Skip to content

Finding idealism in humanities education in India

Chief Justice of India NV Ramana expressed a concern that generations of students and parents can relate to (‘No country for ivory towers’, IE, December 11). The push towards professional degrees turns life into a prison drill for children, and what these degrees yield is, at best, private success for the students who survive it and for the companies that profit from their labour. The absence of humanities in education, and the need for “idealism” to accompany “ambition,” was rightly pointed out by him.

Having leapt (or stumbled) from a professional degree to the liberal arts myself, I wish to share a few concerns about the state of “idealism” in humanities education today. There is, however, also hope for such idealism in my view, evoked, coincidentally enough, also by Justice Ramana from a gesture he made at the annual convocation of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh.

If the balance of goals between students and teachers in universities once lay between a pursuit of knowledge for their own sake (say, humanities) and that of knowledge for personal benefit (professional degrees), today the picture seems to have shifted towards a different ideal supplanting both—social justice. University leaders are concerned about issues like equity and diversity, and increasingly, corporate employers too have taken to the language of social justice and change.

But, as the deep polarization in America in recent years shows, this seeming marriage of idealism and ambition in education has been a dismal failure. Schools, parents, professors, diversity experts, activists — everyone seems to be in conflict with everyone else. In a recent election for governor in Virginia, the Democrats lost because of a feeling that the party establishment and mainstream media had demonized parents concerned about a new “social justice”-oriented curriculum in schools as racists and even terrorists. “Woke” has become an insult in some circles, and a badge of honor in others.

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. If education aimed at promoting social justice of the sort taught widely in American colleges and schools has led to a growing polarization along class lines and has failed to inspire real understanding and empathy for the poor, where might the growing promotion of activist culture and social justice rhetoric in Indian schools and colleges lead us? Will we end up with a small group of well-meaning but uninformed, and even heartless professional elites?

Will “let them protest” become the “let them eat cake” of our times?

There is a danger already in Indian society that polarization has pushed us into “Left” and “Right” silos, from which everyone else looks like either “anti-nationals” or as “fascists.” We can also see signs of this being institutionalized into permanent divisions along lines of class and educational privilege; an elite transnational liberal arts culture on one side, and a more modest patriotic middle-class culture on the other. In time, one group will occupy the positions that will define the discourse, while the other will merely focus on earning a living, finding its voice ever diminished in the running of the nation.

Is there a way out of this path of polarisation? Critical Humanities from India, edited by D Venkat Rao, offers a deeper insight into the role of education in addressing Indian pasts and futures than most “critical” paradigms have offered so far. Even as Indian and Indian-origin scholars abroad (mostly identified as “South Asian” for the convenience of the American ivory tower) profess a “critical” postcolonial position, much of what has been normalized as humanities education from or about South Asia has been along the lines of the “mantra” (as Western critical scholars called it) of “race, class, gender,” with “caste” filling in for “race” at best.

Unfortunately, “caste, class, gender” cannot be the beginning and end of humanities education in India, because much of the discourse around these terms comes not from Indian life or thought but from European religious assumptions. Indian liberal humanities education, we learn from this book, is limited by its location in “deeply nurtured Christian theological ideas of moral self-formation (Bildung).” The “crisis in humanities” comes from “our failure to understand the conception of man that is deeply enshrined in the discourses of the humanities that we continue (instrumentally) to service.”

There are, however, different conceptions of “man” that still exist and express themselves, albeit in complicated ways, that we might learn from. One such space in my life happened to be Prasanthi Nilayam, the ashram of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba where Justice Ramana spoke recently. At the end of his formal speech calling on students to live up to the ideals of their institution, he suddenly switched from speaking in English to Telugu, because, he said, Baba valued three things: “Matrumurthi. Matrubhasha. Matrudesam.” The audience broke out in applause. To use a creative writing analogy, it was as if everything else had been about “telling” what was important, and these words, in Telugu, were now “showing” it. Macaulay, it seemed, was slain momentarily by an evocation of Matrutva.

My formal education may have been in an English-medium school (whose claim to fame is churning out CEOs) and a Marxism-heavy American university. But I was taught by a lot more, including the experience of culture and community in Prasanthi Nilayam, a place like no other I had seen. The real hope for idealism, I think, is the fact that while many of us might mistake our formal education for the limits of knowledge, the real world of generations of life is also present around us. If we can inspire our students to look beyond the physical classroom to the lessons all around, including the lessons “within”, perhaps a renewed humanities will indeed blossom.

This column first appeared in the print edition on December 16, 2021 under the title ‘The idealism within’. The writer is professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.