The basic function of education is to enhance the humanising potential. The other distressing alternative is dehumanisation. Between the two, only humanisation can be the acceptable vocation.
The study of humanities promotes the process and also serves as a bulwark against dehumanising forces, that threaten humankind and are unleashed certain aspects of technology and the economy that are bereft of the human element.
Hence, the importance of the study of humanities and social sciences. Rather, the critical thinking, historical knowledge and ethical reasoning, that the humanities can develop, are the pre-requisites for personal growth and participation in a democracy.
But in the present period of increasing unemployment and decreasing university endowments, questions relating to the importance of humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have acquired renewed urgency.
Previous economic downturns across the world have often led to decreased enrolment in the disciplines loosely grouped under the term “humanities” ~ which include languages, literature, the arts, history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion.
There is no denying that the humanities have advanced the growth of civilisation. Yet teaching and learning of the same is in a pathetic state. We have come to believe that Spencer’s doctrine of survival of the fittest and Darwin’s doctrine of struggle for existence are the last words in philosophy.
And the sort of insecurity that is prevalent today and the state of anarchy that we witness almost every day stem from such a belief. We are living in a world of organised anarchy.
Unfortunately, this understanding of democracy has come to determine the intellectual, moral and material condition of mankind. Human values are breaking up and are damaging the foundation of society.
The world is turning into a wasteland, as TS Eliot would have put it, since man has ceased to have self-control, self-sacrifice and sympathy ~ the very virtues that form the bedrock of civilised society.
The tragedy is that the prophets guiding the course of this century are not saints like Socrates, Buddha or Christ. They are prophets of money like Marx; of sex like Freud; of power like Nietzsche, Hitler and Mussolini. In a world governed by the principles of the economy, sex and power, such disciplines as literature, art and religion have little scope for survival.
Freud, like Marx, dismisses the universal belief in the existence of God and His power of creation and maintains that sex is the supreme reality and the supreme secret of human existence.
His followers have come to believe that traditional philosophy, religion and ethics are only different brands of traditional hypocrisy. Nietzsche, whose philosophy is said to have inspired Hitler and who denounced the ideals of truth, justice, charity, morality and God, discovered the secret of survival in the realisation of power.
The three-fold philosophy of money, sex and power is at the root of scientific progress. The countries that are the most materially advanced are those which have made the greatest scientific advance.
In these countries there is little space left for human values. Since the humanities are rooted in human values, there is little hope for their survival. They are almost at the point of dying a natural death.
The process of poetic decline began with the beginning of scientific civilisation. The first major blow that poetry received from science was at the foundation of the Royal Society in Europe. However, it was not until the Industrial revolution in the 19th century that it faced a grave crisis.
The writings of utilitarian philosophers and classical economists changed the current of human thinking. Bentham’s doctrine of “self-interest” and Adam Smith’s doctrine of “the economic man” gave a rude shock to the humanities. They sought to prove that man was nothing but “a covetous machine”.
Thus, the propagation of the Benthamite philosophy and teaching of political economy made England the centre of hedonism, philistinism and materialism in the western world. It was to check the rise of this tendency in man that the three great advocates of humanities of the age ~ Carlyle, Ruskin and Arnold ~ applied their intellectual energy.
Carlyle called political economy “a dismal science” and tried to restore one’s faith in God and respect for the human personality. Ruskin gave to the science of wealth that touch of tenderness and sympathy, of fellowship and dignity that forms the basis of art and literature, of poetry and painting.
Mathew Arnold deplored the fact that economics and industry had left the “upper class materialised”, the “middle class vulgarised” and the “lower class brutalised”.
He believed that the human face was safe only in the hands of poets who were the best guides of mankind because they applied profound ideas to life. They could teach the art of life because poetry has influenced criticism of life.
Thus, Carlyle as a prophet of history, Ruskin as a professor of art, and Arnold as a professor of poetry, struggled to retain the ancient glory of humanities. But, alas, by the end of the 20th century humanities ceased to cope with trade and technology.
In this day and age we bear witness to the sorry state of Latin and Greek in Oxford and Cambridge, and of Sanskrit and Pali in Indian universities. In a word, the study of humanities has suffered a decline.. The position of modern languages and literature, including French and English, is not encouraging. Students have started discarding these disciplines obviously because they offer few opportunities.
In India, the liberalisation of the economy has intensified the demand for job-oriented courses. In the USA, there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of students interested in the humanities while taking the preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.
Over the past few decades, the percentage of undergraduates who study humanities has been remarkably low. Also, there has been a decline in funding by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and major private foundations have also cut back their assistance. However, there are some humanities colleges that still enjoy importance and draw a good number of international students.
In fact, it is imperative to have a core curriculum, based on books, in which a liberal education would mean reading certain generally recognised classic texts. This would be an exciting experience for students to read and reread. It can be an independent and fulfilling experience.
The post-modern approach of “the death of the author” and, subsequently, “the birth of the reader”, will lead nowhere beyond itself. Philosophy is the best discipline for nourishing the soul.
Socrates is the high priest of the temple of knowledge and Plato’s Republic is the real book on education. Whereas Aristotle is the champion of individual human reason, Rousseau had envisaged a community whose unanimity is necessary to form a political regime.
A humanist, Professor Satish Dhawan, had once pointed out that there were inherent dangers in the large-scale application of new technologies without very careful planning and assessments.
In using science and technology to address social problems, he recognised that it was not enough to simply provide innovative solutions. If these novel systems were to be truly effective, user communities would have to feel comfortable with them.
The writer is a former Associate Professor, Dept. of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata.