The triumph of the humanities: newsletter #27

The Indian education system excels at exclusion. The earlier you tell kids what they aren't allowed to do, the better. Students who can barely make a sandwich find themselves choosing between science, commerce and arts in 11th class. These choices aren't motivated by the intrinsic value of the subjects. Science is for careers in engineering and medicine. Commerce is for students who want to run their fathers corner store. Arts was a ticket into the cultural elite. Democratization changed that equation. Now only losers study the arts.

I attended an (in)famous school in Delhi called DPS. It was a time of great expansion. When I entered DPS in seventh class there were four sections in high school. By the time I graduated, four had turned into seven. DPS added two new science sections and one commerce section in 11th class. No new arts section though; arts remained a loner. If I recollect right, section G had thirty-two girls and one boy.

The girls took arts as a precursor to marriage. In fact, a couple of them got pulled out of school midway to get married. We said good-bye to them at the school gate. They were never seen again. I wonder if they're grandmothers now, as my grandmother was at my age. It took me a while to realize these Punjabi girls wearing short skirts and jeans were more oppressed than my cousins back in Chennai, who were forced to wear their hair in braids and dress in half-saris but went on to get PhDs. I digress.

The boy had taken arts to make a statement. On graduation day he was one of the few who came dressed in dhoti-kurta instead of a pant suit. He wanted to become an IAS officer. That's what the arts were good for back then; turning boys into bureaucrats. For all I know, he might have succeeded. Then again, probably not. By the time I graduated from college, the IAS was full of engineering students. It was easier to get 100% in maths than in English even if you wrote like Tennyson.

Tennyson, Wordsworth, Austen - that's that studying the arts means to us. By the way, 'arts' is an euphemism for the humanities, since arts students don't write, act or draw. Instead, they study Victorian poetry. Some time ago, a petty clerk in the East India Company called Macaulay decided that bad English poetry was better than all the literature of the Indies. My right-wing friends blame Macaulay for the westernization of India. I think he was responsible for worse: the death of the humanities in the sub-continent. He's the reason we write English as if the Vedas were filtered through the King James bible. O Lord Siva, I pray to thee! May I be blessed! Such lines roll off our tongues like 1857 was day before yesterday.

No one laments the passing of Wordsworth and Shelley. Unfortunately, the death of the humanities is also a mortal blow to the so-called "professions" such as engineering and medicine, let alone the natural sciences. We think the humanities are parochial and useless; parochial because they are grounded in one particular culture or period such as Britain in the 1850s, and useless because humanistic education doesn't deliver jobs. Who cares about literature in this era of STEM? I think that perception is based on a false assumption of universality. Atom bombs are atom bombs in Bangalore as well as Boston; ergo, scientific training is better than humanities training.

It's true that physics studies a larger portion of the material universe than history does, but history occupies a larger portion of human experience than physics. The universality of matter isn't the same as universality of experience. The humanities are more central to the way we live our lives than the sciences. It's the humanities that tell us what's valuable and what's worth pursuing. Clear thinking, the use of reason and evidence, proper citation and open communication, the establishment of libraries and archives - wherever you look, the bedrock of human civilization is humanistic.

Every profession from design to law, architecture, engineering and medicine, benefits from this common structure of values. We operate against that background even when we overturn those values, as Picasso and others did in the arts, or the postmodernists did in the academy. The western world takes that humanistic culture for granted for it has institutions that embody those norms even as its politicians and administrators eviscerate funding for the humanities. One need only look at India to see what happens when that common background was destroyed due to imperial diktat and the neglect continues in the current higher education system.

For one, it means that there are no real universities. The university - as the name suggests - is a microcosm of the human world. Its core sub-systems, such as the classroom, the library and the rituals of scholarly apprenticeship bear the traces of the humanities. In India, we only have technical institutes like the IITs for undergraduate studies and IISc for post-graduate studies. Technical institutes have smart people doing smart things, but they are terrible at generating new ideas.

New ideas seep in from the outer world. From popular culture and entertainment, from dreams and aspirations recorded in song and story. The intellectual culture of the university transforms that raw material into knowledge. Technical culture is no substitute for intellectual culture.

Actually, there's no real distinction between technology and the humanities. The humanities are also based on technology - external tools like books, libraries and learned societies and mental tools like reasoning, citation and argumentation. These tools have become so ingrained that we don't perceive them as technology at all.

I am hopeful that a new humanistic revolution is at hand. As information technology becomes knowledge technology, new knowledge media are inevitable. It all comes back to the book. The book preceded the steam engine. Technical culture is unimaginable without text culture. Is the wheel turning full circle? Are we ready to reinvent text culture using technical culture? High tech humanities is no longer a contradiction.