In August 2017, representatives from 147 countries gathered at Liege, Belgium, to discuss the emerging role of humanities in education and chart out a course of action that would stress the importance of humanities in a world that is increasingly drifting towards an utilitarian educational set-up in the context of globalization. Organized jointly by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the International Council for Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH), the conference was the first organized platform in the 21st century to discuss the changing importance of humanities in world education.
It called for ‘a new foundation of the humanities rooted in responsibility in managing the human and cultural complexity of our societies, within a plurality of world cultures.’ The role of education in humanities education has been traditionally acknowledged as the key to foster the freedom and diversity of thought and transparency that are fundamental for all aspects of life in society and its irreplaceable role to promote a critical approach to values and for the understanding of longterm socio-cultural and economic processes, such as the challenges related to environmental changes, global migrations and conflict management.
However, this critical role has come under increasing stress with the primacy of what is commonly termed as the ‘Science, Technology, Engineering, Management’ (STEM) in the globalized world order, with education seen generally as an investment that has to yield rewards and returns which would be measurable in concrete, even financial terms. In our history of modern ideas, humanities evolved out of an increasing concern with the involvement of the Church in human affairs during the European Renaissance and the growing importance of the primacy of basic human values such as freedom of expression, exercise of creative and critical instincts, and the acknowledgement of the need to pursue knowledge freed from narrow dogmas and constraints.
Indeed, the word ‘humanities’ is etymologically traced to the Renaissance expression, studia humanitatis (Latin) or ‘study of the humanities’, a distinct group of activities which involved grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, moral philosophy and the classics. Broadly, the study of these disciplines has been traced to the ancient Greeks for whom these subjects formed the basis of education of its citizens.
While the scope of the humanities evolved with time and covered a number of newly emerging areas of thought, its primacy as a discipline was never significantly challenged even during the height of European Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. The record of premier universities in propagating humanities education in western democracies has been inspirational across the globe for the last couple of centuries with American universities carrying the credit for humanities evolving into serious subjects of discourse irrespective of the onslaught of technology- based digital and internet platforms.
However, the first challenge to the primacy of humanities came through the globalized economic order which, among other things, quantified human ideas and activities in economic terms and properties, thereby challenging the liberal platform on which humanities existed and flourished for most of human history. An offshoot of this radically different approach to the humanities implied that financial resources spent on the arts were necessarily construed as investments with the expectation of tangible, verifiable returns.
In an economic order based on investments and returns, the study of humanities had to shift to perspectives of economic utilitarianism, thereby diluting the freedom of scope enjoyed by humanists in academia across the world. As a consequence, a study of literature implied a mastery of the skillful use of its parent language through avenues as varied as soft skills, applied linguistics, spoken skills, and similar other pursuits with a distinctly practical orientation.
A dominant trend today is to prepare students through education that will make him a contributing member of the society from the moment education ends, and to this extent education in the humanities has been somewhat relegated with resources being largely spent on the propagation of technology and engineering, vocational skill development, and similar other education based strictly on its immediate outcome to the learners in practical terms.
While the practical requirements of an educational system is never disputed, what is at stake through this systematic neglect of the humanities is a poorer understanding of the human and social processes which make our society, lack of appreciation of essential differences which constitute mutually enriching existence, and a desperately poor ability to cope with the requirements of a composite society in cultural terms.
As such, education that is carved out of a neglect of the humanities will tend to push society towards increasing hostilities, violence, discontent, psychological instability, lack of tolerance and a neglect of the cohesive spirit in man. He will be too weak to sustain, let alone thrive, in an increasingly complex society and too ill-equipped to consolidate and sustain material gains. The challenge confronting the humanities cannot wholly be attributed to the economically nuanced world order.
A part of the blame rests on the practitioners of the humanities themselves. For long, and definitely since the World Wars, humanities have drifted to areas both abstract and remotely connected with the existence of the common man. Rampant theorizing on abstractions, inane debates on issues with which our lives are remotely related, and reckless gymnastics have contributed to the notion that much of contemporary humanities belong to the world of high ideas and most commoners would be strangers to its influence and worth.
In other words, humanities have failed to evolve with the times and a significant effort in such education still goes to areas which are remotely related to contemporary human problems and issues. A frequent cavil against humanities is that it has moved away from its primary objective to prepare men to face the challenges of existence by enabling people to absorb and articulate historically informed and socioculturally nuanced solutions to contemporary problems.
Indeed, evolution in humanities education has been painfully slow at best and static at its worst, and whatever changes have come about in the teaching and study of the humanities have been the fallout of reactions when pushed to the wall in an increasingly competitive educational scenario. Clearly, the complexities of contemporary existence cannot do without humanities. With technology overtaking human roles in our activities and even our thoughts through the artificial intelligence, humanities needs to go through a renaissance of its own so that it remains relevant to modern times.
It needs a radical restructuring of its scope and its practical implications. In spite of the fact that our lives are dictated by science, technology and economics, it goes without saying that the fundamental questions of who we are and how we ought to live still remain rather puzzling. Humanities can alone furnish the answers and solutions.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in English, Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya, Nadia in West Bengal)