MUHAMMAD Amirullah Zulkifli was halfway to finishing an Engineering degree at the International Islamic University of Malaysia before deciding to take on a different study path. After putting much thought into it, he changed his programme to English Literature at the same university.
His decision to dive deeper into the English Literature course was not abrupt as he had developed a passion for teaching after being involved in community service programmes that provide assistance in education for children in the rural areas of Sabah and Sarawak.
“I had in mind that I should go into teaching or anywhere that goes along the lines of facilitating and social work,” he said.
While he was doing the course, he discovered a new reality.
“It was not all about writing essays and presentations, it was also about creating versatile products. Lecturers were so creative in giving out assignments.
“I was involved in a project that required me to design a magazine using Adobe InDesign. Who would’ve thought that an English student would utilise this skill but I did it.
“I also completed a few assignments on creating videos and short films based on short stories.
“Although many questioned my decision to pursue Arts and Humanities, this course gave me more than enough skills to venture into business and the industry. Its versatility and perks are endless,” said Muhammad Amirullah who is working as a customer operations specialist at Shell Malaysia.
Today, a degree is expected in the job market. As the world undergoes rapid technological development, students turn away from the Humanities and are inclined towards Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics courses (STEM). This issue has raised concerns about the value of Arts and Humanities degrees.
Arts and Humanities are academic disciplines concerning cultural and social studies with courses like languages, literature, history, philosophy, music and film studies.
Graduates in these degree are often criticised on whether they would be workforce ready.
“In the age of industrialisation, STEM courses are highly preferred by the industry. There is no doubt that our mindset is shaped by this.
“Language or other Arts and Humanities courses continue to be regarded as easy. Some even say that the only viable career for graduates in these courses is teaching,” said Muhammad Amirullah.
According to Universiti Malaysia Kelantan statistics, there has been a significant drop in the number of students applying to the Faculty of Creative Technology and Heritage over the past three years.
Philosophy and Current Issues lecturer Dr Fairuz A’dilah Rusdi said that under the faculty, the university offers courses such as Heritage Literature, Heritage Conservation, Cultural Heritage and Performing Arts.
Fairuz agreed that some may have neglected the importance of these degrees while continuing to have misconceptions about them.
“Often, we hear that students who go into this stream of studies are not smart enough or do not do well compared to those in the other fields of studies.
“Arts and Humanities majors are also often labelled second-best and less hard-working who will end up not securing a comfortable job. Even worse, these students are often misjudged as wanting to have it easy or escape the harsher realities of life.
“This, however, is very different from the perceptions that come with being in the Science stream.
“Perhaps, lack of awareness and appreciation of Arts and Humanities have created misconceptions about such courses.
“In some countries, arts and culture are placed on par with the sciences due to higher appreciation of the societies, backed by goverment support to uplift these courses,” she said.
Fairuz added that society ought to alter their perceptions by realising that both streams have their pros and cons.
“A student inclined towards the Arts or Humanities will excel better in these studies if they have the passion for them. The same goes for students with inclination towards STEM fields; they will fall behind without genuine interest in the courses.
“Parents too play a big role. They should not expect their children to follow their wishes in choosing a course or what society approves or commends. Let children have a say in what they want to pursue and engage in, and not expect them to fulfil societal expectations.”
Muhammad Amirullah pointed out that the prejudice and misconception of the Arts and Humanities courses are the result of ignorance or knowledge gap.
“To correct misconceptions, we need explanation. It is important to enlighten society on Arts and Humanities courses and proactively discuss the importance of the courses to the industry. In fact, the courses serve as a strong support system to STEM,” he added.
MORE THAN WORDS
Arts and Humanities subjects deal with the study of man and society, as well as everything that has to do with life and experiences, Fairuz said.
“They concern individuals as an entity, individuals within a collective structure, people in the past and present, and how to improve the well-being of man in regards to language, culture, religion, philosophy and others.
“Arts and Humanities students have many underrated advantages. They are known for their critical mind and are well-read.
“The students have a strong grasp of current issues. They are trained to be inquisitive, analytical, interpretative and ready to come up with solutions.”
Fairuz added that these degrees are important and are of value to society.
“They are crucial in promoting thinking such as why we were created, how we have evolved and see the potentialities of a person in society.
“Students with a high cognitive intelligence may lack emotional quotient (EQ) to deal with issues.
“This EQ spectrum is embedded in humanities courses and deal with effective communication, building quality relationships and empathy. These are the critical factors that shape the value of our society today,” she said.
Third-year Universiti Malaya student Nur Sabrina Md Amin opted for a degree in Arts and Humanities as she is keen on being involved in discussions that challenge her thinking.
She decided to pursue English Literature after completing the Foundation in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL).
“The foundation studies in TESL offered literature as one of the core subjects. I really enjoyed studying literature and mulled the idea to pursue it.”
According to her, literature students are exposed to many different types of literature ranging from Malaysian Literature to 19th Century British Literature.
“It widens our horizon. This includes issues related to gender, societal class and politics, among others. In general, we learn about the world and how it works, through literature.
“English Literature makes us think about different perspectives which trains us to think critically and analyse text. It prevents us from accepting blindly what’s on the page and trust unreliable sources without further research.
“Along with the research and reading, we accumulate general knowledge,” she said.
Admittedly, students in this discipline may worry what the future holds for them, said Fairuz.
“Although these courses provide a less rigid career path compared to STEM programmes, students tend to fare very well in careers that involve writing and speaking.
“Arts and Humanities graduates can be found in every field, from law to public relations, filling a variety of roles from writer to academic.
“Humanities students tend to showcase better public speaking skills than those in the hard sciences field.
“When it comes to looking for a job, Arts and Humanities students have better job prospects than those who pursued specialised courses.
“Skills gained from Humanities studies in human, social, political and cultural development may aid in addressing problems. These skills will make them thrive among a sea of competitors,” she explained.
A person’s value should not be determined by their university degree. Instead it should be based on what they are good at, said Ku Sim Ling, a director at workforce solutions company, Kelly Services.
“Besides technical skills, employers consider the values of their future employees, such as authenticity, customer-focused, leadership, communication and teamwork.
“The skills are highly sought after because they are the differentiating factors, especially in a future workplace where automation and artificial intelligence will replace up to 30 per cent of the workforce in the next decade,” said Ku.
Muhammad Amirullah added: “The skills I gained during my degree years are precious as I have been blessed with the opportunity to apply them in my current work. I have helped my team in writing scripts and created videos for internal and external use.
“I conducted customer visits and trained customers to use our products. I also trained recruits and created assessments for them.”