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Liberating the Liberal Arts
Sabhanaz Rashid Diya
Photos: Md Ata Khan Majlish
I come from a family of doctors. This isn't the typical family where your parents are doctors and you think you know all about medical science. In my family, everyone you can possibly imagine as part of the extended family and beyond is a doctor. It goes to a point where my cousins, who are doctors get married to folks who also are doctors, and to make things more complex, whose parents are doctors as well. Therefore, it came as a big surprise when my sister decided to opt out medical school to spend six years at University of Dhaka to get Bachelors and Masters degrees in English. You'd think my parents had enough with one of us gone 'astray', but my core nature needed me to break rules. Although, I have been a pure science student all my life, I ended up studying Media and Communication at a private university. Yes, at dinner table, my parents' world was coming to an apocalyptic end.
Discussing the arts.
The problem with my field of study was that it didn't have many books. It was largely based on watching movies, reading critiques, spending a lot of time in the front of the computer to stay posted and spending nights at editing panels or days at cinema halls to understand the economics of commercial media. The fact that I wasn't buried under books, that cumulatively weighed more than me, worried my parents immensely and often, I'd find them shaking their heads in great disappointment chhele pele pura bokhe giyeche, kono porashuna kore na.
Unsurprisingly though, most parents whose children aren't in a pure science programme seem to echo my parents' concern. As liberal arts is slowly inching into our tertiary academics, more young people are taking an interest in studying communication, anthropology, journalism, philosophy or filmmaking. The paradigm has very slowly begun shifting away from the doctor-engineer-lawyer quota to create room for new learning experiences, and while the phenomenon is still quite urban, it is gradually generating much desired appreciation.
So, what is the liberal arts? Why is it gaining popularity now and why are more people opting for it as a discipline as opposed to the rubric of courses that essentially guarantee a socially acceptable career?
In the middle of a photography workshop.
In the broadest of terms, liberal arts refer to expansive knowledge on arts and the humanities (mycollegeguide.org; Wikipedia). In ancient Roman Empire, artes liberals sought to educate the 'free man' to become a conscious man, well-rounded and motivated to transform the world around him. Over time, it has evolved to include subjects under social science as well as humanities with colleges and employers recognising it as an interdisciplinary degree that prepares a new generation of learners for analytical, dynamic and critical thinking.
Liberal arts education opens avenue for a wide range of learning experience which in turn, creates opportunities for a wide range of professional careers. Beginning from the military to creating children's television shows or committing to public service, liberal arts graduates find themselves paving their way into multitudes of professions or even better, creating their own niches! Writer Tony Golsby-Smith writes in the Harvard Business Review on how CEOs of the 21st century are looking for people who are willing to experiment with 'what if' in order to help grow their capacity and solve problems in real time. “Beginning from the BP oil spill to manufacturing problems at Johnson&Johnson,” writes Smith, “liberal arts graduates can predict and solve ambiguous problems because they are trained to be curious.” New York Times columnist David Brooks adds to the picture through his article in The New Humanism saying, “Somebody who has read Cezanne's painting or learnt through the Socratic method has essentially learnt to connect the dots to create a pattern, a skill that is becoming increasingly important in current times and future.”
This of course does not eliminate the purpose of pure science or business. Physics still enthralls me and I often envy those in a Marketing classroom. In changing however, a combination of the arts and sciences create a stronger profile while a zeal to be curious and experiment catalyses the neogeneration professional.
Next time, when you're at the dinner table succumbing to the smirks of the effusive relatives who think you're in a liberal arts program because you couldn't get in anywhere else, tell them you're learning to be the Einstein of a new age. Liberal arts is not science, yet it is the science of recent times and you're already ahead of time.
(Sabhanaz Rashid Diya is a major in Media and Communication at Independent University Bangladesh and founder of the nonprofit youth organisation, the One Degree Initiative Foundation.)