Finding idealism in humanities education in India
Chief Justice of India NV Ramana expressed concern that generations of students and parents may identify with each other (“No country for the ivory towers”, IE, December 11). The push towards professional degrees turns life into a jail exercise for children, and what those degrees fetch is, at best, a private achievement for the students who survive them and for the businesses that profit from their work. The absence of humanities in education, and the need for “idealism” to accompany “ambition”, was rightly underlined by him.
Having jumped (or stumbled) from a professional liberal arts degree myself, I want to share some concerns about the state of “idealism” in humanities education today. There is, however, also, in my opinion, a hope for such idealism, mentioned, coincidentally, also by Judge Ramana from a gesture he made during the annual convocation of the Institute of Sri Sathya Sai higher education in Puttaparthi, Andhra Pradesh.
If the balance of goals between students and teachers in universities was once between the pursuit of knowledge for itself (say, the humanities) and that of knowledge for personal benefit (professional degrees), today hui the picture seems to have shifted towards a different ideal. supplant both – social justice. University leaders are concerned with issues such as equity and diversity, and increasingly corporate employers have also embraced the language of social justice and change.
But, as the deep polarization in America in recent years shows, this apparent marriage of idealism and ambition in education has been a miserable failure. Schools, parents, teachers, diversity experts, activists – everyone seems to be in conflict with everyone. In a recent Virginia gubernatorial election, Democrats lost because of the feeling that the party establishment and mainstream media had demonized parents concerned about a new school curriculum focused on “social justice” in calling them 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 from all of this. While education aimed at promoting social justice as widely taught in American colleges and schools has led to increasing class polarization and failed to inspire real understanding and empathy for the poor, Where could the growing promotion of activist culture and social justice rhetoric in Indian schools and colleges lead us? Are we going to end up with a small group of well-meaning but uninformed, and even heartless, professional elites?
Will “Let them protest” become the “they eat cake” of our time?
There is already a danger in Indian society that polarization pushes us into “left” and “right” silos, from which everyone looks either “anti-national” or “fascist”. We can also see signs of this institutionalization in permanent divisions according to educational class and privilege; an elite transnational liberal arts culture on one side and a more modest middle-class patriotic culture on the other. Over time, one group will occupy the positions that will define the discourse, while the other will simply focus on making a living, finding its increasingly diminished voice in running the nation.
Is there a way out of this path of polarization? Critical Humanities from India, edited by Dr Venkat Rao, offers a deeper insight into the role of education in dealing with India’s past and future than most “critical” paradigms have offered until now. ‘now. Even though Indian and Indian scholars abroad (primarily identified as “Southeast Asia” for the convenience of the American Ivory Tower) profess a “critical” postcolonial position, much of what has been standardized as the teaching of the humanities 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 ”replacing at best“ race ”.
Unfortunately, “caste, class, gender” cannot be the beginning and the end of humanities education in India, as much of the talk around these terms does not come from Indian life or thought, but European religious assumptions. Indian liberal humanities teaching, we learn from this book, is limited by its location in “Christian theological ideas deeply nourished by moral self-training (Bildung).” The “crisis of the human sciences” comes from “our inability to understand the conception of man which is deeply rooted in the discourses of the human sciences that we (instrumentally) continue to serve”.
There are, however, different conceptions of “man” that still exist and are expressed, albeit in complicated ways, from which we could learn. One such space in my life turned out to be Prasanthi Nilayam, the ashram of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba where Judge 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 English to Telugu, because, he said, Baba valued three things: “Matrumurthi. Matrubhasha. Matrudesam. The audience burst into applause. To use a creative writing analogy, it was as if everything else was “telling” what was important, and those words, in Telugu, were “showing” it now. Macaulay, it seemed, was momentarily killed by a mention of Matrutva.
My formal education may have been in an English-speaking school (whose claim to fame produces CEOs) and a strongly Marxist American university. But I learned a lot more, including experiencing the culture and community at Prasanthi Nilayam, a place unlike any other I had seen. The real hope of idealism, I think, is the fact that while many of us might confuse our formal education with the limits of knowledge, the real world of generations of life is all around us as well. If we can inspire our students to look beyond the physical classroom to the lessons all around, including the lessons “inside”, perhaps a renewed humanity will indeed flourish.
The writer is professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco