Tuesday, September 25, 2018
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Business Matters

The enduring value of the humanities

To attain First World status 20 years from now, the Philippines has at least three areas in which to catch up with our more developed neighbors like Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea. These are in infrastructure, education and governance. We are now beginning to exert a lot of effort in the first through “Build, build, build.” We have a long way to go in the second and third.

It is heartening that investments in public education at the elementary and secondary levels are being given by the Duterte administration as much emphasis as the “Build, build, build” program. Since the state has limited resources to invest in higher education, the private sector has to take a lead role in improving the quality of higher education. It is, therefore, important for private colleges and universities to devise research and teaching programs that will produce the educated manpower that can be at par with the best in our region.

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This would require rediscovering the enduring value of the liberal arts or the humanities in every field of higher education.

There is no denying that school officials must know how to cope with the so-called data revolution. Because of the onset of digital technology, data-rich platforms have, in some areas, invented a better ordering mechanism that can structure information and reduce ignorance. They can now match buyers and sellers, taking into account multiple preferences such as personal taste, timing and convenience, rather than just price. If and when data supersede price as more efficient economic information capsules, there is the danger that many traditional companies’ existence will be threatened.

The authors of “Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data” argue that data-rich superstars like Google, Apple, Alibaba and Samsung will suck the life out of many traditional companies. They assert that those who know how to exploit the informational advantages of data will flourish, while the rest will die.

These prophecies of doom, however, do not take into account that soft skills matter in data science. Data science cannot be fully automated. You always need the worker who has the soft skills of critical analysis, effective communication and the ability to work in a team.

The fundamental challenge of analytics is understanding what problem actually must be solved. You must learn the situation, the processes, the data and the circumstances. You need to characterize everything around the problem as best as you can, in order to understand what an ideal solution is. There should be special emphasis on the ability to communicate, which definitely is not developed by learning more math and statistics, but by exposure to the humanities, i.e. literature, philosophy, history, etc.

It is clear, then, that even in the specialized sector of data analytics and Big Data, many of the skills required in the workplace can be developed only through an optimum combination of the hard sciences and the humanities. Education officials, both in the public and private sectors, must constantly search for programs that can produce graduates who are able to combine these hard and soft skills. That is the only way we can guarantee that our young and growing population will be able to find remunerative work in an economy that is increasingly being “globalized, digitized and roboticized at a speed, scope and scale we have never seen before,” as “Reinventing Capitalism” put it.

From the very first stages of the K-to-12 curriculum, Philippine educators must meet the challenge of producing experts in the new field called “humanics,” which combines a minimum of literacy in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the humanities.

I hope the understandable enthusiasm about the “fourth industrial revolution” (aka the digital age) will not blind our educators to the enduring value of the liberal arts, the disciplines that unlock the unlimited creativity of the human mind.

Dr. Bernardo M. Villegas (bernardo.villegas@uap.asia) is a university professor of the University of Asia and the Pacific.

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Business Matters is a Makati Business Club project to share the views of key leaders in the business community. The ideas do not necessarily reflect MBC’s position.

 

 

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