I venture to present a perspective on ‘crisis in the humanities’ from a location that may be considered ‘alternative’. I belong to an academic space that enjoys a fairly little reputation in terms of the volume of humanistic education and of the presence/absence of humanities scholars. I presently head the Humanities and Management Unit housed under Kathmandu University’s School of Engineering. The name of my workplace embodies an ideal of disciplinary unification though it more or less looks oddly placed. The humanities faculties are formally required to collaborate with management/business faculties in the teaching of ‘soft’ or ‘non-technical’ courses, where the institution is focused on promoting programs in applied sciences and engineering.
At my university, I see humanities programs – fine arts and musicology – doing well. They are better than programs in social sciences in terms of student intake. Human biology and applied physics from the sciences have had a much lower intake than the humanities programs.
One advantage that humanities faculties under engineering have is that we have a lot to experiment with without having to fear the decline in the number of students. We enjoy an ‘activist’ position imposing visible humanities education through technology and market-driven niches and, of course, with optimum liberty in syllabus design and update. Because we have had enough space to work, we are literally optimistic. People elsewhere may have the challenge to retain their old glory while the number of humanities aspirants dwindles each year, but we remain fully engaged in implementing new content and exciting modes of delivery.
Seeing humanities in relation to crisis generally involves three fundamental dimensions. The first concerns the observer/victim position of the humanities. This aspect sheds light on how humanities as a discipline are being commercially dwarfed at the rise of career-centric streams in science and management. This also reflects how the discipline is victimized by the official cut of resources, or ‘de-prioritized’ or ‘subalternized’ as a poorly earning, non-competing field. I would add one more aspect to it: the field is suffering the neglect of its own offspring, who have largely failed to build their legacy.
The second dimension involves humanities as an actor or agent. This subscribes to the belief that humanities do or can or should perform significantly during spiritual crises. This relates to popular musings on the need for humanist interventions in that human values are dissipating, while the so-called career-oriented disciplines have failed to inculcate humanistic upbringing in the younger generation.
The third dimension of the humanities-crisis link presents humanities as an agency. This acknowledges that humanities are being positively approached and adopted elsewhere. And they are integrated in relevant domains and exploited for mutual growth mostly without formal consultation with ‘academically qualified’ humanists.
There is a lot going on that might enrich humanities in a broad sense and bring smiles to those apprehensive of a total dwindle. The actors, ingredients, and products have increased, probably without much care for being contributory to and willingness to be canonized. For example, books are being written and sold more than before. Writers are making quick fortunes to the extent of being valorized without the ‘test of time.’ Literary programs are being sponsored by business tycoons. There is a sort of resurgence in fine arts with the upsurge of digital technologies and platforms. A number of organizations are providing professional training in writing and presentation skills. Toastmasters are claiming to be more useful than historians or grammarians. Blogging is now as much a pastime as a creative pursuit. Youngsters own personal websites to practice and publish creative stuff independently. Many more things are on record, in fact.
Birla Institute of Technology and Science Pilani presents an example of where humanities are given a conditional yet sustainable space. The Institute houses strong integrated humanities departments on all of its four campuses. It offers two elective courses in humanities, which may range from ecocriticism, romantic poetry, and eastern philosophy to postcolonial studies, gender studies, and communication theories. The electives are additional to one compulsory course in communication skills. The teacher has the challenge to attract a minimum number of students in his or her course. The institute seems to emphasize teachers’ competence and performance as much as the relevance of the courses.
In my own place, we use literature as a tool for critical and creative thinking abilities. We train students of Science and Engineering with LSRW skills inside a digital platform of an interactive language lab. We teach ethics, professional grooming, and leadership development. The School of Management and School of Law place a high emphasis on critical thinking abilities. English teachers, and professionals other than humanities graduates, teach soft skills, academic writing, case writing, and analyses, debating skills, and public speaking.
Similarly, colleges teaching engineering and management reach out to their prospective employers through internship mandates and occasional placement/job fairs. They invite corporate leaders to make their students aware of the need in the competitive markets. They invite motivational speakers to inculcate human values and advise students to join meditation and yoga centers in their free time. Ironically, to a large extent, while educated humanists are lamenting the dwindling of general interest in canonical texts, yogis, corporate leaders and celebrities are inculcating value education in young people.
