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[Op-Ed] Humanities and Natural Science

Posted March. 20, 2009 09:25,   


Lawrence Summers, former Treasury secretary under the Clinton administration and now the director of the National Economic Council, served as president of Harvard University between 2001 and 2006. He was an outstanding economics professor and the youngest to receive tenure at age 28 in Harvard history. Summers resigned after making a controversial comment that was considered sexist. One of his greatest achievements at Harvard was revamping the undergraduate liberal arts curriculum, which had remained unchanged for 30 years. At a time when state-of-the-art technologies and new knowledge flooded in, he chose to “return to the humanities.”

American and European universities stress the importance of a liberal arts education for undergraduates. As many as 228 U.S. liberal arts colleges focus on humanities such as literature, history and philosophy, and natural sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology. Graduate schools for subjects such as law, medicine, journalism and business are responsible for professional or vocational education. Korea and Japan have neglected liberal arts in their universities because of a stronger national need for technology and pragmatic majors for industrialization.

Unpopular classes are being closed down because of lack of the minimum number of students. Many of them are humanities and natural science classes. Forty-six percent of them canceled at Yonsei and Korea universities were about literature, history and philosophy. A large percent of basic natural science classes such as “Understanding Nanotechnology (Seoul National University)” were shut down. Students are more interested in getting a job than studying, and might think taking such classes is impractical. It is regrettable, however, that Korean society seems to miss academic fundamentals.

Today`s students prefer subjects that provide opportunities to earn a good salary or ensure job stability, but many great CEOs read a lot of books or are into humanities. Apple co-founder Steven Jobs, the most creative CEO of this century, said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.” He apparently means that management is a highly philosophical act targeting people. The Japanese social critic and writer Takashi Takabana, who wrote the book “Have Tokyo University Student Become Idiots,” said today’s liberal arts is natural science. Maybe Korea should revive the study of humanities and natural science.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)