Science? Arts? Commerce? Which Stream?

The Star recently published two articles about choosing streams after the PMR (Middle Cert) exams. According to the people interviewed in the articles, it seems that no matter what your interests, you should go and take Science anyway, because it makes you “more analytical” or it “opens up your options”, and that the Arts is apparently “less taxing”.

As someone who took Humanities in school, I find this advice utterly disappointing. Indeed, I found both articles problematic.

The first assumption made by many people in the articles is that non-Science subjects are not challenging or taxing enough. I took Malay Literature, Art, and Commerce in school, and I can tell you that they are no less challenging. You still had to learn how to critique, to analyze, to think creatively. Some people suggest taking Science now, despite your interests, because at least you learn how to “think analytically” – you can learn how to think analytically no matter the subject! Perhaps it’s not formula or theorems, but accounts and finances, or metaphors and similes. Still analyzing. Indeed, many people recommend taking Philosophy, an arts subject, in university for exactly the same reasons – skills in analysis and thinking critically, which can be applied anywhere..

The next assumption is that taking Science opens you up to more opportunities than taking non-Science subjects. This is a fallacy. There are so many opportunities out there for just about anything, and many more that do not specify a particular academic background. You will not necessarily be in a disadvantage if you decide not to venture into Science. As George Bernard Shaw once said:

People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances that they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.

That said, is the current crop of Malaysian scholarships part of this vicious cycle? Mot scholarships are meant for Science students, so more people take Science because they feel it’s the only way they get some funding, which leads to more Science-only scholarships…while the others lose out heavily. When will we break this cycle?

Some say that you can always takes Arts and Humanities courses after SPM. I ask, why wait? If you’re truly interested in something non-scientific, why not take the opportunities that are there? When would this delay end anyway – “oh, wait after SPM” becomes “wait after STPM/A-Levels/Foundation” becomes “wait after undergrad” becomes “wait after grad school/you get a job” becomes “oh, you’re dead, never mind”.

My sister’s an interesting example. She had always wanted to be an architect as far as she could remember. In school, she was placed into the Science stream due to her grades (it helps that she does have some interest in Science). She was talked out of doing architecture in university as she was told “there was no money”. A double degree in Chemistry and Biotechnology in Imperial College led to a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, which then led to a research job with Cancer Research UK – which led to her realizing that she was never truly happy because she’s never got the chance to really delve into her true artistic self. She’s now in Art school, documenting her progress, and is the happiest she’s been in a long time. How many people realize that their life is in their hands? Will it take them just as long as my sister did – or even longer – to make that change?

Taylor’s University College principal Anucia Jeganathan and Advanced Studies Advisors director Yow Lop Siaw have, in my opinion, the most informed comments in the article. They acknowledge that more and more students are taking Science due to its reputation for prestige and opportunity. However, as the article notes:

However, Jeganathan believes that the current system is not balanced and that a healthy mix of both Arts and Science subjects after the PMR should be encouraged as “it makes for better students.”

The answer may lie in having a more broad-based education system, similar to that practised in Britain and the United States, where labels like Arts or Science stream are not used.

Jeganathan says that for this to happen, Science and Arts students should take more subjects from the other stream. However, there first needs to be a wider range of Arts subjects offered in Malaysian schools, she says, such as music, drama and public speaking.

“Currently, we don’t have many Arts subjects that engage and involve the students.”

Most Malaysians continue to hold stereotypical views of the strengths and disadvantages of doing the Arts or Sciences.

Top scorers are advised to do Science which is more “challenging” while weak students are advised to opt for Arts as it is less “taxing”.

Essentially, what matters is not whether students do Science or Arts subjects, but that they take subjects that they enjoy and subsequently pursue related careers.

I can say for sure that this is true. A large part of why students are reluctant to do anything Arts-based is because the students who do take Arts are treated like crap. I had friends from all sorts of classes (I was offered a Science stream space but declined) but I could tell there was some snobbery against us. When I opted for Humanities – the “last” class – I was told that I was “a fool” and was “wasting my As”. This attitude carries on in how we are taught – while we had some great teachers, some others didn’t bother to make the effort.

