A society that forgets its poet

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This is the time for the youngsters who have passed the board examinations to enter the domain of higher learning, and think of their career options and associated life-projects. However, this journey is not smooth because the perplexed young minds confront a social landscape, which through the dynamics of peer pressure, parental expectations, existing knowledge economy and the middle class striving for economic stability, puts enormous pressure on them and causes immense fear of any risk-taking venture. No wonder, it becomes exceedingly difficult to hear one’s inner call and choose what one is truly interested in.

Because of this conditioning and restrained horizon, the academic culture of the liberal arts and humanities has suffered a great deal. With the rise of neo-liberal global capitalism, as it is said, nothing remains free from the instrumental rationality of the market. This “colonisation of the lifeworld”, as Jurgen Habermas would put it, has shaped the discourses of higher education in a big way.

For example, the growing corporatisation of higher education, the insistence on “market-friendly” self-financing courses, the measurement of the success of a professor in terms of the bigness of the project he/she manages to get from the industry or the corporate lobby, and the simultaneous assertion that knowledge is primarily the mastery of “skills” — technical, financial and managerial.

One sees these disturbing trends all over the world. Moreover, in a highly stratified country like ours with uneven distribution of cultural capital or an aspirational society with reckless competition and survival anxiety, the problem becomes rather severe. For instance, for a large section of middle or lower middle-class parents and their children, the ultimate salvation, it seems, lies in the courses that promise to fetch jobs immediately and assure social mobility.

It is, therefore, not surprising that we see the enormous growth of private institutions offering courses — heavily commodified and packaged — in information technology, fashion designing, hotel management, business administration, biotechnology and clinical psychology. Even public universities are finding it difficult to resist this trend.

This has led to the devaluation of social sciences, liberal arts and humanities. Generally, in the popular imagination, these branches of knowledge are seen as “soft”, “easy”, “ideological” and even “feminine” — not very useful for the “practical” world. A bleak future in terms of career options is also associated with them. It would not be an exaggeration to say that in this utilitarian age these disciplines are often stigmatised.

Another factor unique to India — the logic of UPSC civil service exams — has further devalued these disciplines. Doctors, engineers, science/commerce graduates — anyone, it is popularly believed, can take sociology/psychology/political science/Hindi literature as an “easy” paper that needs just guide books and a series of lectures (or “success assuring” notes) by a bunch of tutors in the coaching centres. Social sciences die because in these education shops Tagore and Marx, Foucault and Hobsbawm, Ashis Nandy and Rajni Kothari cannot exist.

As a teacher with some sensitivity to critical pedagogy, I dare to see beyond this dominant practice, and argue that we would cause irreparable damage to the fabric of our civilisation if we keep devaluing the significance of the liberal arts and humanities. What these knowledge traditions give us is something beyond the temporal value of the market.

We gain a sense of history — history as the interplay of culture and nature, technological innovation and social uprising, and human creativity and political transformation; we acquire the hermeneutic skills for entering the symbolic universe of cultural artifacts, mythologies and civilisational memories; and above all, we begin to think critically and cultivate emancipatory urges for rescuing us from the principle of domination, surveillance and media-simulated seduction.

We should not forget that a society which forgets its poets, philosophers and artists is a decadent society. It is bound to crumble. No wonder, as liberal arts and humanities decline, we see youngsters — technically skilled, but culturally impoverished; corporate professionals — wealthy, but devoid of a deep philosophy of life. Authoritarianism, as we are realising, emerges in the absence of critical thinking, humanistic temper and liberal values.

However, I believe that as teachers we have a great responsibility. Yes, despite this ugly politics of knowledge economy, some students will join liberal arts and humanities. How do we sensitise them, educate them and in the process, get ourselves educated? I see two major obstacles. First, we kill the critical spirit, the curiosity of a learner, and are almost compelled to equate knowledge with a set of “objective” facts (or a bundle of discrete pieces of information) needed for utterly non-creative public examinations like the National Eligibility Test. And second, in the name of “scholarship”, as the reading list of DU undergraduate courses like sociology would suggest, we transform a learner into a tired/exhausted parrot using only borrowed words and theories with no space for meditative thinking and engaged social practice.