Reaping the rewards of studying liberal arts at A/Ls

By Patrick de Kretser

Nothing brings more frustration and anxiety at the ages of 15 and 16 than deciding what subjects you want to pick for Advanced Levels (A/Ls). The process is an extremely painful reminder of how easily a decision can be made and how complex the repercussions of that decision can be. You believe the decision you are about to make is going to set the tone for everything you do in the future, whether academic or otherwise. Obviously, you do not want to make the wrong choice.
One of the worst dilemmas any teenager might face is having to pick between doing something you love to do and doing something that you are expected to do. Most of us probably find ourselves somewhere in between. We have an innate belief that we have the freedom and luxury to make the decision that we want and pick the subject that we want to study, but we may not know what kind of reaction we might receive from both our friends and family if we go ahead with it. It can often be the case that a passive form of peer pressure will be silently weighing down on us during this process, a feeling which we cannot shake. That feeling is most commonly felt during the decision of choosing subjects – either in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field or subjects in the field of liberal arts, which do you choose?
This was a rather prevalent problem at school for me and many others while we were transitioning into the A/L phase of our school careers. Within a month and a half during our first A/L semester, there must have been countless instances when students switched rather hastily between various subjects they previously wanted to do and new subjects that they opted to go for instead. This sudden mass migration of students was not completely random of course. From what I managed to deduce, most transfers typically occurred because a student opted to drop a liberal arts subject they planned to do in favour of a STEM subject. For those of you who happen to be unfamiliar with STEM, it consists of a group of subjects that do not fall under the definition of general studies associated more with liberal arts subjects such as English, history, art, theatre, and psychology.
The reason for switching may not necessarily be peer pressure from colleagues or social expectations from parents, because there also might be that uncertainty within ourselves about picking a more risky subject rather than going along with the option that reaps the most rewards on the surface. In school, I felt an extreme sense of pressure to focus my attention on subjects that focus more on analytics and figures rather than artistry and creative expression.
The STEM field by nature is extremely competitive; everyone is signing up to take biology, chemistry, physics, and maths and fill the classrooms to full capacity each and every year. As a student in a STEM class, you feel an immense pressure to get down to work and perform extremely well for your exams. A liberal arts class, while also tough in many ways, offers a different atmosphere which might help students to discover their own realms of creativity. It gives teenagers the opportunity to express themselves in a setting that is less focused on the “right and wrong” answers and is more focused on artistic innovation.
Sure enough, there are many things we learn inside a science lab that we probably would never get the opportunity to learn outside of it. But there are also a myriad of things you can learn in an art room, a theatre studio, and an English class you will also never learn anywhere else.
Most importantly, a balance is needed for the sake of our mental wellbeing as well. A/Ls is an extremely stressful time for many of us, especially for the current batches, given the pandemic. There are some avenues that we can explore to help alleviate that stress we face in school. For me, that avenue happened to be theatre studies. I was not particularly a big fan of theatre studies per se, but the subject gave me a lot of room to grow as an individual and gain confidence so that I could channel it into the other subjects I was also doing along with theatre. If I did not have that opportunity, I may have emerged from my A/Ls with far less confidence and passion for what I was doing.
Life is all about taking a little risk from time to time; the decision is yours to make at the end of the day and no one should force you to take subjects you do not want to if you happen to have no interest in them.
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