By Janadas Devan, Review Editor
In 2006, Cambridge University, the London School of Economics and a few other British universities issued a warning to prospective students that they would not gain admission if they did 'soft' A-level subjects. Cambridge University's list of soft options included information and communication studies, design, sports studies and dance.
'To be a realistic applicant, a student will normally need to be offering two traditional academic subjects,' a Cambridge University prospectus warned. 'For example, mathematics, history and business studies would be an acceptable combination. However, history, business studies and media studies would not.'
Contrast that to the headline for the front-page story in this newspaper last Wednesday on Education Minister Ng Eng Hen's speech in Parliament: 'Schools to develop 'soft skills''.
To be sure, the minister didn't propose to make these 'soft skills and values' examinable A-level subjects. But there was no mistaking the fact they weren't to be dismissed by virtue of their softness either.
Referring to them as '21st century skills', Dr Ng spoke of nurturing in each child 'a confident person, who can tell right from wrong, is adaptable and resilient, knows himself, is discerning in judgment, communicates effectively and takes responsibility for his own learning'.
Schools are to develop in their charges 'social and emotional competencies' - everything from developing 'care and concern for others' to establishing 'positive relationships' - as well as a list of 'key competencies for a globalised world': among them, 'global awareness and cross-cultural skills, civic literacy, and critical thinking, information and communication skills'.
To someone as decidedly of the 20th century as I am, it all sounded rather alarmingly New Agey - as indeed the term 'holistic education' in the brochure accompanying the minister's speech suggested.
'Holistic', by the way, comes from 'holism' - from the Greek holos, 'all' - a term coined by that strange man Field Marshall J.C. Smuts to describe the tendency in nature to produce ordered wholes, like organisms, from disparate units. Smuts, a philosopher of some distinction, was also a military leader in the Boer War and the segregationist prime minister of South Africa from 1919 to 1924, and again from 1939 to 1948.
The essence of holism though goes back much further than Smuts and can be summed up by Aristotle's famous dictum: 'The whole is more than the sum of its parts.' I, however, leery of New Agey emanations, can't hear 'holistic' or 'holism' without thinking of 'holes' - as in the head.
And that wasn't the only reason I found myself fidgeting when I read the report announcing schools were to develop 'soft skills'. For someone of my generation, it takes some getting used to hearing the word 'soft' being pronounced by a politician without a sneer.
The only context I recall the word 'soft' being used by politicians of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's or Dr Goh Keng Swee's vintage was in formulations such as 'soft culture', 'soft-headed' (meaning foolish, silly) or 'softy' (meaning weak). If they used 'soft' positively - as when referring to the limited virtue of being 'soft-spoken' or 'soft-hearted' - it would be followed immediately by the qualification 'but hard-headed'.
Soft skills or values had no place in their rugged society. Even the values now considered part of our 'soft' equipment - telling right from wrong, resilience, adaptability, responsibility - were considered decidedly 'hard' then. That 'soft' can now appear in so positive a light - that the Government can be promoting 'holism' - is nothing short of revolutionary.
In part, that revolution was enabled by the changing fortunes of 'soft' in the wider global culture, spawned by the glamour of 'software'. Originally referring in the 19th century to 'perishable goods', it was applied to computer programs in the 1960s, to distinguish them from computer 'hardware'. That in turn led to a whole host of other soft-hard binary oppositions, in which 'soft' invariably appeared superior to 'hard' - as in 'soft power' as opposed to 'hard power', 'soft knowledge' (systems) as opposed to 'hard know-ledge' (technology), and so on. Thus soft came to suggest fine, and hard, crude; soft, mind and hard, matter; soft, creative and hard, mechanical.
Still, the fact that Cambridge University and LSE can be warning students of pursuing 'soft options', while here in Singapore, schools are being urged to nurture 'soft skills', suggests there is something else going on:
While the West, especially Britain and the United States, after a prolonged flirtation with soft options in education, is trying to claw its way back to the traditional centre, Singapore, after a prolonged insistence on rigour, seems to be discovering there is something to be said for a 'kinder and gentler' approach, after all.
Its new emphasis on the arts and sports is an attempt to recover some of the grace and delight that we may have lost as a result of a narrow insistence on academic rigour. There can hardly be a parent who would object to this.
At the risk of being unpopular, though, let me sound three warnings.
First, contrary to the suggestion in the word 'soft', there is nothing easy about art, music or literature. We can't insist on uniformly high standards for all students in these areas, but we shouldn't allow the assumption to take root that the 'soft' subjects are easy.
Second, contrary to the suggestion in the word 'hard', there is nothing lumpish about the sciences. Again, we can't insist on uniformly high standards for all in these areas, but we shouldn't allow the assumption to take root that the 'hard' subjects can't be as full of surprise and delight - as creative and human - as the 'soft' ones.
And finally, being 'holistic' entails more than adding together the parts - a bit of maths, a bit of art, a bit of civics, a bit of sports, et cetera. The whole is more than the sum of its parts - but only if the parts are actively made whole.
If it is easy to be holistic, to reconcile what C.P. Snow once called 'the two cultures', any number of famous programmes - Harvard's 'core curriculum', Chicago's 'Great Books', et cetera - would have accomplished the feat.
I'll discuss why and what we might do about this enormous challenge in my next column.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.