Navigating a complex world

Beyond promising a myriad of career pathways, having a firm foundation in the arts and social sciences helps make the world a better place by fostering empathy, curiosity, and critical thinking.

Globalisation has brought people from around the world much closer than ever before but advancements in communication technology, particularly the rising adoption of social media, has had a polarising effect on society.

The plurality of responses from opposite ends of the spectrum towards movements like #BlackLivesMatter, which protests police brutality towards African Americans in the US, as well as the local #MigranJugaManusia highlighting the ill-treatment of migrant communities in Malaysia, demonstrates how divided humanity has become.

“Social media has enabled more contact between people and cultures, but it has also facilitated fragmentation and pockets of socially or culturally isolated groups – limiting contact to those who are like us and others. Rather than appreciate both commonalities and diversity, the danger is when we frame others in negative labels,” said Professor Helen Nesadurai, Head of the School of Arts and Social Sciences and Professor of International Political Economy at Monash University Malaysia.

“Globalisation is a double-edged sword, resulting in more openness and awareness towards one another, but it has not been kind to everyone”, says Dr Marek Rutkowski, Lecturer in Global Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University Malaysia.

“There is a rising resentment of globalisation with clear anti-immigrant overtones within sectors of societies that have seen an outflow of jobs and worsening living conditions. This leads to the election of populist leaders like US president Donald Trump and the support of Brexit in the UK, which is very worrying,” said Rutkowski.

As social media is often misused to sway public opinion through the proliferation of extreme views, one needs to have the ability to discern fact from fake news, established truth from opinion – this is where having a background in the arts and social sciences makes all the difference, Rutkowski added.

Inculcating a culture of questioning and curiosity

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2018, critical thinking is a much sought-after skill among prospective employers worldwide.

“The Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences (BASS) program focuses on critical thinking. We emphasise that the world around us is not black and white, but rather full of shades of grey. In our classes, students learn that there is often not only one solution to a problem or one interpretation of events. Each matter can be viewed differently depending on one’s point of view and background. While social media tends to oversimplify things, leading to polarisation based on simplistic understanding of the opposite point of view, our students learn to be attentive to nuances and not cast judgment without consideration,” said Rutkowski.

“Critical thinking is fostered right from Day 1 at the BASS program in the way weekly learning and assessments are designed,” said Nesadurai. “Young people should be taught the importance of asking questions and be allowed to do so,” she said.

For Monash University Malaysia film and television studies senior lecturer Dr Jonathan Driskell, it is a liberating experience to be able to see different points of view, and to come to one’s own conclusion about what is important in life.

“In the traditional approach towards education, knowledge is imparted into the students’ minds and there is a ‘right answer’. Students remember answers to questions and learn about subjects without having to understand the subject matter. In our classes there is often no straightforward answer; instead, we want students to weigh the alternatives and debate,” said Driskell, who is also Deputy Head of School (Education) for the School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Rutkowski said that many first-year students struggle with a lack of confidence when airing their views or asking questions. “It is necessary to give each student a safe space to speak up. Even a seemingly ‘stupid question’ or uninformed opinion can be turned into a learning device from which the whole class can benefit. University is a place for shaping one’s thoughts and ideas, learn compassion and empathy, and that is what we aim to achieve through the BASS course,” said Rutkowski.

Freedom to pick and choose your passions

One of the strengths of the BASS program is its flexibility, allowing students to choose and combine different specialisations from an inclusive menu of broader disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. These include Communication, Gender Studies, Global Studies, Film, Television and Screen Studies, Psychology, Public Relations, and Writing.

“This makes for a wider portfolio of skills and knowledge and a more marketable graduate from a hiring perspective”, said Nesadurai.

Under the BASS program, students are trained to be agile and to work with uncertainty – an ideal training ground for the world today where disruptive innovations are common. “Being trained to analyse people and societies both contemporary and historically is what the BASS does well and what employers are looking for –  the ability to identify the multiple ramifications of a problem, to make sound and informed judgments, to identify and evaluate possible solutions, their ethical implications, and to communicate them persuasively to others,” said Nesadurai.

The breadth of specialisations also allows students to better cope with the complexities of the contemporary world, said Rutkowski.

“BASS education is not about running away from contentious or complicated issues but instead, embraces them to nurture critical thinking. Matters of gender, inequality and social injustice are closely examined in our units. Initially, students join our classes with the notion of one correct answer to a given problem but they soon realise the world is much more complicated and grow to be more aware about the world around them and to be more sensitive towards the opinions and beliefs of others,” he said.

Empathy and empowerment

In an increasingly intolerant society, more empathetic and understanding individuals are needed to make the world a better place to live in.

“At the School of Arts and Social Sciences, we have a vision of nurturing our students as global cultural ambassadors. I believe the first step in overcoming intolerance is awareness and an open mind, as people tend to fear the unknown that can be easily demonised. The BASS course is designed to instil in our students a positive curiosity about the other and acceptance of differences,” said Rutkowski.

The international mix of the BASS student cohort – comprising students from South and Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa as well as exchange students from Europe and Australia –  provides many opportunities for students to learn about different cultures and build friendships across racial, cultural or religious divides, he added.

“With its study of complex human behaviour from different specialist angles, the BASS program teaches students how to make sense of complex issues using various theories and concepts. This is much needed in Malaysia to avoid one-sided conclusions and to gain a better understanding of others,” said Nesadurai.

“For instance, evaluating whether we welcome refugees or not – there are economic and political costs, as well as ethical and humanitarian grounds. We also need to consider the carrying capacity of the country. How might we recognise legitimate domestic concerns about accepting refugees without dismissing the humanitarian aspect of the refugee crisis,” she said.

Ultimately, having an arts and social sciences background such as BASS can help students to achieve their full potential – whether it is discovering their dream careers or making a difference in the world with their passions.

“Students have told me that their classes inspired them to work in specific fields, be it international politics, with refugees, with children in need, or in the corporate world. That is the strength of the BASS – it provides you with the foundation to be able to move into varied and meaningful careers,” said Nesadurai.

For Rutkowski, seeing his students move from apathy to passionately condemning injustice or standing up for marginalised communities with conviction, are the moments that make him proud as an educator. “Seeing that the students care, and that the subjects have touched them on a very personal level to make them more aware of the complexities of the world around us - this is what the arts and social sciences is all about,” said Rutkowski.

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