COVID-19 shows value of arts, humanities, social sciences

For the past decade or so, we have been repeatedly bombarded with a loud, aggressive and alarming message that university graduates from certain arts, social sciences and humanities majors are irrelevant to the knowledge economy, ill-equipped for today’s world, unready for jobs and uncompetitive compared to those majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM in particular.

This message has been conveyed in numerous articles, reports and briefings from multiple international and national organisations, leading to the closure and shrinking of university programmes in sociology, anthropology and philosophy around the world.

This discourse is so strong and frequent that many university administrators, professors, students, employers and parents have internalised and reproduced it so much that the irrelevance message has become the norm and an unquestionable truth.

This discourse has also reduced several years of university education to merely one thing: employability. The question of transformation is absent. Likewise, the many ways that students of such majors can impact their societies and the world in general via their education, knowledge and skills are overlooked.

Like some other scholars, such as Paul Ashwin in his University World News article “Higher education is about transformation”, my students and I find the irrelevance discourse highly problematic as it ignores the holistic purposes of education and, for instance, its role in developing compassion and care for humanity and in community service, volunteering and education-driven engagement.

These are the very values and educational orientations that have proved to be essential for the well-being of societies, peoples and the environment, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown us this past year.

For this reason, University World News is launching a series, Sociology Students Write Back and Forward, which aims to engage readers in fruitful, productive and non-binary conversations about higher education. It will feature a number of commentaries which students on my 2020-21 module “Society and education in a globalised world” and I have co-written.

It foregrounds the voices of sociology and anthropology students and their views about their education’s relevance and importance to themselves and those around them. They will draw on specific community engagement projects that they have conducted during and beyond the course.

The students also make explicit the nature of the transformation they have gone through and reflected upon. Likewise, the students highlight how the communities around them have received and responded to the initiatives to make social and educational improvements for all.

In advance of the series beginning, I am sharing excerpts from three letters I have written to my students since the pandemic hit as they show the way we have conducted the module at this challenging time for students, teachers and communities and demonstrate clearly its value.

First Letter – April 2020

“As always, I hope you and your loved ones are all well and in good spirits. In reading the reflection notes that you have been sharing with me over the past few months on the readings, discussions and assignments introduced in this module, I am more convinced of the importance of the role of reflection in teaching, learning and knowledge production and in education more broadly.

...The pandemic has brought about unprecedented experiences that will leave an extraordinary impact on our lives. Never before have our basic day-to-day activities been so profoundly interrupted. Billions of individuals have been affected. Together with losses, many already disadvantaged groups have been pushed to starvation and homelessness with zero medical attention.

We have seen growing inequalities, poverty, helplessness, unequal access to resources, marginalisation, struggles and suffering in every society. Education has seen many challenges and is operating in total chaos. At the same time, there have also been aspirations among institutions and individuals to create better and more meaningful learning spaces for all.

...You can draw, doodle, write a story, a novel, poems, keep diaries, sketch, design something, do patchwork, knit, embroider, grow a plant, come up with a project, volunteer, develop an idea into an action plan, jot down some random thoughts, etc, etc ... that may best capture and reflect your thinking and emotions at this point in time. And when we are out of this pandemic, I'd love to have an exhibition to showcase all what we (will) come up with.

Dear students, since Brunei implemented travel restrictions in February, followed by the current travel ban by both Brunei and Vietnam, I have been very anxious and worried about my parents in Vietnam. I am longing to see them and I’m not sure when things will be back to normal so I can go home at least for a short visit.

Although this may seem personal, I’d still love to share with you a poem I’ve written for/about my mother. It is called “The Story of Champaca Flowers”. I believe we all have affectionate and loving thoughts about our mothers that we don’t usually express …”

Second letter – June 2020 (not sent)

“For many educators in the field of education like myself, reflective practice is not new, as it has always been a strong dimension and core value of education, of teacher training and of classroom practice; and I am very pleased to see that many of you in sociology and anthropology have now found this new way of learning transformational, refreshing and stimulating.

“Mom, why are you crying?”, my daughters wondered as they saw me in tears after the last online session I had with my students in April 2020.

“Because I’m happy that I can be with my students during this difficult time. This semester has been tough. Listening to them, talking to them, exchanging worries, anxieties and hopes with them, singing with them, reading poems with them, every single little thing we’ve been through this semester, on campus and virtually, have humbled me and strengthened me.

“I’m blessed to be surrounded by the beauty of kindness, pain, humility, care and sharing. I’m crying because I’m happy,” I responded.

“I heard someone playing the guitar and singing. Is that right, Mom?”

“Yes, two students were playing the guitar and singing and the rest were listening. This class I have both second-year and fourth-year students enrolled. We didn’t want the session today to be a goodbye session but it was because 17 final-year students will graduate. This is the last class for them and I may not see them again on campus. This makes me sad, kind of happy sad, sad happy, I don’t know.”

