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The art of the matter

india Updated: Jun 07, 2007 04:24 IST
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As I saw the bright young faces topping the ICSE, CBSE and ISC adorning the front pages of national newspapers the other day, and read about their solemn aspirations to careers in science, engineering and medicine, I could not help feeling a wee bit listless. The monopoly of academically brilliant students in science-related careers reminded me of a still prevalent hierarchy existent from my own times and before, that a career in science is the preserve of only the intellectually brighter ones, while the social sciences are for the dim-witted, because social sciences do no require the merit necessary, for instance, for a career in biotechnology and astrophysics. Now of course, there are such academic institutions, I hear, the below par engineering, management and medicine colleges, where the irrepressible parents take their wards when they fail to make it to the best institutions like the IITs and IIMs but the talking point is not that.

Why not? About 22 per cent of Fortune 200 CEOs have an engineering degree. In fact, engineering is the most common undergraduate degree among the Fortune 200 CEOs. Over 30 per cent of Microsoft employees are Indians. The NASA relies on Indian brains for its various missions and IIT graduates are considered the world's brightest.

The nub of the issue is that the academic pursuits in India, unfortunately, are not dictated by a genuine passion or flair for the subjects. Of course, there are 'misplaced' geniuses like Raj Kamal Jha who chose to become writers, which they, perhaps, very well would have become without being IITians. The young Pakistani writer, Mohsin Hamid, of The Reluctant Fundamentalist fame, for instance, studied law and later became a management consultant. The academic backgrounds often become irrelevant to the choice of a career but what always makes me green with envy is that while for science students graduating to liberal arts is not very difficult, the reverse is not always the same.

And that poses for me a dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities. Like every schoolboy asked to tot up the usefulness of science in our daily lives (almost everybody was asked to write an essay on that topic), it is difficult not to see why science is more popular a career choice with every young adolescent. I can’t take this obsession without a pinch of salt. Though scientists have changed peoples’ lives, they have done so in only a physical sense. Artistes of the stature of Beethoven, Rembrandt, Chopin and Shakespeare have changed man's life spiritually. Who has served mankind most becomes redundant. In his famous Rede lecture, The Two Cultures, CP Snow argued that England’s educational elite was split between two distinct groups: the scientists and those in the arts and humanities and these influential groups misunderstood each other to an increasing degree.

What are the humanities? The humanities are often defined as a group of academic disciplines, which was used by the US Congress when the National Endowment for the Humanities was established in 1964. The humanities include, but are not limited to, history, literature, philosophy and ethics; foreign languages and cultures; linguistics; jurisprudence or philosophy of law; archaeology; comparative religion; the history, theory, and criticism of the arts; and those aspects of the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, government, and economics) that use historical and interpretive rather than quantitative methods.

If the instance of America appears profitable, President Lyndon Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities Act in 1965, creating the National Council on the Humanities and funded the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1969. NEH is an independent grant-making agency of the American government dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programmes in the humanities.

If one considers the respect a Nobel Prize for Physics commands compared to the Nobel Prize for Literature, one can understand why sciences appeal more to the people, perhaps because of their immediacy to the needs of the people and because of their applicational aspects to the welfare of mankind. A Literature prize, many consider, is more of the result of political wheeling-dealing and the capacity of the putative recipient of raising the right political noises while a Physics or Chemistry prize is relatively above board. Why does this have to be so? Amartya Sen’s welfare economics, in quantifiable terms, can miss the common man than say, a breakthrough in cancer. But when the relatives go on to buy an expensive drug for a cancer-afflicted patient that is beyond their reach, the finer dynamics of economics loom large.

But there’s merit in that the craze for studying science and engineering is socially expedient. We need more doctors and cheap healthcare costs. We need good architects and engineers to build roads, bridges and buildings. We need good managers because (as Drucker said) management is vital not only for commercial business, but also for hospitals, churches, labour unions and youth groups. But we also need artists and historians.

Two of our most distinguished scholar-politicians, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President APJ Abdul Kalam want India not only to deliver a far greater pool of scientists but also want top quality scientific papers to be produced in far greater numbers. According to a rather dated estimate (the Human Development Report 2004), only 25 per cent of all students enrolled in tertiary institutions in India are studying maths, science and engineering programmes (cf. China's 53 per cent) while the number of researchers engaged in R&D in the country is a mere 157 per million of the population (cf. China's 587). In the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's (SJTU) Academic Ranking of World Universities 2003, none of India's 317 mainstream varsities made it into the ranking of the global top 500 tertiary-level institutions of higher education. The only institutions which figured in the list — headed by Harvard and Stanford universities and the California Institute of Technology — are the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), ranked in the 251-300 slot, and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) of Delhi and Kharagpur in the 451-500 slot.

I did not come across any such estimate about how humanities are faring in India. We do not have a nationwide estimate of the number of our doctorates in history, literature and other social sciences, nor any comment on the quality of their research (besides papers produced to acquire some lectureship or fellowship). Apart from some centres of excellence like the Delhi School of Economics, Centre for Social Studies, or some bright departments of our colleges and varsities, we never had an academic institution of the standing of the University of Oxford or Harvard that lays equal emphasis on the humanities. In the West, the study of the humanities can be traced to ancient Greece, as the basis of a broad education for citizens.

There are newer pastures like hospitality industry, fashion, advertising, journalism, creative writing and many such areas which offer lucrative career options but an intense emphasis on only a few careers is bound to retard our intellectual growth. If all bright Indian students become engineers, doctors and managers, and should you insist, software professionals, because such careers can give them greater financial independence, what will happen to our economists, political scientists, sociologists and historians? Are students of such subjects condemned to become teachers, administrators and clerks or pursue sundry other generalist low-paying careers? If the future of studying such subjects is so bleak in terms of the meagre and limited employment opportunities, who would be interested in studying them? Not surely the best and brightest in our country. If the market dictates the academic orientation of a country, and the criteria become a bright career in terms of the pay packet, woe betide the humanities and as such, they are bound to languish.

(Prasenjit Chowdhury is a teacher)