A plea for Humanities
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

The humanities are in decline. People will argue that I am like Cicero decrying the ‘fall of Rome’ in defending the humanities when in fact they are the core curriculum of many of the world’s finest universities. Nevertheless, they are very much in decline.

Most of the world’s cultures study very little of their histories—China tells history as it want it told, most of the African nations are too embroiled in war and chaos to worry objectively about the past, and the general pattern is a strong lack of historical, cultural and humanistic research in developing countries. The worst offender is India. India doing the same is unpardonable in my eyes.

The problem in India is the decline of scholarly self-reflection. One of the editors of this blog mentioned to the author that BibekDebroy is putting out a translation of the Mahabharata. The immediate response to the statement was, “Yes, but he’s not really a scholar…” The rather sharp reply to this statement by the editor was, “Do you know of anything better?” This remains the sad state of affairs. One must read the incomplete translation by van Buitenen to read Vyasa in all his glory (of course, one could study Sanskrit otherwise, but that is far less likely). Why do we not have the impetus to study ourselves?

It is rather shameful, and indicative of the stage of development that India is currently in. Developed countries tend, often, to export not only services and goods, but culture. Greece, the United States, Rome, Russia, France, Britain, and Spain all share this commonality—each has been at the center of an era of great thought, each has contributed to the culture of the World, as we know it today.

Sadly enough, India of ages past was exporting its culture when most of Europe was mucking around in mud. Only lately has India slowed, significantly, its culture of intellectual dynamism and throughput. Even throughout the occupation of the British we have a steady export of Indian ideas, beliefs, philosophies, and languages. In the ages past, we exported the concept of dhyana to the East—today it is “Chan” Buddhism, and it’s Japanese counterpart “Zen” Buddhism. From Srinivasa Ramanujan to the rather kooky aspects of the Theosophy Society, Indian thought has produced great shifts of intellectual paradigms in the last century. The export of religious tolerance might well be attributed to Swami Vivekananda and his master, Sri Ramakrishna.

The export of ahimsa, in all its misapplied glory, was the legacy of Gandhi. All this leads me to ask again why does India not produce the same self-reflective scholarship that it produced earlier? Today India is the country of Bollywood dancing, the Kama Sutra, and fake holy men.

We simply do not value it. In an attempt to maintain impartiality—and populist sentiment—we have chosen to deny our differences, suppress the various cultures rather than embrace them. All this is done in the name of modernizing and developing India economically. In this infighting, we lose precious culture. The biggest indication of this great problem is the title of perhaps the best-known Indian institutions of learning—the Indian Institutes of Technology. So in today’s world studying much of Indian culture means, rather pathetically and ironically, one must leave it behind.

Often, we hear citation of the fact that higher study in the humanities is unavailable in India. Conducting a small amount of research, it is rather easy to find that most of the top ranked universities in India do in fact offer some curriculum for the study of the humanities. But, the bulk of these highly ranks institutions are the IITs. Here we find a peculiar feature: all humanities and arts curricula are grouped into one ‘college’ and each of the engineering departments has a ‘college’ of its own. There is a definite prejudice against the humanities.

Our own prejudices within the country do not go unnoticed. The University of Cambridge states the following about entry requirements to their M.Phil. program in Economics, “Candidates with a BA in Economics from an Indian University are required to apply for the Diploma in Economics before continuing onto the MPhil in their second year.” They maintain that an Indian is technically unprepared, though s/he may be intellectually capable, for the rigor of their program.

The cause of this rather stark difference is an Indian perception that humanities students couldn’t get into an engineering program or a program for medicine. There is immense pressure to choose a ‘tougher’ subject. An electrical engineer from India is seen as being ‘smarter’ than a student of the humanities in the same institution.

This (somewhat) self-fulfilling prophecy is propagated by the inclination of top-scorers to gravitate towards engineering. We (assuming that in fact top-scorers are more intelligent than their lower-ranked brethren) notice that this cycle perpetuates the notion that engineering is more demanding.

The author of this article will confess to being subject to such prejudices: it was tremendously surprising to go from the perception that the author was a ‘bright’ child to exclamations of “I wonder what happened with that one…’ Fortunately, these whispers were not so damaging to the author’s ego as to drive away interest in the social sciences and humanities.

A combination of some very inspirational teachers and a relatively trusting father are not the kind of luxuries that most students have access to. The average student growing up in India would not make the same choice as the author, and this realization is not based on statistical survey, but rather an ethnographical observation of attitudes in India.

The humanities are pervasive, necessary, and the cornerstone of the democracy that India wishes to be. The study of history teaches us to develop from our mistakes. The study of logic clarifies our thought and builds our capacity for discourse. The study of religion shapes our beliefs in morality. The biggest example of the need for these studies is found in the same engineering departments that we have just disparaged.

Let us take nuclear fission. On the one hand, we have the immense problem the technology poses when weaponized and the contrast is the great benefit of nuclear power in offering cleaner and longer lasting energy. Such effects of technology on human life are a very narrow application of humanistic study within engineering.

No engineer would debate the point that a government with all its deliberative resources must control such an immense power. This much—the social responsibility of the scientist—is an integral part of the engineer’s curriculum. But does the engineer study the means and methods of preventing such a government from bearing down on its constituents?

India is often cited as a surprise success in the implementation of democracy, but we are plagued by graft, dynastic rule, and great social cleavages. Moreover, we are subject to communalism and violence. For a democracy to truly work, the population of a country must be able to value and decide amongst the many competing interests. James Madison writes in the 10th Federalist paper,

“Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith, and of public and personal liberty, that our Governments are too unstable; that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of rival parties; and that measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice, and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.” So it is in India; we have a majority of people that are unqualified, unable, and ill-equipped to make the decisions of the sort—of the magnitude— that a citizen of a democracy is tasked with.

We cannot take away their right to participation in the government; it is inherent to the democratic principle. But we may equip them adequately for such responsibility. For that, the Indian attitude towards humanistic study must change. The same prejudices are not found in the west—at least not to the degree we see them in India. What I propose is a re-pivoting of Indian education. We must move away from the test-score based admission process, and we must move to more holistic criteria.

No doubt, with the immensity of the Indian population, this poses a significant challenge, but unless, we develop the structure and framework of an intellectually capable citizenry we cannot subsist in the future as a legitimate democracy. What has been identified is a serious problem, and India must find it in itself to promote the study of humanities if it wishes to prosper as a democracy. The humanities must be given their deserved respect if India is to develop into a global influence today.