“Why the humanities matter”

Here’s an excerpt of an interview first published in The Straits Times dated May 20 with practice Associate Professor Ian Macduff, 61. He teaches negotiation, conflict resolution, and ethics and social responsibility at the Singapore Management University (SMU).

The article, written by Tan Hui Yee, unfortuanately, doesn’t express more on why humanities are important. My comments are reserved for another day.

Q What are good questions to ask when facilitating a dialogue?

What is it that is really at the heart of the matter for you?

Do you have any questions of genuine curiosity or inquiry (like, could you tell me a bit more about your faith)?

What’s been your personal experience in this area, which has led you to the views you have? What’s at the heart of the matter for you?

We know that there are some things that we believe very strongly and we know that there are things which are part of our moral, emotional, religious make-up.

However, we also know some things aren’t black and white. Can you say some things about the grey areas and what you understand about these issues?

Q What could be done better in Singapore to improve dialogue?

We should teach everyone philosophy right from their early days of school… The former dean of Yale University’s law school Anthony Kronman is an enthusiastic card carrier for teaching people humanities, philosophy, history and political science.

Q But these subjects tend to be seen as soft options…

That’s a cultural norm. I hear from my students here that they are supposed to do economics, finance, business, business management, marketing. But like Kronman says, the soft options are the ones that stay with you. All the other stuff – all that hard knowledge about finance and business – changes.

Negotiation and mediation are seen as soft options. When I first started teaching negotiation in my former university (in New Zealand) close to 20 years ago, two-thirds of my students were women. The guys wouldn’t take it.

In the end, I had students practically crawling over one another to get into the class. They realised that what was seen initially as the soft option and a girly subject was actually fundamental to what they did in practice. They thought what the lawyers did every day was the hard stuff – criminal law, company law, mergers and acquisitions – all the ‘boys’ stuff’. What they realised is, you have to do that through negotiation. What was seen as a soft option was in fact absolutely fundamental.

What the practitioners were realising was that they were getting a whole bunch of people coming straight out of law school who were better negotiators than they were. The law is one thing, but learning to think with it is another.

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