My Say: The integration of Science and Arts

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 4, 2019 - March 10, 2019.
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A couple of weeks ago, in mid-February, Education Minister Maszlee Malik said, “We are not going to put our students into science and arts (streams) anymore. In a new curriculum we will implement, we will not only emphasise science, but also arts (and culture) because knowledge is one; it cannot be compartmentalised and should be integrated instead.”

The minister added, “STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education will be updated to become STREAM, including the vital components of Arts and Reading. We will also shift the priorities of teachers and lecturers nationally to focus on teaching STEM in a fun and experiential way, thereby making STEM accessible to all.”

If this policy really does take place, it will, in my view, be one of the most consequential reforms to the education system in Malaysian history. The devil will ultimately be in the details and, certainly, there are very legitimate concerns about implementation. How long will schools need to prepare for this and are teachers ready to shift from decades of lecture-style teaching to “fun and experiential” teaching? Is Malaysian society ready to move away from the outmoded “science stream is good, arts stream is bad” mentality? Will the curricula truly be integrated? And much more.

Any serious study on the “how” of this policy change will need to consider those issues deeply, but, if we were to take a step back and just look at the forest — and leave the trees for a separate but perhaps more important discussion — this policy change is a massive step in the right direction for the future of Malaysia.

There are several reasons for this. The first is of practicality and the need to prepare a population for the challenges of a future in which machines, particularly artificial intelligence (AI), can replace a lot of human tasks. The rapidly expanding field of AI applications, driven by superior computing chips as well as overwhelming hoards of data, has created a world in which machines are designed to learn on their own. This is called deep learning.

This approach has made AI particularly strong in narrow fields. The AI of today is designed to answer very specific questions such as, “What are the consumer patterns in telecommunications?”, “How do I try to generate alpha from my investments returns?”, “How do I optimally match people who want rides with people who offer rides?”and “What do these patient symptoms represent in terms of a diagnosis?”

Now, an education system that trains people to be specialists in a particular field, and to only be able to execute tasks for which machines with superior computing power and data storage capacity can take on, is an education system that will fail its constituents. To date, AI is only very good at solving very specific questions; it has not yet been developed to the point that it can replace the human brain and solve problems across broader and more general questions. Indeed, there is a very real belief (which, as a disclaimer, I do not necessarily share) that we will never achieve general AI.

In any case, we therefore need an education system that is multi-dimensional, producing people who can solve problems using tools from across the academic spectrum, be it tools from the sciences or tools from the arts. After all, there is a strong argument to be made that the sciences and the arts are simply two different ways in which humans try to answer fundamental questions of who, what, where, when, how and why we are.

Maszlee’s proposal to integrate the streams and enable students to dip a toe in both science and arts is a very positive move towards building a population that can take on and thrive in a world of narrow AI.

The second reason is more philosophical. As Maszlee rightly pointed out,

“… knowledge is one; it cannot be compartmentalised and should be integrated instead.” In the US, a four-year undergraduate degree is typically a Liberal Arts degree. This means that, in addition to the major a student chooses, whether it is economics, biology, mathematics, history or whatever, he or she also has to take courses from a breadth of other fields so as to ensure a more holistic approach to learning.

For instance, at Harvard College, students are expected to take a course each in aesthetics and culture; ethics and civics; histories, societies, individuals; science and technology in society; arts and humanities; science and engineering; social sciences; and empirical and mathematical reasoning.

The idea is that the whole body of human knowledge is multi-disciplinary. In my view, the reason why humans pursue whatever scholarly pursuits in whatever body of knowledge is simply to better understand the human condition and how to improve it. Therefore, just using economics as a frame to understand the world, without also trying to figure out what literature has to say, or what history, or biology, has to say is incomplete.

Should Malaysia truly implement this integrated science-arts syllabi for upper secondary students, they would get an exposure to a more holistic education. Naturally, some subjects would be core — Bahasa Melayu, English, Mathematics, History and Science, for starters, but many others would be by preference. We would also do away with the stigma that students streamed into the arts stream are “poorer” academically, and those in the science stream, “richer”.

If I ever meet Lionel Messi, he is not going to ask me for football advice, and I am probably not going to ask him how to handle income taxes. People can be talented in many different ways. We should have an education system that allows these different ways to emerge, rather than lock into some idea of “optimal”.

I am a big fan of this proposal, and I think there is so much potential in it. The execution will be immensely tricky, with all sorts of issues and implications. But I think the juice will be well worth the squeeze. And, at the end of it, we may, of course, still see plenty of students who would want to specialise and be doctors, accountants, historians or plumbers, or whatever, but we may also produce plenty of students who would be multi-disciplinary and trying to solve problems with the human condition in a more holistic way.

Nicholas Khaw is an economist with the Khazanah Research and Investment Strategy Division

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