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“We Can Trust Basic Human Instincts To Sustain The Humanities” Interview With Mukul Kesavan On The Decline Of Humanities Education

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There was a time when humanities education was reasonably popular. Not because people loved the humanities. The Indian middle class had primarily bureaucratic ambitions and the humanities were seen as a means to an end. As they awoke to a plethora of new opportunities ushered in by economic liberalization, interest in the humanities tapered off. It is hard to overlook the general decline of humanities education that this competitive era of globalization has witnessed. Would a privatized education sector prioritize the humanities? The principle of investment and return makes it easier to guess the answer. Mukul Kesavan, an academic, writer and critic, analyses the situation in an interview with Pushkal Shivam  of Youth Ki Awaaz.

Transcripts of the interview below the video.


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To what factors would you attribute the decline of humanities and social sciences education in India?
I teach history at Jamia Millia Islamia and, obviously, I studied history at Delhi University many years ago. There was a time when of the 100-something undergraduate colleges in Delhi, 50 or 60 had history departments. And pretty much all of them had English literature departments. So Delhi University in some ways, and JNU, and Jamia are actually universities that are quite well served by humanities departments. There is a very large number of students and a very large number of faculty. While I am not suggesting that you are wrong in looking at a general decline, I am not sure this is true of all of India in a generalizing way. That said, I think it is certainly true that till the end of 1980s, one of the reasons why humanities education was reasonably popular was for an unacademic reason. It was popular because for the longest time competitive examinations such as examinations for the Indian Administrative Services and Allied Services had papers which were humanities papers. They were seen as papers that a large spectrum of people could do and with a decent amount of hard work could score well in. So there was a connection with government employment. Two things happened. One, people discovered that more quantitative papers help you score more marks for the purposes of civil services recruitment. The other thing that happened was that with liberalization in the early 90s serving in the government became a less attractive option for many people in this country because of opportunities within the private sector and other forms of interesting new occupations that didn’t exist in the 70’s and 80’s. So in its job relatedness, humanities is no longer seen as a path to prestigious government employment or to the extent that it is, it’s a much diminished group of people who actually believe this, even though there a lot of people who still do the humanities for that reason. I think more generally, as the economy has diversified, this is something that’s not true just of India; this is something that’s true of, say, a much more advanced educational infrastructure like America. One of the things that American intellectuals and the American government is very concerned about is that America is not producing as many scientists and engineers as it was producing 20-30 years ago. And people are incentivizing universities to try and shift their focus from the liberal arts to harder disciplines, disciplines that are in some way fungible- in the sense that feed into technology, science, innovation in the classic technological and scientific sense. I think the example of China is a very instructive example because, in a sense, it’s a decent comparison. It’s a country as large as India, larger, which has gone through the process of liberalization and modernization in the last 30 years. And we know that China has made enormous strides in the realm of science and technology by focusing on these streams. Dr. Manmohan Singh was saying that there is a very real sense in which we have to acknowledge that we have been overtaken by China in the domain of science and technology. And I think this is significant because what it shows you is that at the very top of the Indian system there is a sense of anxiety that a colonial or postcolonial education system’s emphasis on the liberal arts and the humanities has in some sense pushed us back. That we are not teaching enough students contemporary disciplines that help them meet the market place in the world, that help innovation, productivity etc. In an economically more competitive world, people begin to ask stricter questions about investment and return. In less competitive times, the humanities get greater leeway, greater funding because there is not the same sense of urgency about competing in a ruthless global world. You must also remember that technology and science by definition are universal disciplines. The humanities, in an interconnected world are less fungible. Fungible essential means the ability to carry the currency of a certain education across to other contexts. So if you are doing history and you are doing Indian history, there is a sense in which your specialization doesn’t necessarily make you a saleable commodity in the education markets elsewhere. It is pretty much inevitable that in any university system, after a while the subjects that have greatest currency across the world will always have an edge. I don’t think this is something to get terribly depressed about. I do think that we have to guard against the idea that disciplines that are useful are necessarily the disciplines that have to be taught. A world where people didn’t invest their lives in academically studying the way in which the world has come to be (history), or the way in which people have imagined the world (literature); if we stopped having academic departments that dealt with these on the grounds that in terms of investment and return, we are not getting what we would by investing the same money in something else, that would be a sad time. I think we should distinguish between a certain downsizing that is bound to occur in competitive global economic circumstances and the other more deplorable circumstance where a government just decides that it is not going to fund the study of the humanities simply because there is a profit and loss calculation. I think governments have to make a call on this. So long as university funding authorities, whether they are government or private maintain a certain core number of departments that teach the humanities, I think I can live with the shrinkage of humanities faculties from a peak twenty or thirty or forty years ago.

