kheru2006 (kheru2006) wrote,

Whither the humanities?

THE scenario of higher education in the world today is characterised by two paradoxical phenomena. On the one hand, there seems to be an unprecedented proliferation of higher educational institutions represented by universities, colleges, academies and research centres.

The internationalisation of education has occurred in a manner unimaginable a few decades ago. On the other hand, the opening up of new institutions, which, while encouraging some innovations, has actually constricted the choice of disciplines and subjects rather than liberalise learning.

The quantitative expansion of higher learning institutions, which resulted in an exponential increase in student enrolment, has not been matched by the qualitative growth of knowledge disciplines, good curricula or teaching methods. In fact, it has instead led to the stultification of many disciplines considered of lesser value to some other disciplines.

Historically, the Humanities have been central to education because they have been seen as essential to creating competent democratic citizens.

The phenomena of democratisation, marketisation, commercialisation and globalisation have indeed had a major impact on education at all levels and the way it is now conceptualised, perceived and pursued.

The goals of education seem to be rapidly changing. Education is no more just about the refinement of the mind and the embellishment of the soul, nor the classical pursuit of the “truth” as it used to be in the past.

Educational empowerment can mean any number of things.

Esoteric, academic and aesthetic knowledge now appear to be less appreciated than practical, technical and hands-on subjects.

The vocational trend of higher education highlighting the skills that it offers, the technology that it brings and the financial rewards that it promises is very obvious. Universities are now more industry- or market-focused and tend to be run by a distant management class at the mercy of student consumers or politicians.

The tendency to compartmentalise knowledge, inherent in this trend, creates and perpetuates perceived value differences between the different kinds of knowledge.

Some knowledge is considered more equal than others and, therefore, is believed to be more valuable. It is profit-oriented universities that now seem to prevail as a result of which the academia is becoming more competitive rather than collaborative.

Universities which claim to be motivated by philanthropic ideals often tend to be more engaged in “conscience laundering”.

Funding is sometimes pumped into universities and educational institutions supposedly to fulfil the corporate social responsibilities of business corporations and philanthropists, although they have often been accused of doing all this to avoid paying income tax. It was against this backdrop that there seems to be little room and respect for the Humanities.

This is probably due to the general perception that the Humanities have lost their appeal, value and usefulness. A degree in the Humanities is believed to be the least sought after. It is further imagined that the Humanities lack a clear disciplinary focus.

The multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary nature of the Humanities is not appreciated. Probably the tendency to use the sustainability or profitability criterion to judge the value of an educational programme has led to the distortion of perspectives.

The value of knowledge has suddenly become reduced to dollars and cents. The measure of the worth of a particular kind or branch of knowledge now tends to be judged on its commercial premise.

Education has been reduced to a tradable commodity. Universities are losing their status as intellectual centres and are increasingly perceived to be merely degree-awarding mills.

The debate that is going on today is not just about the pros and cons of the Humanities as a field of study, but also about how they will fit into the new globalised scenario that is emerging.

One of the negative elements of globalisation is that it tends to standardise everything, including education which is now subjected to global-benchmarking.

There is also a greater inter-relatedness between education, politics, economics, foreign aid and even diplomacy. Bench-marking is now preferred to maintain uniformity.

University ranking is also conducted extensively to monitor and control, and of course, to enhance reputation, positioning and branding of institutions.

There are basically two issues which dominate the debate. One maintains that the value of any discipline, including the Humanities, will be primarily determined by the market.

Thus, the value of the Humanities will be decided by the consumers and the field of study is subjected to the law of supply and demand.

The widespread assumption is that as of now, its value is depreciating very fast because graduates of Humanities are least wanted in the job market.

This line of argument holds that investments in liberal arts education may not be a worthwhile endeavour because they do not necessarily lead to job creation.

The view that education must relate to jobs is now becoming the dominant view everywhere. The other side of the argument resists the attempt to associate the value of Humanities as a field of study in economic terms alone.

The danger of the tyranny of materialism is often emphasised by its critics. It is argued that Humanities, as a field of study, surely have their own worth beyond monetary value.

One of the principal proponents of this position is Martha Nussbaum, the celebrated philosopher who is unwavering in her arguments on the importance of Humanities at all levels of education.

Citing cases in the United States and India, and drawing upon the philosophical ideas of Western and Indian scholars like Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, she argues that there is a direct correlation between the Humanities, democracy and global citizenship. She undercuts the idea that education is primarily a tool for economic growth.

She strongly believes that economic growth does not necessarily translate into a higher quality of life. To her, as the central pillar of liberal education, the Humanities, which encompass a diversity of disciplines and knowledge domains, have been crucial in producing students who are open-minded, able to think critically and are knowledgeable and civic-conscious citizens, who are capable of defending and promoting their rights and responsibilities.

Nussbaum argues that historically, the Humanities have been central to education because they have rightly been seen as essential to creating competent democratic citizens.

Recently, however, thinking about the aims of education has gone disturbingly awry everywhere, including the US, although the tradition of liberal education at all levels of schooling is still relatively strong compared to other nations.

Nevertheless, the obsession with national economic growth has led nations to treat education as though its primary mission is economic productivity rather than to promote thinking, caring, knowing and empathetic citizens.

Nussbaum urges that we resist efforts to reduce education to become a tool of the gross national product. She makes an impassioned call for education to be reconnected to the Humanities to help students become equipped with the right skills and knowledge to assume their democratic responsibilities.

She has also correctly pointed out that “all over the world, programmes in arts and the humanities, at all levels, are being cut away, in favour of the cultivation of the technical. Indian parents take pride in a child who gains admission to the Institutes of Technology and Management; they are ashamed of a child who studies literature, or philosophy, or who wants to paint or dance or sing.”

The spirit of the Humanities, which has promoted critical thought, encouraged daring imagination, developed empathetic understanding of different human experiences and the understanding of the complexities of the world we live in, must not be underestimated.
Tags: education
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