The false dichotomy between science, arts

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Another professor, also teaching on the cultural studies cluster for the Pre-PhD programme I attended, had read engineering as an undergraduate student. He left engineering to do a PhD in linguistics. Today, one of my students earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He is currently studying for a Master’s in International Studies and took a graduate seminar in African Politics with me.

One of my teachers in the Indian city of Calcutta, more than a decade ago, was a qualified medical doctor. But he taught a class on cultural studies! After practicing medicine for a while, he returned to graduate school to earn a PhD in philosophy. When I needed a prescription, he wrote me one. He often gave medical advice when I needed to speak to a doctor. 

Another professor, also teaching on the cultural studies cluster for the Pre-PhD programme I attended, had read engineering as an undergraduate student. He left engineering to do a PhD in linguistics. Today, one of my students earned a degree in mechanical engineering. He is currently studying for a Master’s in International Studies and took a graduate seminar in African Politics with me.

The university at which I am employed is primarily a STEM school, founded to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. But even in this STEM university, the second largest college is that of Humanities and Social Sciences. When we admit students, particularly those who compete for a full university scholarship, we task them to reflect on the meaning and role of arts/humanities for a STEM student. 

More generally, students studying STEM are required to take classes in humanities and sciences but not the reverse. Even when taking science subjects as their majors, undergraduate students in the United States are expected to get what is called a liberal arts education – all-rounded training to gain critical thinking skills, learn how to engage with important social questions and find innovative solutions to difficult problems. 

In Uganda, most university graduates barely get a true liberal arts training, yet there is a false perception that Ugandan universities teach too much ‘theoretical’ stuff of the arts and social sciences. 

We would perhaps be better off as a country if students were truly drilled in theory and exposed to deep ideas and critical thought. Studying the arts/humanities and social sciences should be required for every student including those studying natural sciences. This is something President Museveni appears not to grasp in his obsession with sciences.
 
As he has done in the past, Mr Museveni recently returned to his pet subject of belittling the arts and social sciences while talking-up the natural sciences as what Uganda needs. But science does not operate in space or in heaven where there are no social problems. 
The activities and works of natural scientists take place in a sociocultural milieu which the scientist must properly understand or for which he/she needs a non-scientist’s input.

Obviously, Museveni is right to place emphasis on training scientists and technicians who can handle problems relating to natural occurrences and deal with the physical and material world. These have to be trained at both the tertiary and advanced levels education. The vocational school deals with the former while the university handles the latter. 

Vocational education is critical to a poor country. The Ugandan market is flooded with expensive (yet quite lousy) imported furniture, but the locally produced stuff is hardly of fine quality. With well-trained and skilled carpenters along with infusion of capital and a solid infrastructure, locally produce furniture would outcompete whatever comes in from China. 

Training scientists at the advanced levels makes possible ground breaking innovations in product design and finding solutions to things like the endemic problem of physical planning in and around Kampala.
But Mr Museveni is on shaky ground when he trumpets the cause of science over the arts. For one, Uganda has been churning out science graduates, but it is not quite apparent that scientists are actually fixing our problems. In many areas that require physical scientists, we seem to fall behind the more science graduates we have produced. 

Second, and perhaps most import, Museveni loses the argument in the market place. There is no guarantee that graduates of the sciences get rewarding and productive careers and artists do not.  In a country of very limited opportunities, a small market, huge costs of doing business and poor physical infrastructure, a chemistry graduate does not necessarily fare better than a graduate of sociology or economics.

 The problem of limited job opportunities and a constrained business environment is not reducible to being a scientist or not.
But even if it were the case that studying science automatically grants one an edge at a personal level and is vital to the country at the macro level, there is still a separate case to be made for why non-science subjects are equally significant precisely because natural science is not the definitive magic bullet to all problems. 

Mr Museveni and his government need to overcome the misguided obsession with trying to draw a sharp line between the arts and sciences. Society needs both. Students need to study the natural world as much as the social because we inhabit both worlds.

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