Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Humanities Education: Need For A 'Repair'

College Education may indeed change as the social demands of it transform radically. We can debate whether this is good or bad - I have argued elsewhere that there is little objective discussion here and a lot of self-interested talk - but one frightening consequence of this is the impending demise of Humanities. This threat is less clear in some countries than others. An extreme case is India, which is fast becoming a nation of Engineers (and also Doctors and Lawyers), where humanities is usually treated as a subject for girls, or those who are not expected to make a living. But this is also pronounced in countries like the United States, where humanities funding is under threat in many states, and even in Western European countries, which were traditionally focused on liberal education but that edifice is being dismantaled rapidly with the roll-back of public funding of Higher Education.

In response to this decline of the humanities, a number of books and articles have been written in the last few years. Usually, the argument for humanities operates at two different levels. First, there is a vocational argument, which accepts that the primary role of college education is to help the student become economically productive. This argument highlights the primary role of human abilities such as judgement, empathy and perspective in today's vocations such as management, strategy-making and design, and proposes that a good humanities education is indispensable for development of such qualities. Besides, there are arguments made for development of Character, a new buzzword, and the key role humanities play in this. Second, somewhat distinct from the above, some commentators argue that it is mistake to limit education's role to economic gains alone, and posit a good humanities education as the key to democratic society. The core of the argument is similar - that humanities help develop perspective and tolerance, empathy for other points of view etc - but this is projected in the broader social context rather than just for vocational needs.

This may appear common sense, but there are powerful arguments arrayed against humanities. First, its detractors argue that it is a mistake to claim that humanities education is uniquely able to develop perspectives and judgement. They argue that a good technical education, if delivered in an application oriented form, can do the same. Second, the argument about Character is easily refuted - it is the process of education rather than content of it! Third, the argument about humanities helping build democracy runs directly counter to the technocratic mindset, current dominant in political circles, that democracy is simply a function of a set of institutions backed by economic prosperity. This argument also runs backward, that without economic prosperity, no democracy can survive - and, hence, the case for humanities education is seen hollow at best.

Whatever its merit, the arguments contra-humanities are made by powerful people, usually the bankers who believe in economic motivations first and foremost, supported by, in an odd coalition, by bureaucrats who believe in technocratic nature of democracies. It is also helped by those who argue about humanities being about a higher form of judgement, and spin all sorts of linguistic pretensions that distinguish academic left from the rest of the humanity. In a way, the arguments for and against humanities education stand on very similar grounds - that human actions need a higher form of consciousness which is the preserve for a select group of people - and hence, humanities loses ground when the conversation is about mass Higher Education and wider economic participation.

This is a mistake. The experience of newly industrialised countries perhaps indicate that democracy should not be taken for granted. Attempts to enforce the institutions of choice and a matching economic order have failed spectacularly. The overt emphasis on vocational education created an army of engineers, but such economic prosperity has not helped develop middle class sensibilities, and have not sparked a re-run of self-sustaining industrial revolution. Rather than creating positive feedback loop of innovation, social reform and progress, the modern industrial societies have shown fragile dependence on 'Hot Money', real estate or stock market booms and accelerating emigration. And, if anything, the democratic institutions have been undermined by industrial development - and China has become the preferred model - and prosperity (or the sense of it) has run counter to progress. One can, and tends to, dismiss all these as a reaction to unrestrained globalisation, but that in itself is a failure of policy-making, and of making sense.

There are some, Michael Roth of Wesleyan included (in his passionate and well-argued book about humanities education), who see a renewed interest in China about 'Liberal Arts'. My friends in India would also point to the 'Liberal Arts opportunity', arguing that employers prefer to recruit Liberal Arts graduates from good colleges than MBAs from indifferent institutions. But there may be little to celebrate here: The 'Liberal Arts' fetish is prompted by the elitism and quest for distinction rather than any attempt to develop better judgement, empathy or understanding. It is also about importing the very American format of selective Liberal Arts colleges, backed by the same pretentious argument that democracy (or progress, as in the case of China) can only be sustained by a special group of people with higher form of consciousness - or, better grasp of rhetoric.

Humanities Education, therefore, needs a 'repair'. The question before the humanities educator is existential in nature: How to make it fit for our system of mass education and universal economic participation? In this, the argument for exclusivity should be abandoned first - a humanities education fit for all humans is perhaps the need of the day - and making such education accessible, rather than inaccessible as this new-found love for Liberal Arts institutions in developing countries look to do, is a clear imperative. Humanities education is yet to catch up fully with the two great movements in education in modern times - Lifelong Learning (many humanities educators treat this as an extension of consumer society in education, but do not make the case well) and Education Technology (which is seen as a tool of Capital, rather than an enabler of universal education) - and a rethinking would necessarily embarce these twin trends. The success of many humanities programmes, both on MOOC platforms as well as Premium offerings such as The Great Courses, should serve as a pointer to the shape of things to come.

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