THE Education Ministry is looking at ways to promote interest in science among students. This, Second Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh shared on Saturday, was because only 37 per cent of students currently enrolled in secondary schools are in the science stream.
In 2012, it was reported that less than 20 per cent of the 472,541 students who sat for the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia were science stream students -- a long way from the 60:40 target ratio for science and arts students.
Making science and technology the focus of the day is not a new or surprising development. The competitive edge of a nation will, after all, be decided by its technological advancement, skills, and research and development abilities. This focus has, however, opened up once again the longstanding science versus humanities debate.
Will the stress on science relegate arts to a position of lesser significance? Will the development of culture and the arts languish with this swing towards science? The nation's aggressive emphasis on science has apparently been identified as a factor that has caused arts and the social sciences to be pushed to the side.
At the universities, students are already gravitating towards the programmes bluntly referred to as the cari makan courses that will enable them to easily secure jobs, preferably well-paying ones, when they graduate. These are the science-related courses and, to a certain extent, business management programmes.
A music class at SM Seafield in Subang Jaya, Selangor.
Will the stress on science relegate the arts to a position of lesser significance?
There are the public universities that cannot fill up all the places offered for social science. Many steer clear of history, philosophy and other similar courses. Humanities students appear to be where they are not because they want to be, but because they had no choice.
"Students who do go for these courses are usually those who are content to just grab anything in order to secure a place in university," a lecturer shared.
More scholarships are also allocated to those pursuing science-related courses at graduate and postgraduate levels. A general lack of awareness of the job opportunities available upon graduation is another factor why students shy away from humanities courses. Those who take history, for instance, need not necessarily become historians, but most are unaware of other possible career paths.
The dwindling number of students taking up humanities courses has raised concern among educationists who caution that it might lead to the humanities -- which encompass courses such as literature, philosophy, music, art and history -- becoming irrelevant in future.
It has been observed that the younger generation is losing interest in what has been described as "the finer things in life" -- the languages, culture and arts -- in the pursuit of high-technology. They are turning away from the so-called "softer fields" to focus on areas they think offer brighter career prospects.
An academic noted that the arts were coming to be perceived as increasingly irrelevant and less necessary to modern life, as compared to other forms of knowledge.
"This should not be so. Aesthetics reflect a person's most important values in a concrete way, providing the impetus to seek even greater personal growth and achievement. Promoting Malaysian creativity will nurture a society that is more appreciative of beauty and the arts."
Lopsided emphasis placed on science and technology had resulted in some universities in the West closing down certain departments or reducing the number of academics teaching specific disciplines. The declining popularity of humanities is also glaringly obvious going by the type of courses offered by private institutions of higher learning. Hardly any offer humanities-related disciplines such as history, geography, literature or philosophy. The reason is simple -- as private educational institutions are market driven, it would not make economic sense to offer courses that are not in demand.
It is a vicious cycle indeed. Something will inevitably get sidelined when stress is placed on something else. While no one is denying the importance of technological advancement, Malaysians need to balance the development of technology with social and cultural considerations. Everyone, whether a scientist or an engineer, lives and works within a social system. Ultimately, too, it is those with excellent communication, leadership and critical thinking skills who are most likely to land the jobs.
Chok Suat Ling | firstname.lastname@example.org Chok Suat Ling is New Sunday Times Editor NST Opinion Columnist 01 May 2014