A society that forgets its poet

Devaluing study of liberal arts and humanities could damage the fabric of civilisation

Written by Avijit Pathak | Updated: July 4, 2017 12:01 am
education, indian education system, social sciences, indian colleges, universities, india news, indian express news We should not forget that a society which forgets its poets, philosophers and artists is a decadent society.

This is the time for the youngsters who have passed the board examinations to enter the domain of higher learning, and think of their career options and associated life-projects. However, this journey is not smooth because the perplexed young minds confront a social landscape, which through the dynamics of peer pressure, parental expectations, existing knowledge economy and the middle class striving for economic stability, puts enormous pressure on them and causes immense fear of any risk-taking venture. No wonder, it becomes exceedingly difficult to hear one’s inner call and choose what one is truly interested in.

Because of this conditioning and restrained horizon, the academic culture of the liberal arts and humanities has suffered a great deal. With the rise of neo-liberal global capitalism, as it is said, nothing remains free from the instrumental rationality of the market. This “colonisation of the lifeworld”, as Jurgen Habermas would put it, has shaped the discourses of higher education in a big way.

For example, the growing corporatisation of higher education, the insistence on “market-friendly” self-financing courses, the measurement of the success of a professor in terms of the bigness of the project he/she manages to get from the industry or the corporate lobby, and the simultaneous assertion that knowledge is primarily the mastery of “skills” — technical, financial and managerial.

One sees these disturbing trends all over the world. Moreover, in a highly stratified country like ours with uneven distribution of cultural capital or an aspirational society with reckless competition and survival anxiety, the problem becomes rather severe. For instance, for a large section of middle or lower middle-class parents and their children, the ultimate salvation, it seems, lies in the courses that promise to fetch jobs immediately and assure social mobility.

It is, therefore, not surprising that we see the enormous growth of private institutions offering courses — heavily commodified and packaged — in information technology, fashion designing, hotel management, business administration, biotechnology and clinical psychology. Even public universities are finding it difficult to resist this trend.

This has led to the devaluation of social sciences, liberal arts and humanities. Generally, in the popular imagination, these branches of knowledge are seen as “soft”, “easy”, “ideological” and even “feminine” — not very useful for the “practical” world. A bleak future in terms of career options is also associated with them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in this utilitarian age these disciplines are often stigmatised.

Another factor unique to India — the logic of UPSC civil service exams — has further devalued these disciplines. Doctors, engineers, science/commerce graduates — anyone, it is popularly believed, can take sociology/psychology/political science/Hindi literature as an “easy” paper that needs just guide books and a series of lectures (or “success assuring” notes) by a bunch of tutors in the coaching centres. Social sciences die because in these education shops Tagore and Marx, Foucault and Hobsbawm, Ashis Nandy and Rajni Kothari cannot exist.

As a teacher with some sensitivity to critical pedagogy, I dare to see beyond this dominant practice, and argue that we would cause irreparable damage to the fabric of our civilisation if we keep devaluing the significance of the liberal arts and humanities. What these knowledge traditions give us is something beyond the temporal value of the market.

We gain a sense of history — history as the interplay of culture and nature, technological innovation and social uprising, and human creativity and political transformation; we acquire the hermeneutic skills for entering the symbolic universe of cultural artifacts, mythologies and civilisational memories; and above all, we begin to think critically and cultivate emancipatory urges for rescuing us from the principle of domination, surveillance and media-simulated seduction.

We should not forget that a society which forgets its poets, philosophers and artists is a decadent society. It is bound to crumble. No wonder, as liberal arts and humanities decline, we see youngsters — technically skilled, but culturally impoverished; corporate professionals — wealthy, but devoid of a deep philosophy of life. Authoritarianism, as we are realising, emerges in the absence of critical thinking, humanistic temper and liberal values.

However, I believe that as teachers we have a great responsibility. Yes, despite this ugly politics of knowledge economy, some students will join liberal arts and humanities. How do we sensitise them, educate them and in the process, get ourselves educated? I see two major obstacles. First, we kill the critical spirit, the curiosity of a learner, and are almost compelled to equate knowledge with a set of “objective” facts (or a bundle of discrete pieces of information) needed for utterly non-creative public examinations like the National Eligibility Test. And second, in the name of “scholarship”, as the reading list of DU undergraduate courses like sociology would suggest, we transform a learner into a tired/exhausted parrot using only borrowed words and theories with no space for meditative thinking and engaged social practice.

The real challenge, I believe, is a life-affirming pedagogy that, to use the feminist vocabulary, generates an “ethic of care”, sensitivity to the relationship between the “self” and the “world”, a profound way of seeing things, and the unity of theory and practice. With this dream, can we welcome the new generation of learners and take them to the enchanting world of theory and poetry, anthropology and history, literature and philosophy?

The writer is professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, JNU, New Delhi

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  1. R
    Jul 4, 2017 at 9:38 pm
    Excellent article . Decline in liberal education has already taken a heavy toll . Youth of today is so gullible, parochial and tasteless . It reminds me of following couplet : watan ki fikar kar nadaan museebat aane wali hai teri barbadiyon ke mashware hain aasmanoon main na samjhonge tou miT jaoge hindustaan walo tumhari daastan tak bhi na hogi daastanoon main
  2. R
    Rakesh Batabyal
    Jul 4, 2017 at 4:30 am
    So touching. Hope this sensitise the arrogant middle class.
  3. M
    Jul 4, 2017 at 3:33 am
    "can we welcome the new generation of learners and take them to the enchanting world of theory and poetry, anthropology and history, literature and philosophy?" thanks tax payers' money ... please find private benefactors! as for " meditative thinking" it's about religion, something the author visibly hates, and as for the author's definition of history, it's a farce, first, it's about establishing facts and to be able to wade through a mass of not necessarily engaging mass of data and make sense out of it (and not " interplay of culture and nature"). Culture is long years of leraning, hard work, dedication, not meaningless display of of few fashionable ideas, praised by medias one day, forgotten next day
  4. R
    Jul 4, 2017 at 2:11 am
    'libera art' should be taught only until 10 2 level and after that its funding should be cut drastically and no more than 5-10 percentage of student population should be in these areas. This small number of students then will be highly motivated/capable one producing future requirements of teachers needed to teach 10 2 level as well as 5-10 percentage college students. Make sure that this area is not dominated by useless fellows with political leanings, that too marxist/JNU type wasting tax payers money and drain on resources like JNU/AMU/HCU social sciences departments are. All future law makers/politicians should be from professional/law background not some s with useless 'degree' in subjects with no takers.
  5. R
    Jul 4, 2017 at 2:05 am
    If 'liberal arts' produce parasites/thugs like kaniah,umar,sleha,vemula or their more matured counterparts liek yechuri/raja etc. then we should not be spending even one rupee on liberal arts. Anyone can attain excellence in liberal arts/music/dance/drama irrespective of any field they come from, and that has nothing to do with pouring precious tax money into places liek JNU/AMU social sciences departments to produce traitors and parasites who have no career option except rabble rousing and using media like NDTC. Liberal arts should be completely financed by art lovers of various stride and non-profit fund raising and never by trax money meant for national building with young workforce ready and enthusastic to build vast infracture needed to make India a developed nation. No way likes of kanniah, umar or sleha can contribute in this except aiding abetting anti-India elements. Also as UPSC exms show anyone with brain from other areas can beat these 'liberal art' students in same subject
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