The F-word: Divide between art and science is false

2013-01-20 10:00

The 2013 academic year has kicked off in earnest.

It is that time of the year when students, many of them mere teenagers, will be required to make long-term decisions about their lives.

Many of them will make these decisions with only a cursory understanding of what they are getting themselves into.

Some will naturally make informed decisions and be happy for the rest of their lives.

Out of this well-meant concern for our youth will come the yearly ritual of creating a false dichotomy between the humanities and natural sciences.

Our education system and our socialisation are largely to blame for this artificial divide.

While it helps to sensitise our youth about the skills the modern economy needs, the zero sum game of zealously promoting the hard sciences as a superior rather than a different discipline to the humanities, is not helpful.

It will obviously be foolish to deny that a student who emerges from a varsity with a degree in ancient Greek literature will find it harder than one with a B Com to find a job – even or especially not in today’s Greece.

Still, scientists and actuaries need to understand the society they operate in.

It has served modern doctors well to learn that the symptoms presented by a patient may have their roots in matters of belief rather than the germs and viruses in the body.

The lessons learnt from the rigours of science and the logic of mathematics are invaluable in any sphere of life.

Yet some perpetuate the impression that logic is for the very bright and the rest of us must just try and remember the dates or individuals involved.

The spectre of highly educated business executives who do not understand why their workers demand

above-inflation salary hikes speaks to this divide between two streams of knowledge.

It is such business executives, brilliant in reading the trends but who fail to understand society, who then find the unfolding of Marikana and De Doorns shocking and incomprehensible.

There must be few things that threaten the future of a business and coherence of our fragile society more than the belief by some business leaders that the numbers – be they profits, blacks or women in decision making positions – are in themselves innocent and have nothing to do with how society is structured and operates.

Nobody is saying that our universities must remain stubborn and produce meaningless qualifications

ill-suited to the needs of the South African economy and society.

Tertiary institutions must carry out their obligation to develop a body of skills required for the economy.

Spending taxpayers’ money on academic indulgence helps nobody.

Accepting that it is impossible to teach everything, it helps to seek as much integrated knowledge as it is possible.

It is with a better understanding of society and human beings that accountants will treat staff as an expense rather than an asset.

Artists too have an obligation to know about the market that they will sell their goods in and not hide behind the notion of art for its own sake.

The view that logic and heart are to be separated in the halls of learning robs the student as much as it robs society.

It is the handmaid of the Philistine theory that whatever amount the state spends supporting the arts is wasteful because it is money that could have been spent on the homeless and the hungry.

It is this uncultured sentiment that finds expression in the logic that it doesn’t matter how hideous something looks as long as it is functional.

Human beings are not only driven by utility.

Their spirits are lifted by the aesthetic as it is by the melodious.

Just to reiterate, mathematics, technology and business sciences are a cornerstone of any modern economy.

But if whatever is created does not have human beings as the ultimate users or beneficiaries, it becomes the master of the human race and not its tool.

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