Soft skills and hard subjects

by Terence MacNamee

Singapore journalist Javanadas Devan, writing in the Straits Times a couple of years ago, commented wryly on the plans of the minister of education there to introduce a “holistic” type of education including “soft skills”. Devan noted that while soft skills were now fashionable, universities like Cambridge and LSE in England were already starting to push back against the trend, and required aspiring undergraduates to have taken more traditional “academic” subjects in their A-levels.

Devan also commented that the “soft” subjects can also be rigorous, and that the “hard” subjects can also be a source of enjoyment. This is very true. Yet he was clearly assuming that the soft subjects meant literature and the arts, and that the hard subjects meant the (natural) sciences. In this connection he referred to C.P. Snow’s old idea of the split between the “two cultures”, and was sceptical about well-meaning attempts to bridge the gap. He found that a truly holistic education should not mean a little bit of everything (and not too much of anything).

Devan is right about this, but Snow had a lot more to say on “hard subjects” in education in his collection of essays Public Affairs, which came out in 1971. He wrote: “there are some mental exercises which become effectively impossible in later life. If you don’t study hard subjects before you have graduated, you never will. And without the rigour of hard subjects, and the effect of a minority devoting themselves to them, the whole mental climate will soon become altogether too relaxing. Imagination is vital, but you breathe it in your own private air. Relevance you find for yourself if you are a human being. But intellectual rigour you don’t, unless you are disciplined beyond the limits of most men.” This, then, was something you had to be taught at school.

Snow’s definition of what counts as a hard subject? “The criterion is, if one doesn’t do such a subject between the ages of ten and twenty-one, one will not be able to make the effort again.” Rather different from Devan’s recent assumption, he included here not only mathematics and the natural sciences, but the traditional Classics (Latin and Greek).

It is not which of the “two cultures” it belongs to that makes a subject hard, but the rigour with which it is taught and learned. The classical tradition in Europe focused on that very kind of rigour. I expect that the classical traditions of Asia did too. We are the poorer without them. Even today, natural science should not be left with the monopoly of hard subjects.