Recently, there has been a great deal of hullabaloo on my Facebook timeline as people squabble over whether so-called ”hard” subjects like calculus and physics are inherently better and more difficult than the alternative, ”soft” subjects like English, drama and photography.
Filip Vachuda, Onehunga High School’s academic runner-up for 2017, began ”DuxGate” when he wrote he missed out on dux because the winner ”exempted herself from any math, science, or indeed, scholarship exams and extra subjects”.
Given that I was awarded dux twice in high school, having studied the sciences, the arts and the so-called ”non-academic” subjects of painting and physical education, I believe I’m in a qualified position to comment on this issue.
Filip wonders why his school didn’t consider his ”more demanding curriculum”, claiming that the ”classically academic” subjects he studied were more academically rigorous than printmaking, English or theology.
The notion that it’s laughably easy to achieve highly in arts-based subjects is a damaging misconception perpetuated throughout society. In my experience at least, in subjects where there are clear correct and incorrect answers – high school physics, for example – it is easier to score more highly than in subjects that value abstract and creative thinking. Calculus is chock-a-block with complicated theorems and intricate calculations.
But history, sociology and English literature require abstract thinking, creativity, writing skills and the ability to communicate in a clear and engaging manner. Moreover, these subjects are, for lack of a better word, subjective. There’s no clear-cut way to succeed. Both calculus and English are challenging, but in vastly different ways.
In school, I was a ”dramie”, a corpse-bride in our street performers troupe. Sure, dressing up in a frayed wedding dress and daubing ghostly paint on my face may have seemed practical, fun and stupidly easy to accumulate credits in. But drama also required me to submit numerous written portfolios and essays detailing every minute aspect of my various characters, my costume and my stage presence.
And perhaps NCEA year 13 painting was fun and interesting. But it also required I spend virtually every afternoon in the art studio researching my artist models, writing up long and tedious essays about Salvador Dali’s concept of time, mastering difficult painting techniques and employing a wide range of media. It was time-consuming, exhausting and difficult – despite being a so-called ”non-academic” subject.
Filip argues the end goal of education is a well-paying job. Financial gain is not and should not be the sole reason for educating oneself. The motivations for studying a particular subject are as wide and varied as the students who take them. In my humble opinion, it is more fulfilling to pursue learning for the joy of it, rather than focusing on the rewards and recognition one might obtain.
Moreover, Filip’s assertion that certain subjects automatically lead to higher-paying jobs is inherently speculative, failing to take into account how the job market may evolve in the future. New Zealand’s economic and cultural landscape will not remain static forever. In short, Filip’s essay is symptomatic of a wider societal disrespect towards the arts and subjects such as music, drama and PE.
And what are the consequences of this? Neglecting the humanities and one’s cultural education will ultimately leave Kiwi high-schoolers ill equipped to employ the self-reflection and self-criticism required of informed and critical citizens.
English literature, painting and Polynesian dance help us understand our fellow human beings, thereby fostering social justice, empathy and equality. History, sociology and gender studies teach us to weigh evidence sceptically and deal critically with complex, subjective and imperfect information.
Of course, calculus, physics and chemistry are and will remain vital and necessary to our country. But they must be balanced by subjects that value the study of humanity in all its manifestations. So can we please stop undervaluing and neglecting disciplines rooted in the arts, ideas and the celebration of cultural achievement?
Filip ends his essay by advising his sister to ”load up on her photography, PE and Polynesian dance if she wishes to continue being a top scholar”.
Perhaps Filip should take his own advice.
This article was originally published in the ODT, on 21 December 2017.