Who Came Up With ‘Girls Study Humanities And Boys Study Science’?

A few day back, an old friend of my father visited us. We were meeting him after a long time. In the process of catching-up and enquiring about the children, they stumbled upon the subject of career and future prospects. The topic started off as a shield to cover the embarrassing question that had been put forth, “So your daughter wants to continue studying humanities?”  They knew that I had my roots in science and took up humanities for higher studies, and that didn’t make the conversation any easier. The rhetorical question was met with embarrassment and an apologetic smile. I had failed to meet the society’s expectations of raising a child who would contribute something ‘productive’ to this world. The age old tiff between science and humanities came to fore as the discussion continued.

In India, science and mathematics, enjoy the top spot in the hierarchy of subjects. If we were to use a measuring scale to grade a student’s competence, science takes one end and humanities takes another, and the competence is measured by taking note of the child’s inclination towards either of the two extreme ends. The nearer the child is to the science end, the more competent, sharper and intelligent they will be. The farther the child is from the science end, the more the chances of them being considered unintelligent and incompetent.

When the fallacy of the previous method of assessment became glaringly obvious, the society came up with another scale to measure a child’s competence. However, this new system of grading was equally bizarre. The extreme ends of the new scale still represented science and humanities, but the semantics had changed. Now, the science end was deemed a masculine territory whereas the humanities end was deemed feminine. This was accepted as the new norm without any arguments, and you can notice a clear case of sexism in this thought process.

To support this generic view that science is a masculine subject and humanities a feminine one, media keeps circulating unverified, debatable reports that say things like ‘girls are weak in maths’. These reports are consumed by the readers and they don’t make them uncomfortable. It is as if, in their minds, they had always known this to be true. People read them, see them printed in bold headlines, hear this on the radio and accept it to be true. No one bothers to question the reliability of this ‘truth’.

Hence, whenever a girl opts for a humanities course no one objects to her choice but accepts it as her ‘gendered fate’, but when she chooses a science subject she is lauded and her competence is celebrated because she has chosen to stand shoulder to shoulder with her masculine counterparts. Similarly, when a boy chooses a science course everyone accepts it as his destined path, the right thing to do, but when he shows interest in a humanities course, he is met with hostile judgement, often called unintelligent, feminine, incompetent.

If this wasn’t enough, the society measures books on this binary scale too, novels are considered feminine, meant for the simple-minded, whereas science magazines and quiz books are masculine, for the sharp minds. An unintelligent mind, with nothing productive to contribute to the society, would only choose to take up a novel and read, whereas a sharp, constructive mind would want to read scientific articles and solve puzzles and not idle away their time in the delicacies of fiction. This view implicitly conforms to the age old authoritarian, patriarchal notion that ‘fact’ belongs to the masculine arena and ‘fiction’, often related to daydreaming, belongs to the feminine one.

This gendered view of subject reminds me of the opening lines from a Charles Dickens novel, “Hard Times”, “Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

 The irony is if facts were all that one needed to sustain, Mr Dickens wouldn’t have written that book, knowing obviously that he is a male, productive contributor to the society.

People may think that the idea of academic subjects being gendered belongs to the era bygone, but if they listen closely to the conversations around them they’ll notice the repressed misogyny in the Indian middle-class mindset in almost every situation. A gender neutral society still seems light years away.