Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Transformational Humanities?

This article has been in the works for weeks now and so is likely to be a bit of a zig-zag post.Readers Beware! More of meandering and sauntering through links and posts than my usual "sterling/piercing" social commentary ;)

        I start from this post by asmokescreen on English in India in the context of the recent decision by the Government of Andhra Pradesh to make the CBSE syllabus(and English medium) compulsory for 6,500 schools across the state. A bit of digging around gave me these three articles which did not tell me anything about the logistics but did point out the one of the culprits was a World Bank(aha!) aided project called Scheme for Universalisation of Access to and improvement of Quality Education at Secondary Stage (SUCCESS) also known as the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan.

        The press release which accompanied the launch of the program(RMSA) last year clearly stated its objectives as well. A huge increase in funding, emphasis on infrastructure and the very specific aim of enhancing the quality of scientific/technical education in the country. This initiative seems to have been tailor-made to address complaints of lack of investment in education. However the operationalization of this proposal has, as usual, provoked a hornet's nest of what seems to be very valid issues about both implementation and principle. Of course the SUCCESS/RMSA also raises issues about what the government has in mind when it comes to the humanities or the social sciences. I suppose they don't mind at all.

        This issue takes me back to last year when the government of Kerala proposed a radical overhaul of the secondary and higher secondary education systems. Languages were to become optional, vocational courses were to be introduced, schools were to come under the jurisdiction of local self-governing bodies and so on. Unsurprisingly enough, considering the radical nature of the proposals and the utter cluelessness of the of the government regarding possible break-downs in the system, the proposal seems to have been shelved. There were a lot of teachers I knew, who saw a huge threat to their existence and many others who firmly believed in the necessity of the "humanities" subjects for the promotion of a greater cause and for the exercise of a more civilized influence on coming generations of students.

        Now we go this article by Steve Fuller, a professor of Sociology, who takes off from the growing emphasis on science and the decline of the humanities before presenting his own take on the essence of the humanities. While there is a considerable danger when one starts speaking of the humanities as one homogenous unit with homogenous values, I guess there is some relevance to his argument about the the humanities being about getting the "upright ape" to read ,write and think. I also agree that the impact of the humanities is more difficult to assess and is more long term.

        Many of the issues raised in this post have existed since time immemorial and "solutions" are almost impossible. However while moral outrage is spewed out on these issues, it is worth remembering that those who let out all this angst and those cherish and venerate the humanities are often directly responsible for the devaluation of the humanities. There is no doubt today that reading,writing and thinking are essentially "taught" in a very literal sense. These three attributes(in the way they are taught) do not possess, in any sense of the term, the value that is ascribed to them by Prof. Fuller and the innumerable champions of the "humanities as civilization" argument. Thus those who want to fight for the humanities must seek newer paradigms for justifying it or newer paradigms for showcasing it. The New Humanities Initiative seems an interesting way of going about it. But I personally am a bit sceptical of education itself as an suitable medium for social transformation (I know that bucking centuries of educational theory). It is inevitable that the educational systems of the day reflect established notions of society and unless one believes in the effectiveness of certain people and certain times, an overall transformational effect is well-neigh impossible. This has pretty much always been the case. That we have been told otherwise and that we have believed is as much a commentary on our search for engines for transformation.

is an article in the Hindu bemoaning the death of the Humanities in Andhra Pradesh.

PS 1. This is not a claim that education is unnecessary or that pursuing academics is a waste. I do not contest that education can have any transformational value. There are always certain people and certain times which make considerable differences. This post is primarily directed at the notion that education as a whole always has or always should have a trasnformational value.


asmokescreen said...

Well thought-out post, Prasanth.

The 'education has a transformational value' paradigm clearly has ceased to make market sense.I firmly believe in it myself and that's why I migrated back to academics. But I think this belief (or the lack of it) is also a reflection in some ways of how important or desirable you think market demands are - something you cannot ignore. I mean, if your education cannot at least get you a job then any talk of its value will seem very hollow indeed.

