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A Blinkered View of Humanities Education?

Sundar Sarukkai ( is a philosopher based in Bengaluru.

The draft National Education Policy, 2019 (DNEP) is an important document. It has had a fair share of criticism but that is to be expected given the diversity of opinions about education in our country. It is a sincere attempt to present a vision for the future of education in India. It is holistic in that it combines the vision of education from school to higher education within one document. It thus attempts a kind of unification of the aims and practices of education. Most importantly, as part of this vision, it strongly promotes a basic foundation of multidisciplinarity and liberal arts education at all levels. To say this in explicit terms and to say it with enough detail to make it seem as if it is workable is indeed commendable.

In this document, the core of the reform in higher education is in the sections on liberal education which calls for a radical revision of our education system by promoting liberal arts-based curriculum instead of mono-disciplinary institutions. This holistic model of education, one which is globally well established, is a must for India given the diversity and complexity, both of the society as well as of the student population. It has already become the norm for the many private universities in India which have set up such a liberal arts programme.

However, this model of liberal education needs more than good intentions. It needs a deeper understanding of the nature of humanities education. In particular, it also needs clarity on how humanities education differs from science education. It is this lack of understanding of the nature of humanities education, given that humanities is central to the vision of this document, that makes this document yet another flawed approach to education in India.

In the context of higher education, this document envisions institutional autonomy as well as autonomy to teachers, the freedom to set new syllabi, having a truly multidisciplinary perspective, giving freedom to students to choose their courses and so on. These ideas have already been attempted in some places but they have not succeeded as hoped. We need to understand why this has happened before any new recommendations can be effectively implemented, since the problems on the ground have been most devastating for liberal education.

There are many reasons for the failure of similar initiatives. First of all, the larger society’s response to the humanities is dismal. Successive governments have continued this distrust and neglect. It is a great shame, reflecting on the civilisational values of this country, that there is not a single institute for humanities or for disciplines like philosophy similar to the umpteen science institutes. This attitude, compounded by the plague of national competitive exams starting from schools to higher education, has devastated the very meaning of teaching and learning. The suggestions in this document have little chance of getting translated into reality if there is no attempt to address these issues concretely.

How is it possible—in the present circumstances—to imagine that this proposal to completely convert all institutions into multidisciplinary universities can even take off? There has been a systematic scale-down of the quality and scale of social sciences and humanities courses across the country. This is ironic considering that the majority of students (nearly half of the student population) are in these fields. With the exception of very few universities, the overall quality of social science and humanities education in the hundreds of universities in India is quite dismal. They are plagued not just by politically driven and indifferent administrations but also antagonistic ones. This is a symptom of the larger problem of a lack of understanding of the why and what of social sciences and humanities education. Why do students get trained in these fields? What should they be taught in order to achieve the goals of that education? We have complete lack of clarity about this and the academic community has been deeply remiss in not creating a vision for social sciences and humanities education in India.

The DNEP’s suggestion to integrate the humanities department with those of science is commendable. But why have they failed so miserably in India? Humanities departments were started in science institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) and these are better funded and have more institutional support. These departments historically have always been in the shadow of the science departments and have rarely had any independent identity. With the exception of a few IITs and IISERs, liberal arts programmes in these institutions are treated as second class disciplines. There is a clear divide between the priority given to science departments and that to the humanities. The attempt to offer interdisciplinary training in these institutions has largely been symbolic because of this bias.

Moreover, these departments do not contribute to the teaching of undergraduate students in humanities since these are primarily seen as service departments for undergraduate science and engineering students (although a few independent master of arts programmes are now offered in a few places). This appropriation of the humanities by the science community is worrying and symptomatic of a larger trend across the country. For example, it is far easier to get funds to conduct science-society or even science-art projects in “pure” science institutions as compared to social science institutions! Vice chancellors of universities and directors of multidisciplinary institutions are almost always only those from a science background.

Even in private medical and engineering programmes, the mandatory courses on ethics and other humanities courses are often reduced to a caricature. They end up teaching something vague called communication (including things like “email English”!) and refuse to draw upon professional humanities scholars to teach these courses. Even ethics is taught by doctors and engineers because of their inherent contempt and suspicion of the humanities and social science disciplines. Thus, while it is wonderful that the DNEP proposes to strengthen and expand the liberal education component, the changes that are needed before it can be done are really daunting.

This problem is illustrative of the document’s scientistic perspective on liberal education. The best illustration of this comes from the different kinds of nationalisation that are mentioned in the document. For example, the suggestion that there should be a national test for entry into these liberal arts undergraduate programme is unfathomable. Humanities education stands for the essence of education in its plurality of aims and methods, diversity of knowing and learning systems, as well as acknowledging the historical and social elements of its knowledge.

National systems are worrisome on many accounts and in the context of entrance exams they do not capture or test the essential skills for democratic and ethical citizenship, which is, and must be, the end-all of all educational practices. These skills are not universal categories but are exemplified in different ways locally. Moreover, in the Indian context, there is the added problem of multiple languages and a multiplicity of conceptual categories associated with these languages. These issues are not that important in science. It is possible to have entrance exams in science that are uniform across the country given the demands of that discipline. The problem with language is also not present in these exams. To extend such models across liberal education is a fatal flaw in a diverse society like India.