Are we then heading towards a stage when the humanities may become the province of the rich?

If you are a first generation university student, someone who hasn’t come out of privilege, whose parents haven’t been traditionally middle class, it’s completely reasonable for you to want to do a first degree that will help in social mobility. And the point you are making is that, of course, it’s only people who inherit privilege, who can actually afford to do the humanities, because there is a sense in which they don’t have to make their bread and butter out of it. It could be interesting to actually see a university survey to see if this is true. Is this what actually happens? Is it the privileged who do the humanities and is it the disprivileged who don’t? I am not sure that that would actually pan out. I think logically there is a case in what you are saying, that if you are going to invest large sums of money in a university education and if you are going to have debt at the end of the university education, you have to have a way of paying off that debt. And it helps if that university degree helps you get a job. Clearly, that much is true. In the case of India, however, what we are seeing is a process of transition. Indian universities are predominantly government funded and predominantly very cheap. I think the IITs in some sense are exceptional. You pay much more to get a private education in technology than you do in the IITs. Till such time as the government underwrites the funds, most university education in India, I don’t think the question of incurring debt is such a big issue. But what we are seeing increasingly, especially with this government, is an attempt to increase private investment in university education, which is not necessarily a bad thing except that it largely seems to imply that the expansion in the university education that will occur will have two features. One, it will be a university education for the very privileged because it will be a very expensive education. Second, the HRD minister Kapil Sibal has frequently argued the case for allowing American universities to set up franchise universities here. If this process of privatization proceeds apace, there are some signs that the government is very serious about this partly because it feels it doesn’t have the money to continuously fund the higher education. Now this is the moot point because the amount of money that India invests in education is very small. To argue that we don’t have the money to invest in university education begs the question as to whether your priorities are right. Whether, in fact, you should take money away from, say, military spending and invest in education. But still, given that the government of India is arguing that we don’t have the money, that the private sector must take up the slack, I think what we are looking at is educational organizations that are likely to invest in departments that they think will be desirable, for which students are willing to pay high fees. That said, I hear anecdotal evidence to the contrary as well. For example, Symbiosis has just started a Liberal Arts program which is a degree program in Pune. I don’t think there is any crisis yet but the signs are that we are heading towards a circumstance where investment, both within government universities and private universities, will not prioritize humanities. One cannot generalize about all the humanities. History will suffer more than English will. English literature is still connected in India with English fluency. And English fluency is connected with social mobility. So there is a sense in which English is always likely to have a larger market within education a larger demand and therefore likely to find more investment and patronage than, say, a subject like history or perhaps even a subject like the languages. So investment in classical languages like Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, languages in general, is likely to tail off because people think that what do we do after we do this?

In this age of technology, many have raised questions over the relevance of the field. Have the humanities stopped playing a role in human progress? What has gone wrong?

I am not sure the humanities set out to play a role in human progress. If you think of what we describe as the humanities say English or history or philosophy or the languages. What the humanities try and do is that they try and tell us how human society came to be what it is. So they do this historically by explaining how the world changed over time. They do it imaginatively by trying to show us how literary forms, whether it is poetry or the novel or the essay or theatre, reflect the preoccupations and the self-consciousness of human beings. Linguists, people who deal more technically in language, try and explain to us how human beings communicate, what makes them similar to other animals. So I think the purpose of the humanities is to elucidate the nature and the processes by which humans come to be human. I don’t think the humanities are committed to innovation in the way technology or science is. That is not the point of the humanities. The humanities exist to allow men and human societies to understand themselves over time as in history, to understand themselves in terms of the human imagination. And that’s what they do. They explain to us what means to be human. The sciences explain to us what constitutes us physically. What constitutes the world physically. What the origins of the universe are. Biological sciences take man as a subject. Medicine, for example, deals with the human body and what makes it well and what makes it ill. But it tells us nothing about self-consciousness. It tells us nothing about social organization. A world in which the humanities are negligible would be a world which would quite possibly continue to innovate technologically but it would have no understanding at all about the social and human consequences of innovation. What teaches us about ourselves is in fact the humanities-whether it’s the individual or whether it’s humans collectively.

