STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and maths. STEM education has been deemed to be of importance since STEM occupations are growing at 17% while other occupations are growing at 9.8%. Furthermore, STEM degree holders command higher incomes even in non-STEM careers. Since it is thought that STEM workers play a key role in the sustained growth and stability of the economy, there has been a push for STEM education among our young students. 

In Singapore, students tend to be the top performers across international mathematics and science tests. This may be partially due to the fact that science and mathematics are core subjects in Singapore’s curriculum. Empirically, there also appears to be a preference for STEM subjects over the humanities on the basis that it better prepares students for future careers, as that it signals that a student is more academically inclined.

Around the world, particularly in the United States and United Kingdom, schools are even adopting the Singaporean style of teaching mathematics. This style of teaching mathematics has become so influential because it is perceived that Singapore is a world leader in teaching mathematics. 

Not at the Expense of the Humanities

While it may seem like a good idea to promote science and technology education, it would be deeply misguided to do so at the expense of the humanities. Teaching both arts and science is necessary to ensure that we continue to be technological innovators. For instance, Steve Jobs is hailed as a tech hero because he brought an aesthetic to the redesign of mobile phones and laptop computers; technology married with liberal arts brought us products that really captured our hearts.

Furthermore, having skills in both the arts and sciences lead to a well-rounded education which is more attractive to potential employers. It is not a job candidate’s specific major that made a difference, but whether the candidate is able to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. These are intangible skills which are honed through a liberal arts program.

Finally, following from the example of Steve Jobs, the marriage of artistic design with engineering refinements is what differentiates high-end cars, clothes or cellphones from other competitors. Consumers are not just looking for functionality and efficiency, but also design and beauty. The ability to delve into aesthetics is hardly developed within the confines of a narrow STEM curriculum.

Incorporating Singapore Mathematics into the British Syllabus

British schools which have incorporated the Singapore Mathematics system into their curriculum are experiencing a pushback from students and educators. The English are questioning if attaining the Singaporean standard for maths and science is a worthy goal. Since the educational culture is so massively focused on STEM achievement, it creates very high stress and anxiety for the students.

Additionally, as the UK seeks to develop an ever more efficient production line of mathematicians and scientists, is there a risk of strangling the creative arts? In the UK, the creative industries have been growing at almost twice the rate of the rest of the economy. Thus, there is a strong leadership from the UK in terms of the playwrights, designers and artists and how this leads to the exuberance of the arts scene. The English are also very proud of the cultural heritage that is developed, and sustained, by the creatives among them.

At the same time, a UK educator also raises the question of whether teachers receive adequate training in the UK. While the average UK teacher receives 4 days per year of professional development, teachers in Shanghai receive 40 days annually. If the government wishes to push students to become better in STEM subjects, there also has to be a corresponding levelling up of teachers to become more skilled professionals.

YouTube: Humanities fuel innovation: if STEM is the engine of the future, the humanities are the oil

Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  1. What do you think are the merits of marrying STEM education with the study of humanities? 
  2. How do you think schools can encourage students to pursue a more well-rounded education? What is a well-rounded education anyway?

Useful vocabulary: 

  1. intangible’: (of an asset or benefit) not constituting or represented by a physical object and of a value not precisely measurable
  2. exuberance’: the quality of being full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness; ebullience 

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  1. Scientific American: STEM students need humanities courses

But it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you’re given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt, skepticism.

The humanities are subversive. They undermine the claims of all authorities, whether political, religious or scientific. This skepticism is especially important when it comes to claims about humanity, about what we are, where we came from, and even what we can be and should be. Science has replaced religion as our main source of answers to these questions. Science has told us a lot about ourselves, and we’re learning more every day.

But the humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for deluding ourselves. They also tell us that every single human is unique, different than every other human, and each of us keeps changing in unpredictable ways. The societies we live in also keep changing–in part because of science and technology! So in certain important ways, humans resist the kind of explanations that science gives us.


  1. ChannelNewsAsia: Liberal arts education in Singapore

Part of my title, “the usefulness of useless knowledge”, is borrowed from a book first published in 1939 by Abraham Flexner, the founder and first director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Flexner had studied classics as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University and then psychology at Harvard.

He argued that basic research – inquiry motivated by curiosity and imagination rather than by practical goals – can eventually lead to technological breakthroughs based on new discoveries. He saw that technologies based on old knowledge, like railroads, would eventually fail to match those based on new ideas, like digital computing.

Flexner’s argument is also a good reminder that a liberal arts education does not ignore science but includes it. The physical and life sciences, along with mathematics and computer science, are part of the liberal arts curriculum.

In a liberal arts college, these subjects are studied as distinct and interesting ways of thinking, rather than mainly as a set of tools to be applied in solving engineering, medical or other technical problems.

For instance, a liberal arts student who majored in computer science, and has an understanding of regional political structures through courses in politics and economics, can potentially offer more value to an IT firm wishing to expand its regional business operations.

A liberal arts education trains a person to develop the ability to learn new things and apply them quickly.