LETTER: That we still argue against ‘soft degrees’ and the humanities in tertiary education, is unacceptable
Magda Wierzycka’s opinion piece on tertiary education surprised me, as I have usually found her take on South African economics to be cogent, critical and thought-provoking (SA needs qualifications for hard skills, not soft degrees, February 28).
While I agree with her question as to whether university education is indeed the best way to equip SA youth for the challenges of the future, I am disappointed at her low opinion of the humanities, and by extension soft skills, when she states that "resources should not be wasted on ‘soft’ degrees".
The argument for "STEM to STEAM" education in the US is seeded in the understanding that the humanities are critical as a progressive enabler and key to many other skills. Yes, perhaps the humanities teach "soft skills" – but there is good reason why cultural diplomacy is considered soft power. (Soft, but power nevertheless.)
The humanities and social sciences teach critical thinking, emotional and cultural intelligence and engagement, as well as imagination and creativity — much of which is valuable to businesses. Creativity is, after all, an attribute 60% of CEOs surveyed by IBM in 2010 felt was the most important leadership quality they were looking for.
Prof Jen Snowball of the economics department at Rhodes University noted that the creative economy accounted for 6.7% of jobs in SA in 2015. According to Snowball, this makes the cultural industries a growth point comparative to many other areas of our economy. (It also highlights the need to shift beyond what Prof Alan Hirsch of UCT describes as "a nostalgia about re-industrialisation").
I understand too that the World Economic Forum on the future of jobs in Africa listed the creative industries as one of the trending industries, which saw average annual growth of 7% between 2011 and 2016. Extend this into the tourism sector, with a focus on cultural tourism, and those numbers could be increased further.
That we are still arguing against "soft degrees" and the humanities in tertiary education, is unacceptable. The sciences and the soft sciences and humanities are not binaries, they are part of the whole development of society.
Wierzycka’s comment that "some of the most popular university degrees are in the social sciences and arts, which do not focus on hardcore maths or science foundations but are also not in great demand by employers" assumes that only those with a hard science or maths brain can succeed in getting jobs, creating job opportunities or becoming entrepreneurs. The creative sector is one that is seasoned in the concepts of work and job hours, as opposed to long-term jobs.
The sector is agile, resilient and flexible within the changing nature of work — a change owing to technology and the growing and the diverse needs of a development state.
I invite Wierzycka to join some of our Business and Arts SA board members (bankers, former ambassadors, marketers and legal practitioners) and me on a few excursions into another world; one where the humanities, creativity and passion, innovation, cultural tourism and imagination tell a different story — one that’s positive and deserves more credence.
We look forward to shifting her opinion!
CEO of Basa