What sort of implications a situation like you just mentioned would have for our society?

I don’t actually think that the humanities are going to fade away or become negligible. I think this thing goes in phases. You’ll find that in a country like China as China feels that it has arrived at a stage of economic equilibrium and prosperity, there will be a renewed interest in their past, a renewed interest in their sense of history, in their interest in the imagination as manifested in fiction and poetry in Chinese. It’s almost impossible for a human society not to speculate about ideas, not to speculate about its past, not to glory in language. So I think we can trust basic human instincts, in terms of communication, in terms of desire to know something about yourself, to sustain the humanities.

Because of the job-centric view of education, the humanities are treated with disdain in the popular perception. In what ways can that perception be changed?

Let’s be clear about this. Let’s be clear about what we mean by the humanities. If you are talking about subjects that are not treated seriously by the market or the general public, we can’t be talking about economics because economics in a very real sense is seen as an enormously useful subject. Now we can argue about whether economics get the world right or not but that’s not what we are discussing here. Is an economics degree marketable? Yes, it is. Economics as a discipline is seen as hugely valuable. Let’s take political science. If you ever look at election coverage, you see a series of political pundits. For example, Yogendra Yadav, who often acts as a psephologist. At the most basic level, political systems wants expertise about how they work. So there is a very real sense in which political punditry, political analysis, political systems will always remain of interest, in any country. I think the subjects that we are talking about in terms of a negligible market value are the more esoteric humanities. For example, philosophy, study of classical languages. Why are you studying Tuscan? Nobody speaks it, there are a few dead manuscript written in it, why do you want to know this? There are humanities that seem to be rarified, that seem to ask questions; that seem to examine source materials; that don’t seem to be of any common public interest. And those are the ones that are genuinely, in a sense, endangered by funding indifference or the indifference of the UGC or any other funding agency. That is where we have to be alert because a university without a philosophy department is not a proper university. Because if there is a discipline which underpins every other discipline, it is philosophy. Philosophy teaches us how we know what we know. I think we have to be genuinely alert that those humanities disciplines, and I emphasize this is not necessarily English or history or economics etc, even though there is less enthusiasm for history than it used to be. I am fairly confident that history will sustain itself as a discipline. I am less confident that the studies of classical languages, for example, will sustain itself. I am less confident that philosophy would continue to be automatically a department in new universities. I think that would be a genuine shame because an indifference to the origins of human language is an indifference to the origins of human history. And unless we know where we come from, we really have no idea who we are. I think there is a genuine issue regarding the more esoteric humanities, and I think this can only be tackled by raising awareness. I don’t think that the humanities by and large are in danger. Yes, there is a shrinkage in the number of people who want to do them. I think one should learn to think about this in a nuanced way. There are humanities subjects which are very important like fine arts and music, the study of classical languages, and philosophy, the subject of theology, which address very important parts of the human psyche and human society but nonetheless are of specialist interest. And a civilized state tries to sustain these disciplines, not in some massive way. I mean it’s perfectly reasonable to accept that look there is a limited demand for these. But of course, this is a chicken and egg situation. If you don’t have departments, there will be no demand at all. So you have to make sure that there are enough institutions that cater to these small disciplines, which are nonetheless in their significance very important, people who feel like doing them have the opportunity to do them.

Is it then true that only those who are academically inclined should pursue the less esoteric humanities subjects?

No, not at all. I am sorry if I have given you that impression. It’s very important for every undergraduate student, regardless of whether he is a scientist or an engineer to do the humanities. In the IITs, there is a very long and admirable tradition of doing just that. The point is not just to preserve esoteric knowledge in a few small islands, the point is to allow access to these branches of knowledge to a student who may not necessarily want to spend the rest of his life doing them but is interested in them. He asks the question, “How did India get here?” So he is interested in history. Or he asks the question, “Is materialism the only philosophical position that we can take?” So he is interested in philosophy. The reason why these relatively minority disciplines should be sustained is partly because they ask very important questions, which are important for our intellectual nourishment and well being as a society. And two, precisely because people who may not want to spend their lives doing them because they don’t make you a living or whatever, should have the option of doing them as a minor, even if they don’t necessarily want to become academics in them.

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