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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

For an inclusive humanities pedagogy

Photo: Hemachandran Karah
"An academic ambience that privileges sciences over the humanities, English as the medium of instruction over other local languages and one identity marker over the other will create humans rich with knowledge but short on empathy. A more integrated pedagogy needs to be devised to make humanities more inclusive." according to Hemachandran Karah.
Humanities are gaining visibility in institutions devoted to engineering and technology such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)
Photo: The Hindu

At the heart of humanities education lies empathy, a capacity to understand others in their own terms and contexts. To this end, disciplines in humanities — including history, literature, philosophy, and psychology — rely on the art of interpretation. An interpretative mind can not only take cognisance of life situations, near and far, but also instil thought processes that can transform one’s ideas about them from within. 

So the ‘impact factor’ of humanities, so to speak, is categorised in terms of capacity to transform imagination, reasoning, and thought itself, albeit through somewhat intangible means. Influences on the mind are difficult to quantify, so are their outcomes. This renders humanities scholarship vulnerable to ridicule, neglect, and outright discrimination. This is not all: a conflicting relationship with the science establishment and a confusion concerning the appropriate medium of learning burden Indian system of education in humanities. 

Science-humanities divide
Thinking about humanities’s discordant relationship with the science establishment, I cannot resist a bit of a flashback. As it happens now, we high school students herded ourselves into first, second, third, and fourth groups just after our high school board exams. With a shocking sense of artificially created hierarchy among us on the basis of our choice of groups, we began branching out, pursuing courses in material sciences, biological sciences, commerce, and, last of the lot, humanities. Trapped in our shells by a rigid sense of specialisation, we started on our individual journeys from where we were expected to speak in mutually unintelligible languages, chase divergent job markets and organise our inner lives and rate our knowledge systems in sync with the realities inherent in our disciplines. This mentality persists till date, bewitching technologists and humanities experts alike. Consequently, both fail to appreciate the idea that the efforts of a social scientist and a scientist can actually complement each other.

Scientists and technologists work on problems using mathematical and experimental methods. Their vocation is based on the premise that all problems are amenable to scientific solutions. Scientists even aspire to devise grand frameworks — like the M-Theory — that can potentially explain everything about the universe and the humanity’s evanescent place in it.

In pursuing such grand chases and technological feats, scientists work closely with the industrial and military complexes as much as the ruling dispensation. Naturally, they approach existing power structures and controversial debates surrounding them with caution. Also, they tend to stay away from politics, often reasoning that it does not come within the ambit of their vocation.

Social scientists brand such a withdrawal as ‘Rightist leaning’. This is clearly incorrect since a typical Indian scientist’s formative period is anything but politically inclined. If humanities scholars desire a more imaginative learning world for scientists, they should, by all means, push for the same. After all, it is disciplines such as Medical Humanities that have prompted Western medical science establishment into thinking about the patients’ inner worlds, looking beyond their illnesses. Similar feats can be replicated in India too where humanities are gaining visibility in institutions devoted to engineering and technology such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).

Source: The Hindu