Studying humanities in the Cambridge system

Published: July 17, 2017
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LAHORE: Studying liberal arts and the humanities in the Cambridge system at the O and A Levels is a particular education route that is being taken in Karachi. A liberal arts education is defined as one that includes a study of the humanities and includes fields like history, philosophy and languages, alongside the social and natural sciences. This broad inter-disciplinary focus is its main distinguishing feature as opposed to a narrowly specialised, professional training in any one particular field. Since the Cambridge system is adopted by private schools, it is commonly considered to be a higher quality high school education. Students are opting for the humanities in this system and that too, of their own volition. The effectiveness of Cambridge with regard to this field is still up for debate.

Cambridge attempts to give humanities students a firm understanding of social science concepts, definitions, research methods and issues. Critical thinking, analysis and application of knowledge are encouraged. When you study history, you have to suspend reality and immerse yourself in the past. History in the Cambridge system is a search for a narrative you might never be able to uncover, but you have to keep trying. When you study literature, you have to breathe, sleep and eat with the texts on your mind. The subjects demand involvement. A student cannot expect to do well with a superficial skim through the readings; rather you learn to read in between the lines. As a result of intensive critical reading, a student’s writing skills dramatically improve as well. Thinking, reading and writing capabilities are all vital at the undergraduate and graduate level. In addition, the humanities provide students with insights, empathy and a greater understanding of human nature. Students are better able to cope with day to day to life. It helps to create a humane society by opening a window to a variety of cultures and thus, diminishing the likelihood of prejudice and bigotry.

One of the problems that students encounter when opting for the humanities in Cambridge is making the decision in the face of staunch societal opposition. Everyone thinks you’re less intelligent than the rest. They think the reason that you took humanities is because you are incapable of studying anything else — which is ridiculous. You could similarly say that a science student is incapable of studying the arts. Fighting these stereotypes is especially painful for students because they are aware of the challenging nature of the course material, but they cannot shake people out of their preconceived notions of a liberal arts education.

In the words of my favourite character Blanche from my Literature play in A Levels A Streetcar Named Desire, “beauty of the mind, richness of the spirit, tenderness of the heart… aren’t taken away but grow! Increase with the years!” This constant growth of the individual is what the liberal arts in Cambridge offers.

Rihanna Ilahi

Published in The Express Tribune, July 17th, 2017.

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