I could feel so much bonding with you, although I only knew you briefly for less than a semester. The bonding we had with one another was not only formed through the instruction of content knowledge and our discussion of topics included in the syllabus and assigned readings and written tasks, but it also came from the continuous reflection that I had shared with you and invited you to share with me and the class throughout the semester.

And during the online teaching and social distancing period starting in March, I proactively shared with you my own thoughts on online teaching and learning and the difficulties I was going through. I am human, after all.

And do you know that sharing and reflecting were among the most beautiful acts that we have demonstrated throughout the module? After I sent you the link to the poem I wrote about my mother, I felt we connected even more strongly, as you started to respond more openly to me.

Even the quietest students in class responded. Email after email landed in my mailbox. Some of you confessed that you had been so focused on your own frustration and worries about COVID-19 that you forgot about the many international teachers and students on campus who must have been so homesick and worried about their relatives elsewhere.

You assured me that you would be there for me and that you were thinking of me and that my family and I were in your prayers.

...One student read my poem to her mother and her mother cried because she missed her own mother. A student whose mother had passed away also reached out to me to share with me her memories of her late mother. One student said she would like to draw her mother. Another student told me that it had been a while since she last walked with her mother and she now felt like going for a walk with her mother.

And my poem somehow inspired one of you to write poems. She also sent me a note saying she hopes to look back at her poems in the future when the pandemic has ended and to never take things for granted again.

I am well aware that some of you have also been involved in volunteer work and have been active in education and community initiatives led by NGOs. For instance, Ahmad Syauqie bin Haji Satia, who is also president of SCOT (Society for Community Outreach and Training), will be donating laptops and data cards to 120 underprivileged students all over Brunei to help with their online learning during this time of crisis (this has led to a longer-term digital literacy programme targeted at marginalised communities in Brunei).

For 2020, we were only able to meet each other on campus for about half of the semester and the rest of it was completely online due to the pandemic... Yet you persevered and found ways to still finish all your documentaries and video projects on different aspects of education and society... This spirit was admirable and educational.

Dear students, the semester I had with you in 2020 will forever stay in my heart. I am humbled by your gratitude, love and humility.”

Third letter – April, 2021 (not sent yet)

“...This semester we’ve been able to meet face to face. I remember asking you right at the beginning of the semester if you would also prefer a hybrid mode of delivery with both online and in-person sessions. And you all said ‘NO’. This showed me how much we would want to be together in one place. We missed the campus and the face-to-face interactions.

The pandemic forced us all to rethink so many existing theories, practices, initiatives and conceptualisations regarding education, globalisation, mobility, internationalisation, (in)equality and access that I have introduced to you in this module. And I’ve also wanted to make the module relevant and responsive to you and the new situation we are all going through.

...I was thrilled to see you come up with nuanced observations and analyses of emerging norms, meanings and discourses associated with educational mobility, belonging, home, identity, the nation state, sustainability and educational technologies as the pandemic unfolded.

You were also discussing the implications of those nuances to your own situations and the varied social and educational contexts of Brunei.

I was touched by your trust in me and your willingness to share your thoughts, emotions, anxieties as well as your ongoing reflections and the new possibilities that might come your way.

...You’ve all conducted your projects in the community: they range from taboo education, sexual harassment and gender issues to the sociology of special education; from education and capitalism as experiential to the value and relevance of higher education; from peer pressure in education to mental health issues among young people; from educational reform to education streaming and its accompanying societal biases; from educational attainment among those living on and off campus to the role of popular culture on education and poverty reduction; from school choice to the impacts of class streaming to youth employability; and from the educational role of folklore to the emerging importance of the creative industries in Brunei.

I am also thrilled to know that some of you are already working with an organisation to develop the first textbook for sign language in Brunei.

The very spirit of community engagement and of education as serving, building and inspiring has penetrated your work this semester. I am again humbled by all this. Being with you in this module has constantly enriched me and kept me thinking about humanity and the important role of your education to yourselves, those around you and the world more broadly.”

Sociology students write back and forward

Sharing these letters is a way to thank my 2020 and 2021 students and to introduce our series of articles which is one way to engage with, expand and enrich the meanings and relevance of our educational journeys against and alongside the dominant and biased global narrative of graduate employability and employment opportunities.

The nature of the module I have offered to my students over the past two semesters, the ways we have interacted, the topics we have examined, the inspiration my students have given me and the projects my students have conducted all come together so powerfully to remind us all of the meanings and relevance of our knowledge and our discipline to the societies and communities around us.

They bring humanity back to the centre of education through caring, a sense of purpose, a sense of place, compassion, intellectual and community engagement and action-based initiatives.

Phan Le Ha is head of the International and Comparative Education Research Group and senior professor in the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah Institute of Education, Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Her students are holding a Showcase Day, “The Academia Prom”, on 12 May.