Many colleges at the same time are facing difficulty in finding teachers of history, political science, psychology, geography, or philosophy. These subjects are and will always be taken among the fundamental components of programs in business administration, communication studies, and entrepreneurship development. Some of the available specialized people are either heavily involved in I/NGO activities or too reluctant and/or docile to fulfill the demands of stakeholders in new settings. One reason why we do not get enough teachers in these subjects is that teaching in competitive institutions demands a high degree of commitment beyond monetary gains. Not always commitment and teaching walk hand in hand when money defines individual choices, and not many people have the commitment to share and upgrade knowledge.
We complain we have never had good politicians. I have a personal, rather professional, fear that we will also have few or no political scientists or historians in a decade ahead. Who knows, scholars of other interdisciplinary fields including English Studies will have an additional burden of teaching some courses in political science and history to compensate for the loss! It is a matter of necessity and situational update through research and publication. Forget about the blame of audacity to trespass the territories of some others who have almost gone defunct in the passage of time.
Some crises are rooted outside the academia, in our families, our ambitions. Are we bringing up our kids with an awareness of and tolerance for diversity of knowledge and disciplines? The problem lies in what today’s parents want from their young kids. If you like to call this a problem, the problem lies in where we wish to send our children, what kind of life we want them to pursue, and how we want them to treat us, and how different we want them to be from us. Neither the informal exposures during their formative education nor our repetitive, rather serious, dinner-time gossip on career choices include advocacy of humanistic training.
The change perhaps should begin from humanists first. Let me contextualize the idea this way. It is rather confessional. Most of us, the humanities fraternity, are secure and largely smug in our successes because we could exploit the best from our disciplines. But it would not be irrelevant to ruminate where our kids are heading to, or have already landed. I may not be wrong to say that we have (reasonably) collaborated with the younger generation in the act of castigating humanistic terrains. Our kids are doing engineering, management, medicine, or something that we believe will build their careers to our old-age satisfaction. And incessantly we grumble our discipline is dwindling because someone else’s kids did not join our dusty, rusty university classes.
And those someone else’s kids, reasonably enough, would not like to attend my three-hour-long, probably stale, lectures while YouTube or TED or Khan Academy features M H Abrams explaining the fourth dimension of poems, Michael Halliday revisiting the eclecticism of functional grammar and Steven Pinker defining academic writing from the point of view of cognitive psychology. Moreover, some of us do not feel challenged for a constant upgrade. Higher studies are rather geared towards acquiring eligibility for promotion than for intellectual pursuit, contribution to scholarship, and transfer of knowledge.
Also, where do we have an ‘ideal’ space for those who want to be educated in the real sense? For those who want to be wiser, more enlightened with values of life and awareness of the world? For those who have had safe careers because their families afford not to be dragged by the market but to provide the kids with the world’s best value education? Where is a safe school and intellectually enriching faculty and physical resources, and an ambiance unmolested by politics?
Not a surprise, humanists who have ventured into investing in education have not considered promoting humanities education in the real sense. And they will not. In fact, they cannot because investment in the humanities is equivalent to gambling, in the standards of being a part of the educational business that we have learned to do. Not a surprise, therefore, that much of the humanists’ money goes to promoting sciences, engineering, and management with the same degree of certainty and for the same reasons as their kids are pushed to these disciplines.
How big is the loss we humanists lament with so much pessimism? In fact, humanists do not take charge of every aspect of human life and society. Nor the stalwarts of other disciplines necessarily do. All disciplines, from their respective coteries, share only a small part of individual upbringing and social development. In this sense, we humanists must be wary about the loss or gain only within the small dimension of social life that we can cover with our services. Or I see there has never been a big loss to our discipline yet. Neither will there be provided we wake up, rise and work from early enough.
People of other disciplines are looking towards or imitating or making independent use of humanities with sustained awareness for and interest in complementing the humanistic training missed out in their traditional structures. But this is happening while people in the humanities are directing their own progeny to technical and career-oriented courses. Today’s society runs after new canons such as quality education, career-building, and leadership development with the same faith for good life as humanists advocate. But these are the areas where humanists may have a meaningful intervention. These can be where humanities education waits to be redirected to a much farther extent than traditional canon-teaching.
Teaching should be our most important priority. Teaching survives so long as human beings occupy this planet and sustain the instinct to know. Let us, therefore, teach and counsel because humans constantly need guidance. Friendship, value education, and aspects that have life-long significance to humans will be our, and largely our, responsibility to preserve, cherish and promote further. Let us continue to advocate their substantive inclusion in curricula across disciplines.
Gone, perhaps, are the days of waiting to pull the rest of the world into our cozy ivory towers. I think that the hour may be to reach out to our own neighbors, and our stakeholders, like people in other disciplines do.
[From Midlife Montage, Based on my paper to LAN Annual Conference, March 2016]