Whither humanities in a market-driven world?
By Nithya Caleb
17th December 2012 12:00 AM
India has 15 IITs and an equal number of IIMs, but there’s no exclusive centre for fine arts, philosophy, religion or linguistics. “The space for humanities is shrinking because there appears to be an increasing belief among policy-makers and visionaries all over the world that in a globalised economy, higher education has to directly serve the needs of the market and that the market is determined by training and expertise in business, finance, management, technology,” say Brinda Bose and Prasanta Chakravarty, associate professors of English, Delhi University. Humanities are perceived to be dispensable as the gains of pursuing such courses are neither quantifiable nor immediately visible.
This has resulted in a contraction of diversity. “Education can’t be reduced to instructions, which is learning the skills to solve problems and produce wealth. It is important to feed our imagination and creativity,” says Prof Mamadou Diouf, director of Institute of African Studies, Columbia University, USA. The writer met him on the sidelines of WISE summit in Doha last month.
In a global economy
While technical skills are prized, there is little appreciation for intellectual skills and thoughts. “The world is passing through a stupid phase and believing all can survive on a single discipline. We only have to weather it out,” says Shreesh Chaudhary, professor of English and linguistics at IIT-Madras.
According to Robert Garland, Roy D and Margaret B Wooster Professor of Classics at Colgate University, USA, this phase really began a century ago when stress was laid on producing graduates for the workplace. It has been exacerbated by two recent phenomena — technological explosion and globalisation. “Corporations and governments claim only STEM knowledge contributes to economic competitiveness and growth. The world’s most creative scientists and business leaders, from Albert Einstein to Steve Jobs, have understood that without humanities, social sciences and arts, we won’t have just and liveable societies or even prosperous economies,” says Susan Gillespie, director, Institute for International Liberal Education, Bard College, USA.
All over the world, government spending on humanities has been curtailed. “At Delhi University, in our MA English class, we have over 200 students in a batch but only have desks and chairs to seat about 80-90 in a classroom, some of which are broken. No one in the University cares. Students come and stand along the walls and outside large windows for a few weeks and then slowly disappear until only the number who can find seats remain,” lambast Bose and Chakravarty. “The administration tells us that since all students don’t come, there is no need to worry about inadequate seating in the arts faculty classrooms. But everyday ‘Innovation Clusters’ are being set up in the University with lots of new grants for certain subjects, so it is not as if this grand central university is suffering from a paucity of funds.”
Recently, Teresa A Sullivan, president of University of Virginia, USA, was forced to resign because she had refused to cut Classics courses like Latin. She was reinstated after a groundswell of protest.
Bose and Chakaravarty also decry the attempt by the Indian government to “make humanities ‘service’ the technological, engineering, business, vocational fields.” English departments concentrate on teaching language and communication skills rather than literature, and history departments incorporate a training in tourism. “Allied and applied fields are wonderful, but not if the core component of the subjects are removed. And at the level of higher education, this reduces humanities to a farce,” they say.
Economic recession has deepened the crisis. When government money is limited, humanities is the first victim as “they believe the disciplines in humanities do not prepare people for jobs and do not contribute to economic growth,” says Jonathan Jacobs, director, Institute for Criminal Justice Ethics, John Jay College, USA.
Gone are the days when a person used to be in a single job/ profession for his/her life. Versatility is so important in the contemporary world as people change jobs often. So specialisation in a particular skill set may not be useful. One rather needs an education that would help them make the right choices. “There is a tendency for people to think an education is only useful if it directly prepares people for a specific type of occupation. This, of course, is simply not true. For a great many people, the best sort of education would be an education through which they become careful, critical thinkers, learn to write effectively and acquire intellectual habits that apply in completely general ways,” says Jacobs.
However, Alan Liu, an English professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, USA, does not subscribe to the notion that the space for humanities is shrinking. “My experience shows that HSS (humanities and social sciences) is the first choice of many students — whether because of their interests, their passions, or (not a positive reason) their unwillingness to take the hard engineering and maths courses. Research has not yet been done to confirm statistics about funding for HSS and job placements for graduates in HSS fields,” he says.
It’s not true that humanities graduates can’t go beyond the academia. “The opportunities beyond the degree course in humanities is never highlighted. For instance, the common perception is that a degree in English literature will only lead to a teaching job. Few know that journalism, freelance writing etc are other professions one can pursue. Apart from this, many do not know that pursuing a literature course not only strengthens a person’s communication skills but can effectively act as a support system for a field like legal drafting,” says Katherine Abraham, a law student of ILS, Pune.
Tapati Guha Thakurta, director, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, feels that somewhere there is still a demand for humanities and the problem is quality education. She cites English and economics as examples of successful courses. “English has a prestige that has not waned. It’s partly utilitarian as people want to improve communication skills,” she says.
Who is to be blamed
All of us — planners, society, parents and students. The kind of talent that would have excelled in painting, music and theatre is being forced to study thermodynamics and similar subjects. “There is so much anxiety about finding a good job that many students and their parents fail to recognise the value of being an educated person. Business, economics, and law have come to be seen almost as prerequisites for success in the contemporary world. However, it is well worth asking whether even highly educated people have developed abilities to think well and to think carefully about values,” says Jacobs. “The result is that there are many highly educated people who do not believe there is such a thing as sound judgment or correct understanding with regard to values. They believe that rationality concerns efficiency in accomplishing ends, and not the critical consideration of the ends themselves. The latter is where the humanities can be vitally important.”