But I think that what is happening in AP is less about making students employable and more about ensuring certain kinds of jobs. Somewhere down the line we have lost sight of the purpose of the IITs and NITs. Getting into these institutes has become an end in itself because once you have that 'brand' you're assured of the best jobs. It is a vicious cycle where the only things students slog for are the entrances that will get them into the institute and then the placements that will take them to the most prized jobs. Education, transformational or otherwise, is nowhere in the picture.

I also believe that to speak of the Humanities as a homogeneous group is misleading. English, for instance, has more market value than other languages. But what this means is that English Departments all over the country are being forced to redefine themselves in the light of market demands.The way out is not to condemn the pull of the market which is what those in the Humanities are caught up in. We have to find ways of making ourselves relevant, while still retaining the core of our disciplines. Easier said than done I know!

BTW thanks for the link to the Hindu article. Echoes some of the concerns in my latest post.

The Quirky Indian said...

Excellent post, Prasanth.

Does education have transformational value? I'm afraid that in today's hyper-competitive world, this can only be the case if education first gives people the abilities (notice I have avoided the use of the word 'skills')to earn a living. And in that context, it is no surprise that Kerala, as you have pointed out, wanted to radically overhaul its education system - because Kerala's experience tells us what went wrong - a large number of 'literate' and 'educated' (no aspersions in the use of the quotation marks) people, but fundamentally unequipped for employment of the non-academic, non-government-generalist kind (both shrinking job-categories). Yet, these people now consider themselves 'above' a lot of jobs that might be available - and so unemployment and its the consequent pressures have led to a lot of frustration and potential social unrest....perhaps the suggested overhaul was the only option available to Kerala's policy-makers. While I share the sentiments expressed by Steve Fuller, I also realise that we do not live in a ideal world, and conditions today are very different from, say, the Victorian era, or even the inter-war years in Britain, where perhaps a degree in the classics or Greek history was enough to get suitable employment....

Quirky Indian

Prasanth said...

Thanks for the comment. At the outset I must admit that you are perfectly right in pointing out the multiple themes and contexts I have yanked together.I also completely agree with the fact that states like AP have gone into a specific zone where other options are slowly losing their existence itself. Of course AP has the largest number of students in the IITs. However, as you point out in your post, being an IIT-an does in no way, provide you with certain other "soft skills"(it's a different issue that the provision of such skills is a full blown industry now)

However I submit that "more about ensuring certain kind of jobs" is not in any way a phenomenon specific to a location or a time. In fact the complete refusal to propagate the concept of the dignity of labour is one of the primary features of education systems for quite some time now. A lot of instructions to study were always accompanied by the threat(overt or covert) that one would "be one of them" if one did not study. It is perfectly true that AP is one of the most well-orchestrated examples of this sentiment. However the sentiment as such remains deeply embedded in people's consciousness and is, I would say, the other half of the belief that education is a civilizing,transformational mission.

Prasanth said...

@Quirky Indian
Thanks for the comment. I would only partly agree with your analysis of the situation in Kerala. It would ring true say, a decade ago. However the Kerala of today is pretty different in terms of the number of students who have taken up professional courses and have migrated to other states in search of better options. In fact, I may not be mistaken if I say that Keralites are the engine for a large amount of the soft ware industry in the South of India. Students in Kerala, thus have other options and are happily taking them as well...a bit too happily, one sometimes feels. :)

I still haven't figured out the ideological/political reasoning behind the attempt to implement that policy. One of them would be, I guess, to give more autonomy to schools(they could choose which optionals, including languages to teach) and bring them under the control of local self-governing bodies. This would thus be a part of the Communist Government's larger program to decentralize education. There was also a parallel attempt to introduce vocational education for everyone(vocational schools are "the lesser half" in Kerala today) which I thought was a pretty interesting experiment, though I doubt if any kind of specific research went into the proposals as such