Also, there are frighteningly few non-Science or Business courses available, and even fewer teachers willing to teach them. I really wanted to do English Literature, but I was told that I needed to find 15 other students, and I only had one other person. No other school in the state (at the time) offered the subject, so I ended up taking Malay Literature instead. The other Humanities subjects they had were Art (which everyone in my class had to take) and Music (which I’d much rather take but couldn’t due to technicalities). We had Commerce foisted on us to make us “well-rounded” – funny how they don’t really tell that to the Science or Business students! (To their credit, some did Accounts, Art, and Music, so good for them.)

Where is theatre? Dance? Speech and forensics? Media? Languages? Digital art? So many options that should be made available…but nowhere to be seen in the SPM catalog. And why aren’t there teachers to teach them? A common excuse is “lack of resources” – how much of that is really “we don’t think the Arts are worth the hassle because Arts students are stupid”?

People! Look outside the box for once. Science subjects are not the Holy Grail of education. Arts students are not idiots. Encourage more diversity in learning! Don’t be afraid to take up non-Science subjects! Don’t just take them because they’re popular or prestigious! Learn what you want to learn. Take your education and your life into your own hands.

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9 Responses

  1. Hi. I’m a student in the University of Otago (aiming for med like nearly every other Asian student in science here, unfortunately)and I got the link to your post from Education in Malaysia. I’d just like to comment on my observations about the Sciences and Arts here compared to Malaysia.

    I’m not sure if some people are aware that in some Universities, Psychology and Economics are actually counted as Arts/Humanities subjects. There doesn’t seem to be the same prejudice (I think that’s the word to use) against Arts and Humanities students here. However, as Otago is more well known for it’s Sciences, there are understandably less Arts and Humanities students around, but they are here.

    Moreover, I believe that here, the Arts and Humanities undergrads get the same amount of respect as a Science Grad. Not to mention, Arts and Humanities grads can go on the be diplomats (a BA in foreign languages) or maybe even become law makers or governers (BLL, BA in Philosophy or Politics). While the government here is trying to encourage more people to take up the Sciences, they do not do so at the expense of the Arts and Humanities.

    Additionally, I wouldn’t quite agree that the Arts are not challenging or do not train you to analyse any less that the sciences do. I took English Literature at SPM level and it was quite challenging, analysing a novel, a play, short stories and poems as well as having to explain my analysis in a written paper. I’m sure Economics also teaches one to analyse. This year, I had to take Academic English as a subject. Among other things, I had to complete a 1500 word essay and give a 15 minute seminar. In my science classes so far, I have not had to do these things. I think that these are essential for the working world and help to teach students effective verbal and written communication, which are vital in life. So far, I have not had to present and analyse and argument in Science.

    I am happy doing Science because I am interested in it, but I don’t really mind the arts, depending on the presentation and the syllabus. I think that students should not only be rounded with extra curricular activities but also well-rounded academically, with knowledge of the sciences, arts and humanities.

  2. it depends upon ur intrest if u r gud in science take it in maths then choose commerce if in history geo then its arts for u wich u can do easily u should pick up tht stream only

  3. iam student of M.B.A yesterday my teacher gave me the assingement but iam really confused about this please if you can help me than i can easily make notes
    My question is:
    Discuss in detail weather management is an art of commerce science of professions?

    please send me note about this topic iam waiting
    please help

  4. hi
    i hav given my 10 boards frm cbse ,india
    i m confussed wat to take now
    i nt very gud at maths

  5. hi
    i said im confussed
    plz help me in chossing the stream
    plz reply
    my email add. is juhi_fame@yahoo.co.in

  6. hey
    im really reallly confused of what to do!!i js got done wid my boards a month back n i still cant deceide:/..
    all i cud deceide was tht im not going 2 be taking arts..but im stuck between commas and science..what shud i doo?some people say science some commas..
    my email add is riyakukreja@hotmail.com
    Please help!=D

  7. I agree that studying Science subjects can make you “more analytical” but you should also consider other factors like interest, ability, etc when choosing the right stream.

  8. Can anyone help me 2 solve a big problem??? im a form 3 student, i dont know wnt to chose for form 4…sc stream or art??? headache><

  9. Can anyone tell me….. Can a art’s stream student…can take science stream subject?

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