Moreover, it is the centralisation of exams that has been the most destructive element of Indian education. Right from schools, children are being put into coaching schools and other boot camps to prepare for competitive national exams. In such a scenario where every bit of learning has been mortgaged to some exam in the future, what is the hope of a liberal education? The policy envisions some very important changes in examination and evaluation until the 12th standard. But the spectre of nationalised entrance exams remains.

Today, children are in schools that offer integrated programmes to prepare for IIT exams starting from the 6th standard! Children are away from early morning to late night going from one coaching class to another. This is not education but mindless indoctrination that is driven by fear and not by a desire for knowledge. How can the suggestions in this report get implemented in the face of such antagonism and fear towards the social science, humanities, and the arts? Nationally competitive exams that even today continue to test only a selective component of cognitive skills will have to be abolished for any reform to be
possible. Who is ready to do that?

Whither the Vision for Humanities?

I believe that one of the main reasons for this antagonism towards humanities education lies in the lack of a unified vision of these disciplines in contemporary India. How do practitioners and teachers of humanities here articulate their vision for this field? We know very well the problems facing students in Indian educational institutions and we have been repeating this for quite some time. Why have we not been able to make significant changes? It is not enough to blame the system—whether the government or private educational institutions or the parents/students. Or the larger society for preferring engineering and medicine degrees. (This is nothing new though: It is said that Galileo’s father wanted him to study medicine but he wanted to pursue mathematics and had to fight to get his way in the 16th century!)

Humanities education differs from science education on many counts. There is a special added problem in the Indian context. Those who are “in” the humanities in academic institutions in India, including its premier universities and institutions, are actually not the most important members of a larger community that engages with humanities. In reality, those in academics and teaching are a small percentage of this domain and have little impact on the field as it is practised in India. (This is, and cannot be, the case in science, for example.) There is significant work (especially in the Indian languages) on literary theories, translations, philosophical discourses, writing on art and so on which are not part of the production, practice or the teaching of humanities in India.

The work by humanities scholars in India—and the handful of students they deal with—do not have a presence or impact on the way these fields shape public imagination, except perhaps with some exceptions such as in history. How is it that such original work in social sciences and humanities is being produced by those who are outside the academic system and who do not derive monetary and other benefits that academicians get? When the general public engages with these topics, it is most often through the work of these people who are outside academic institutions. This contributes to the suspicion and disdain that the public also has on those practising humanities in academic institutions.

Those in the humanities in academic institutes are alienated in a double sense—from these local contexts but also from the global community in their discipline. That is, while humanities is autonomously generated, defined and contoured by leading scholars in their institutions in United States, Europe, etc, humanities scholars in India have largely become consumers waiting for major developments from outside. Thus, the community of humanities scholars in India fail to generate any autonomous definition of what humanities could or should be for the Indian context. That is why our syllabus in these disciplines tends to be imitative of global programmes. For many of these humanities programmes in India, humanities has thus been reduced to a “fashion” without any meaningful engagement with the diverse social experiences surrounding them.

So one of the first tasks would be to articulate the meaning of the “local” and to articulate what humanities could mean in this local context. By necessity then any syllabus or approach that follows from this prior reflection would automatically take into account multiple languages, diversity of experiences, the multiplicity of methods and knowing, and at the same time generate humanities scholars who will be active in creating new humanities scholarship and creative work.

This is as much a project of taking ownership of humanities in India by those teaching it here. This will also take care of the larger question of why we need to teach humanities now—for example, is it a call to understand what it is to be human in these times? If we do not have a larger vision that drives what and how we teach in these fields, then humanities education will always look like a set of disjointed elements created out of the self-interests of various groups. Instead, these elements should arise as necessary components of a cohesive world view that attempts to first set out the task of humanities in India.

What then is the vision of humanities education in India? Why are we teaching our students the disciplines of humanities? What do we decide to teach them in these disciplines? Most of the problems related to motivation, pedagogy, quality of teachers, the problem of English, etc, get addressed once we articulate a vision for the humanities. A vision that is developed by a group of people with proper representation and through multiple iterations.

The most important problem in social sciences and humanities is the state of education in non-metro areas which is in deep trouble. And this is from where the maximum number of humanities students are coming. Also, a disproportionate number of them come from marginalised sections of society. I am aware that we cannot fix all these problems but definitely modelling humanities on some global knowledge model like that in the sciences is disastrous for us. We need to have a model of learning that is not dominantly textual in nature.

Many of these students have to balance life with work of various kinds. Compared to those who can pay big money and write exams in English, on an average these students will do far better if humanities education is geared to them in some way. The majority of students in India fall under this category. So who are we really teaching? For whose sake are we proposing these changes?

A document which does not have at its core the task of empowering the millions of disadvantaged students in the country cannot hope to speak for any kind of educational reform in India. It is all the more urgent for the social sciences and humanities community to come together and find ways to articulate a strong vision of the purpose, goals, and methods of their disciplines before they get completely swept under by other interests.


Updated On : 13th Aug, 2019


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