The great science-humanities debate

I was pointed to two articles that contribute to the great science vs. humanities debate, by Abi. The author, Shreesh Chaudhary is a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT-Madras. He raises some very pertinent, and thought-provoking questions, even as he identifies three basic reasons for the lack of prominence of Humanities and social sciences insitutions in India, compared to the Science and Technology institutions. The most pertinent question is why insitutions of higher education in the humanities and social sciences do not enjoy as much visibility or funding as the IITs or the IISc.

The problems, as Chaudhary points out, may be structural, financial or managerial, but they are not the only ones. There are sociological problems associated with the funding of Humanities and Social Sciences institutions. Science and technology have long occupied pride of place in the collective psyche of the nation. Nehru’s “temples of Modern India” were factories manufacturing iron, steel, coal and every other conceivable product. Never once did he think of producing a world-class institution of humanities, social sciences or philosophy. The earliest IIT, in Kharagpur, was created barely 4 years after independence, aiming to provide technology education to a country where capital alone was not enough for progress. (Source) But, somehow, educational insitutions catering to the humanities and social sciences were always put on the back burner.

The IITs and other such institutions of higher education in science and technology are perceived by the general public as a talent pool. Companies, IT and core industry alike, vie for a slice of the pie. Campus recruitments are at an all-time high in these institutions, and pay packages, especially for IIT/IIM graduates run into crores. Public spending on such intitutions are considered, both by politicians and the tax-payer, as an investment, rather than as expediture. Any improvements to infrastructure, sanctioning of additional funds for these insitutions or radical structural changes are met with immediate approval and are easier to justify from a political perspective.

Now, compare this with institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Jamia Millia Islamia. JNU, although prestigious and widely-respected, still suffers from lack of attention and funding in critical sectors. The state of less-prestigious (in comparison with JNU) universities like the EFLU (formerly CIEFL) and Jamia Millia is even more pathetic. Even good universities like the Madras University, Bombay University and even Delhi University are woefully inadequate in imparting quality education. In Madras University for instance, faculty positions remain unfilled for years on end, either due to lack of effort on the part of the administration in finding suitable candidates, or because of the near-total absence of personal growth for the lecturer concerned. These problems need to be addressed if we want our social sciences universities to be as widely recognized as our IITs and IIMs.

But, why must we fund, out of taxpayers’ money, a university teaching the liberal arts or philosophy? The reasons are manifold.

Engineering education alone does not make a nation. While technology might contribute to industrial progress and wealth generation, liberal arts like political science and economics are paramount to ensure just distribution and management of the wealth created. Let the industry generate wealth. But, leave it to the government to distribute it. And we need educated people in government. Or rather, people educated in the humanities and liberal arts.

Deserving and intelligent students who want to pursue the liberal arts, without spending a fortune to go abroad must have somewhere to go. There are no universities comparable to the IITs in status or quality. Although humanities education will not help people make millions, and although a graduate in the arts or social sciences will not get that 7-figure salary an MBA commands today, it can by no means considered lesser in worth. Because, education cannot and must not be judged by the monetary benefit we derive from it.

The liberal arts and humanities cultivate a wider world view. This wider world view is necessary for anyone who wishes to be really successful. Because the best entrepreneurs and the most successful professionals are those who look beyond their chosen fields and take unconventional decisions.

This bias against humanities and the social sciences needs to go. Philosophy, politics, economics, and history may not fetch money, but they still deserve attention and funding. This is simply because no field of knowledge, however obscure, is useless. Let’s not lose track of humanities completely, in our zeal to create new IITs and NITs. Let’s at least make the effort to upgrade our JNUs and EFLUs to meet international standards.

3 Comments

  • [...] The great science-humanities debate – A space of one's own [...]

  • Indian Homemaker wrote:

    Very well written post! I agree with everything here. We do need do away with the bias against Humanities and liberal arts. But I also wonder if the government should be spending so much money for higher education, in any field. I think government should spend tax payer’s money on quality education till class X, and then leave it to it the citizens to work hard and spend their own money to choose careers.
    Or else they must sign a bond for atleast five years to repay the tax payer by serving in remote and rural areas.

    Or make credit available for those who are really interested. And make them pay it back when they get jobs. I agree. The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be political will in the matter.

  • Indian Homemaker wrote:

    Beautiful header by the way!

    Thanks! :-)

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