Liberal arts more relevant than ever

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 November, 2011, 12:00am


The late Steve Jobs' biographer, Walter Isaacson, once asked his subject how he saw himself. To this, the Apple wunderkind replied: 'I am a humanities person', but also someone with a strong passion in electronics.

Jobs' life and work offer many lessons to different people. But one lesson rarely commented on is how much importance he attached to the value of a liberal arts education and the type of broad outlook it engenders, a panoramic view that spans the humanities and the sciences.

Apple products are examples of aesthetic and engineering marvels. If Jobs is an icon of our time, then the imprint of the liberal arts education that he patched together for himself, after dropping out of college, deserves reflected glory.

It is surely not an accident that local universities - which have long championed academic specialisations - are increasingly turning to the liberal arts education model. Lingnan, Baptist and Chinese universities are making humanities programmes mandatory for all undergraduates. American Jesuits have set their sights on opening the first liberal arts university in Hong Kong by 2014.

If the 20th century was the age of specialisation, the 21st is that of generalised outlooks, of networks and of globalised interconnections. A goal of education used to be the absorption of facts. But now, thanks to the internet, facts are at anyone's fingertips. What is needed is the ability to form ideas from disconnected threads, to see patterns, to anticipate mistakes, to learn from history, to understand human nature, to think critically, to be receptive to different cultures.

The specialists will always be in demand, but it's the generalists who will rule.