the accident in the US in 2018 involving an Uber self-driving car that killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

After two years of investigations by the US National Transport Safety Board, it was found that the car's safety driver, Rafael Vasquez, had been streaming an episode of the TV show The Voice when the car hit a pedestrian.

The safety driver was charged with negligent homicide this September. It was found that the accident was completely avoidable.

A tragedy like this exemplifies the point that without an engagement between machine and humans, technology and psychology, science and humanities, the progress we make will be in silos. And it won't stop other such disasters from occurring.

It is important to understand how people behave when the conventional way of doing things changes. And for this, subjects like psychology, anthropology, religion, philosophy, culture, art, history, human geography, sociology, communications, ethics, languages and literature provide knowledge and experience that are essential to our overall progress.

History is witness to the fact that science and technology have been major catalysts in human progress. But the scope and pace of technology-induced changes have never been so overwhelming.

The speed of new inventions, new technologies and techniques applied to how we manage our lives can overwhelm us. The gap between developing new technology and its application in real life is getting smaller.

In this dynamic environment where everything is in flux, humanities and liberal arts education help us make sense of rapid changes we see in the world. These subjects provide us with insights, empathy, and bring imagination and creativity into our existence.

An over-reliance on empirical disciplines can tend to devalue concepts such as critical thinking, global awareness, cultural proximity and social perceptiveness. Without the insights from humanities, liberal arts and social science our educational institutions become like factories producing job seekers rather the scholars who could create knowledge.

Scott Hartley in his 2017 book The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the World argued for a better balance between the "techies" (who study science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and "fuzzies" (who study liberal arts, humanities, social sciences).

His assertion that science and technology alone cannot be catalysts of human advancement is proving true. We see the human and social costs of development when technology is parachuted into situations where it remains alien to local culture and context.

Despite developments in science and technology, issues such as poverty, inequality and ignorance still dominate many parts of the world. Technology without a social or moral purpose can create rather than solve such problems.

The UAE has been at the forefront of bringing the best in art and human enterprise to the country. The opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi heralded a new era of art and aesthetics in the region. The Expo in Dubai next year promises to blend technology, art and business acumen.

It is in this context that setting up MBZUH can create a new generation of globally aware, sensitive, tolerant and empathetic scholars, thinkers and philosophers. The truth is also that we need them as much as we need techies and entrepreneurs.

Dr Fazal Malik is the dean of humanities, arts and applied sciences at Amity University, Dubai