Study literature got future meh?

Updated: Mar 20

By Wong Shiying


To be completely honest, I probably would not have majored in literature if I did not have a scholarship that guarantees me a job when I graduate.

We often hear arts graduates bemoaning the difficulties they face in finding employment. They spend long and costly years studying subjects such as history, philosophy and art, only to reach the job market and discover no company values their skills and interests. They may consider themselves lucky finding any job at all, regardless of pay or relevance to their degrees.

My reluctance in taking literature arises not because I don’t see value in it, but because of the ingrained stigma that the humanities are impractical in the working world and “just a load of fluff”. It’s been seven years since Yale-NUS College, the first liberal arts university in Singapore and where I currently study, matriculated its first batch of students. Yet, people are unconvinced that we can apply humanities to various industries in valuable ways. We like to pay the arts a certain amount of lip-service, declare them worthy and noble and fund a few professors to dig away in their archives, but people still don’t know what the humanities can do for us, and therefore how people trained in them should spend their days other than preparing lattes and cappuccinos.

When it comes to literature, you may have heard (from parents or concerned relatives) that it teaches you nothing more than accessing your emotions and writing poetry. If it were that simple, I would not be spending hours poring over research papers and rewriting paragraphs, again and again, to sharpen my argument. Literature is not an exercise of venting your emotions and flexing your vocabulary. It demands honest and rigorous analysis of how language is manipulated to convey meaning. After I’ve developed my own interpretation of a text, I’ll have to use my words to convince you that it is a sound and innovative way of thinking about those issues.

What’s the point of such training? The way I see it, the art of creating a persuasive argument is instrumental to any society’s progress. As the general election approaches, politicians will wax lyrical about how they can make your life better. You’ll assess their arguments and vote for the one you find most convincing. When your boss presents you with a problem, you’ll have to think creatively and persuade him that your idea is the best way forward. Or as a Lit student may ask, is there even a problem at all?

Of course, one can be an excellent communicator and critical thinker without studying literature. Any good university education, not just one in the humanities, seeks to hone such skills. Ask any undergraduate and he or she will probably tell you that their degree equipped them with generic skills like being able to write, argue, research, solve problems and work as a team.

However, few majors are as heavy on the reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking as the liberal arts — whether by debating with other students in a seminar, writing a thesis paper, or yes, analysing poetry. Reading Sappho and other poets of antiquity taught me to make inferences in the absence of information (when sections of parchment are too damaged to be restored), to figure out what to believe when things are not so clear-cut. The complex verses of Pound and Eliot trained me to disassemble elements of writing and peruse them without losing sight of the big picture. These authors may have been dead for eons but their works do not cease to teach us something about the past that informs the way we look toward the future.

There’s no doubt that science and technology will continue to remain relevant in this digital age. The point I’m trying to make is that the humanities will also become increasingly involved in this process. Skilling-up for a smart nation would involve more than technology, engineering and math. Take it from Microsoft’s top executives Brad Smith and Harry Shum who said this recently:

“As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” The creators of driverless cars are already confronting ethical challenges like how a car should rank the safety priorities of passengers and pedestrians in accidents. In a world where robots dispense medicine and chatbots replace human conversations, it appears the jobs that will endure the test of time are the ones that require an understanding of human nature and embrace human empathy.

In my case, I was actually a science student all through secondary school and junior college. Triple science, Olympiads, lab experiments — you name it, I did it. To nobody’s surprise, I aspired to be a doctor at some point but my experience doing a hospital attachment quickly changed my mind. The sight of a diabetic patient’s freshly amputated limb oozing with blood and pus made me quiver, shake, break out into cold sweat and throw up my breakfast. My mother, who used to be a nurse, was not shy about expressing her disappointment.

I’ve been in a relationship with the humanities ever since and it’s been an enriching journey for my mind and soul. I remember reading Captain Wentworth’s love letter to Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and being awed by how it could be at once heart-breaking, uplifting and hopeful. I picked up Classical Chinese so I could read the classics and properly appreciate Chinese philosophy, poetry and storytelling as originally expressed. It has given me a glimpse of a civilization over three thousand years old and released me, only if slightly, from the limits imposed by thinking only in the ways of our time. It’s for the same reason we still listen to Bach and Mozart in this day and age.

Before you berate me for being an idealist just because I have the assurance of a job upon graduation, I’m well aware that no one will pay us for making a case for how Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina transcends the ages, not unless we’re academics. I agree with what Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung said in his 2018 speech on higher education and skills, that we need to “strengthen the nexus between study and work” by “(combining) institutional education with practical work experience in an almost 50:50 split.” For humanities majors like myself, figuring out how to apply our skills in a workplace is arguably just as important as going to class and learning new ways to think.

To prepare for my career as a journalist, I’ve done two internships with Singapore Press Holdings, at The Straits Times and The Business Times. I am also taking a political reporting module with veteran journalist Bertha Henson to master the tools of the trade — like how to find a news angle, interview people, write clearly and maintain a website. My literature background comes in handy when I need to question and evaluate what politicians are saying and consider social issues from the perspective of multiple stakeholders.

My training in literature helps me connect with people beyond a superficial level. My education in culture helps me answer the urgent dilemmas of the real world. Novels taught me about relationships, works of art reframed my perspectives and history is a catalogue of case-studies into any number of personal and political scenarios. I would have to buck up on journalistic aspects like summoning up the courage to speak to complete strangers, but I would like to think that I am putting my training in the humanities to practice.

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