Roger Berkowitz, academic director, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, Bard College, USA, believes academicians are at fault for their discipline’s decline. “Humanities scholars are doing research that is hyper-specialised, irrelevant, and an affront to common sense. They are more interested in their specialised niche research than in human ideals and the humanities have thus given up on the idea of the human, and replaced it with identity politics,” he says.
Alan Liu blames the straight-path syndrome. for the present state of humanities. “Many students flock to particular disciplines because they and their parents want the security of knowing there is a straight path from point A (their college degree) to point B (their job). There are only a few fields that offer that kind of straight path,” he says. “The problem with the straight-path outlook is that it is premised on short-term prediction (For instance, medical and engineering jobs that were available yesterday will still be there 10 years from now), and also that it tends to lock people into careers that they may not be happy later in life.”
If we don’t stem the downfall of humanities then the consequences would be dire, warn academicians. “Where will be we get Radhkrishnans and Gandhis? We’ll not get original thinkers and only coolies for our software companies. We should distribute our assets evenly. When Harvard University can have a school of divinity and Oxford can has a school of religion, why can’t we? Are we so starved? It’s a shame,” says Chaudhary.
Humanities is a preparation for life — you are taught to ask what it is to be a human. It is a social force that’s needed to humanise institutes, the political arena and society. “We need enlightened leaders who take decisions that are simply not based on economics but on the welfare of people. So it is incumbent upon us to reach out and use whatever avenues to demonstrate the necessary values that humanities embody,” says Garland. “Humanities are about a humanly built world and that teaching the humanities is less about doing original research than transmitting a tradition of meaning and substance, texts and ideas that can inspire young people to care more for the common world they share than for their parochial or personal interests,” adds Berkowitz.
Abraham wishes parents would focus on their wards’ fields of interest rather than “force-feed them with the ‘I went to Harvard so you must also go to Harvard’ nonsense. Respect, support and guide students,” says the 24-year-old law student.
Thakurta believes humanities could benefit if given a “utilitarian twist but that must not be the only criteria. These subjects are known to trigger intellectual curiosity and that’s important,” she says.
Bose and Chakravarty are convinced the way forward is to fight! “Fight to keep shrinking spaces as well as fight against reformulations of what we are expected to do when we pursue humanities. Our policy-makers are not saying that they will close down humanities departments (though that too is happening) but that these departments must re-orient themselves to a globalized economy. But if we believe in the humanities then we cannot believe in this reorientation towards skills and mechanical knowledge. And so if we conform to these transformations, we are effectively doing away with humanities education, even if it survives in name,” they opine.
The onset of digital technology has affected all aspects of life including research. The way we perceive our culture has changed due to Facebook, internet and video games. Social media has also changed the way we interact with society — we are revealing more about ourselves on our wall posts than ever before. This is also a different way of recording events and a non-traditional source for researchers. Our style of reading has also changed thanks to Kindle and other e-readers. Many academicians believe they can harness the power of technology to rekindle interest in humanities. Video games can be used to tell a story, as Souvik Mukherjee, assistant professor, Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata, does. He got his students to play Assassin’s Creed 2 to teach about Renaissance, a cultural movement that took place in Italy in the 14thCentury. “I realised they (students) couldn’t relate to it (Renaissance), so we played a video game. Instead of playing it for its proposed goal, I created a simulation,” says Mukherjee. “My students took a walk around 14th Century Venice and went on gondolas. It was almost like a documentary coming alive.”
Popular culture would be a good starting point, though not necessarily the best option. When the film Gladiator was released, there was an increased interest in Roman history and literature. These resources help people to think on their own. They are user-friendly and the impetus is on thinking than on rote-learning.
In 2011, Bose and Chakravarty began MargHumanities to discuss and possibly find solutions to a number of issues that affect humanities. “We felt a comprehensive evaluation of humanities, especially in India, was long pending, and we wanted to start some conversations in the present climate, whether informally or semi-formally. We are particularly interested in two large areas of ideas and new thought: academic questions about where the humanities is going now (‘after theory’, as it were), and the truck between practitioners and scholars in humanities and arts,” explain the duo.
They are braced to take on the assault on humanities at all levels. “We want to talk to as many people who are invested in the humanities and arts in as many different ways as possible, and to start/continue conversations, dialogues, monologues, arguments — to keep it churning and alive. But we are not a professional organisation. We want to think about how we can be unprofessionally passionate about what we do in our profession — because that is where the assault lies, to make the humanities functional, technical, mechanical and skilled. MargHumanities wants to, and will, resist that in every way possible,” they say. The duo hopes MargHumanities “will be a space for new intellectual alliances with perhaps even some corners for new fights and breaches!”
They have so far collaborated with Institute for Humanities and Global Cultures at the University of Virginia and Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. They held an international conference on ‘The Humanities in Ferment' in August and recently held a discussion/argument session on ‘Marxism, Cosmopolitics and Insurrection’. “We will go anywhere where people want to talk about the state of humanities – and we will welcome anyone who wants to come and talk or plan with us here!” they say.
The decline of Eastern Europe is a warning sign for all of us. It was not weaker than USA in science, but it ended up becoming one huge bureaucratic machinery — there was no freedom of expression. Research in the humanities suffered and now the largest coal producer in Europe, Poland, is importing electricity.
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