Rediscovering Humanities in light of NEP 2020

More practical degrees are not necessarily the only answer
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Representational Image File/GK

What prompted me to write an article in defence of humanities. I had been interacting with college librarians from the last few months.  I checked the humanities section in these college libraries as I was trying to locate a book by K. G Saiydain titled The Faith of an Educationist. Pertinent to mention here K.G Saiydain was a great advocate of humanities. I felt  pained that college libraries house very good books on humanities but they are untouched for months. Very few visit the library to study books on humanities or borrow text books. They make superficial study by reading the readymade notes available on Photostat shops near colleges. When we get an opportunity to evaluate the answer scripts of these students it reflects shallowness of knowledge.  Their answers lack conceptual grounding because they lack deep learning strategies. 

What’s the point of the humanities? Of studying philosophy, history, literature and "soft" sciences like psychology and political sciences. As we strive to create a more civil public discourse, a more adaptable and creative workforce, and a more secure nation, the humanities and social sciences are the heart of the matter, the keeper of the republic—a source of national memory and civic vigour, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfilment and the ideals we hold in common.

I have my own humble defense of the humanities, which I came up with a couple of years ago, when I started teaching Education to MA students in Directorate of Distance Education University of Kashmir. I love teaching the paper titled “Philosophical Foundations of Education” to MA Education students during their contact classes but I don't assume that students love taking it. So on the first day of class I asked my wary-looking students, "How many of you would skip this class if it wasn't required?" After I assured them that they won't hurt my feelings, almost significant number raised their hands. When I asked what the problem was, they said they were interested in engineering, computer science, physics, pre-med, finance, digital music production, etc. but could not qualify the entrance test. They had no choice left and enrolled for MA Education programme with a doubtful mind.  They don't see the point of reading all this old impractical stuff that has nothing to do with their career mobility except teaching. We live in a world increasingly ruled by science.

My colleague is a science writer because he thinks science is the most exciting, dynamic, consequential part of human culture, and he wanted to be a part of that journey.  He has two college-age kids, and he told me that he will be thrilled if they pursue their career in science, engineering or medicine. He certainly wants them to learn as much science and math as they can, because those skills can help them get a great job. In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you are given facts, answers, knowledge.  But humanities remind us that we have an enormous capacity for discovering ourselves. The humanities are more about questions than answers, and as teacher educator I have experienced students ask deep questions related to their philosophy of life. A man who is very rich but intrinsically unhappy will find answer for his unhappiness in the humanities class.  

During my university days every time I told someone that I am pursuing my career in Education discipline, the response was, “Do you want to be a teacher?” or “You must be an IAS aspirant.” No, the truth is I am here in the University to rediscover my purpose in life for leading a contended life. After reading many books on Education I reoriented my life with what little I can manage my life, without focus on external visibility.  Reading books on humanities liberated me from the cycle of restlessness. Studying humanities will not prepare you only for a job, it will prepare you for life. Skills you learn while learning humanities like critical thinking, analysing, collaboration, resourcefulness, good communication, understanding human behaviour, compassion, etc. are prerequisite for all jobs. Executives of Microsoft recently wrote, “As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical, and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of Artificial Intelligence solutions.” We have to realize that we now live in a post-industrial age now. We should not be apprehensive about machines taking up nominal jobs. We should worry about how to adapt the people to accept such change and humanities can surely help with that. But with private enterprise at its peak and ever-rising unemployment, higher education has become a mere stepping stone to get a job. We consider education as a plug and play device. I want to become a doctor, study medicine. Want to become a journalist? Study journalism. We need to diversify our approach towards education. On the other hand, with huge   tuition fees and other expenses, it does not seem reasonable to spend money on education, which does not guarantee a job. Job or no job, we still need to study humanities because humanities make us who we are. It is a man making exercise.

Knowing liberal arts inculcates   feelings like empathy, sympathy, oneness, and agree or not, these skills are inevitable to bring peace in today’s time of global unrest. Humanities prick   us to think, analyse, rethink, criticize, and draw conclusions from past and present, and predict the future. Learning a new language opens doors to entirely new   cultures and a new understanding of society. To unlock our best conceivable future, we need two keys; one the STEM, other the humanities. While technology opens gates for infinite   innovations and discoveries, humanities help people to make the best possible use of them for the welfare of their brothers. Imagine a technological company with the world’s most distinguished engineers trying to make robots but failing desolately merely because they don’t want to use the ideas given by other persons who do not belong to their race, culture, religion or society. Imagine if someone invented a drug to cure COVID   patients, but the cost is so high that the people who are most affected by it cannot afford it, simply because the inventor or the company does not care enough about poor masses   as much as they care for the profits. Now I am not saying that the people who do not study humanities or social sciences are characteristically evil, or studying humanities will solve all our contemporary problems. Many social issues were validated by a number of social scientists. What I am trying   to   say focusing on one side of the coin and blatantly ignoring or devaluing the other will lead us nowhere but to chaos. Modern problems are complex, and we need a scientific angle, social angle, and human angle to find solution for   them.  Just science is not sufficient. Creativity, curiosity, and empathy are among the most valuable skills that employers are looking for in prospective aspirants for maximum organizational productivity. Humanities leads to behavioural consistency.

A part from this, management sector is booming rapidly. Management mainly requires skills like collaboration, persuasion, empathy, and thinking out of the box, and studying humanities can assuredly give you an edge over them.  A study conducted across five medical schools found that trainee doctors who were exposed to the humanities had higher levels of positive personal qualities such as empathy, tolerance for ambiguity, wisdom, emotional intelligence, self-efficacy and visual-spatial skills. Exposure to the humanities also reduced levels of some components of burnout in teachers. Investor Mark Cuban is of the opinion that the future employment market will demand fewer hard skills since advanced technical tasks are increasingly being performed by computers. Instead, he says, we’ll need more people who can put information into human framework. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder and CEO of Apple, once said: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.” Recent books such as Scott Hartley’s The Fuzzy and The Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World and Christian Madsbjerg’s: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm, make similar arguments very powerfully. Research shows that exposure to the humanities is linked to higher empathy and emotional intelligence among trainee doctors and teachers.

Here we can justify why NEP 2020 recommends doctors, engineers should also have one of the subjects as philosophy to inculcate deep empathy in them. The same question is asked by parents and even from humanities students themselves: “What can you do with a humanities degree?”. The answer is reflection on the content is important and not focus on getting the degrees.  You might be writing a history essay, for example, but you’re developing important broader skills by doing it. You’re gathering information from different points of view, you’re using it to marshal an effective argument and to present it effectively in writing, with ample evidence. The fact that the content is history doesn’t matter in the end: You’re developing skills in research, critical thinking and written communication. The NEP 2020 focusses on Multi-Disciplinary Education which has beautifully correlated Science with humanities to churn out skilled manpower with an empathetic feeling of understanding the pain of their fellow brothers.

Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir

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