The false dichotomy between science and the arts


By Moïse Khisa

One of my teachers in the Indian city of Calcutta over ten years ago was a qualified doctor. But he gave a course on cultural studies! After practicing medicine for a while, he returned to graduate school to earn a doctorate in philosophy. When I needed a prescription, he wrote me one. He often gave medical advice when I needed to speak to a doctor.

Another professor, who also teaches in the cultural studies center for the undergraduate program I attended, had studied engineering at the undergraduate level. He left engineering to do a doctorate in linguistics. Today one of my students graduated in mechanical engineering. He is currently working on a master’s degree in international studies and attended a postgraduate seminar in African politics with me.

The university I work at is primarily a STEM school, founded to teach science, technology, engineering, and math. But even in this STEM university, the second largest college is in the humanities and social sciences. When we admit students, especially those competing for a full college scholarship, we ask them to think about the meaning and role of the arts / humanities for a STEM student.

More generally, students who study STEM are required to take courses in the humanities and sciences but not the other way around. Even when choosing science subjects as their major subjects, undergraduates in the United States should take what is called liberal arts training – comprehensive training to acquire critical thinking skills, learn how to tackle questions. social issues and find innovative solutions to difficult problems.

In Uganda, most university graduates barely receive any real liberal arts training, yet there is a misconception that Ugandan universities teach too much “theoretical” arts and social science subjects.

We might be better off as a country if the students were really educated in theory and exposed to deep insights and critical thinking. The study of the arts / humanities and social sciences should be compulsory for all students, including those studying the natural sciences. This is something President Museveni seems to miss in his obsession with science.

As he has done in the past, Mr Museveni recently returned to his favorite subject of belittling the arts and social sciences while talking about the natural sciences as what Uganda needs. But science does not operate in space or in the sky where there are no social problems.
The activities and work of natural scientists take place in a socio-cultural environment that scientists must fully understand or for which they need the input of a non-scientist.


Obviously, Museveni is right in emphasizing the training of scientists and technicians capable of dealing with the problems of natural events and dealing with the physical and material world. These must be trained at higher and advanced education level. The vocational school takes care of the first while the university takes care of the second.

Vocational education is essential for a poor country. The Ugandan market is inundated with expensive (but quite ugly) imported furniture, but the locally produced items are hardly of good quality. With well-trained and skilled carpenters along with an influx of capital and a solid infrastructure, locally produced furniture would surpass anything from China.

The training of scientists at advanced levels enables revolutionary innovations in product design and the search for solutions to problems such as the rampant problem of physical planning in and around Kampala.
But Museveni is on shaky ground when he trumpets the cause of science over the arts. On the one hand, Uganda has produced science graduates, but it’s not entirely clear that scientists actually solve our problems. In many areas that require physicists, we seem to be falling behind the number of science graduates we have produced.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Museveni is losing the argument in the market. There is no guarantee that science graduates will get rewarding and productive careers that artists do. In a country with very limited opportunities, a small market, huge costs to do business, and poor physical infrastructure, a chemistry graduate doesn’t necessarily fare better than a sociology or economics graduate.

The problem of limited employment opportunities and a constrained business environment does not boil down to being a scientist or not.
But even if it were true that studying science automatically confers an advantage at the personal level and is vital for the country at the macro level, there is still a separate argument to be made as to why non-science subjects are just as important. precisely because the natural sciences are not the definitive miracle solution to all problems.

Mr. Museveni and his government must overcome the mistaken obsession of trying to draw a sharp line between the arts and the sciences. Society needs both. Students must study the natural world as well as the social world because we inhabit both worlds.

[email protected]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.