No discrimination in the branches of education

humanitiesThe government keep on tossing students. Education is the first target for any frustrated politicians. It is high time the nation takes a holistic view of education without discriminating between professional and humanities courses.

Shahid Amin writes in The Times of India (11 July 2009)

Education in India appears to be in for a major revamp. There is a certain urgency to getting things right this time. Imparting of knowledge, skill, expertise, all these need to be of high order but without bypassing the aam aadmi. A balance between quality and a level playing field has to be ensured. The government must pump in more resources, but also make investment in education by private players attractive. All this seems propelled by two considerations: first, to try and meet the abysmal shortage of engineers, doctors, educators which India faces and, second, to climb up the ladder of educational success on the world scale. We get dejected by the fact that none of our IITs figure anywhere near the top, or even the middle, of international listings.

Most such listings are biased in favour of cataloguing academic output across universities in the sciences. One may be forgiven for thinking that the blips figuring most prominently on the radars of our educational CEOs are the sciences, law, medicine and management. This is not to denigrate the importance of these disciplines, but only to underscore the appalling lack of any fresh thinking on the role of the humanities in the fashioning of the India of tomorrow.

The feeling that universities must relate to the market instead of functioning largely in the realm of ideas often leads to certain oversights. First, the best universities in Europe and the US continue to have programmes in the core areas of the humanities and social sciences: their remit is to train well-rounded undergraduates, not single-minded, monochromatic specialists. This attention to ‘universals’ distinguishes premier universities like Oxford and Harvard from polytechnics and other institutions offering only professional courses. Lest we forget, the emphasis put in independent India on strengthening core humanities and social science disciplines (economics, history, sociology, political science, literature) has contributed its part to the development of a vigorous civil society.

An absence of democratic governance in several parts of the world has often gone hand in hand with an excessive emphasis on the technical and the professional in education, to the relative neglect of the humanistic and the social scientific. It would be suicidal for India to forsake the nurturing of these critical components. The upsurge of the marginalised requires that apart from making them employable, we also invest resources in understanding our society’s past and present. Electoral analysis cannot be a substitute for understanding the ‘politics of the governed’ in its wider social, cultural and economic dimensions.

We hear about the contribution of Indians worldwide in medicine, management and the sciences. What has gone unnoticed is the large number of prestigious positions occupied by our social scientists and humanists in some top universities the world over. Our achievement in these fields has been considerable. We need to invest in innovative programmes in these very areas. To take one example, there has been a singular lack of attention to classical and pre-modern languages and scripts in higher education. Sanskrit and Persian language and literature are taught in a large number of universities. But in most instances, their teaching has little interaction with those studying ancient and medieval Indian history. Till 50 years ago there was an essential language requirement for those studying pre-modern India. The average history researcher today is largely innocent of any language other than English and her mother tongue. This has created a piquant situation: there are very few scholars left who can meaningfully study a Sanskrit or Persian inscription.

The same holds for scripts. A good many older records and texts were written in scripts different from those used today in some modern Indian languages. So Marathi had its specialised ‘modi’ script for revenue documents, Urdu had ‘shikasta’, a kind of munshi’s short-hand, and Hindi in large parts of UP and Bihar was written in ‘kaithi’, the script of the scribes. Today, an average school-going child would not even know of their existence. Till the early 1950s, 15-year-olds routinely learnt how to recognise and partially decipher these scripts in India’s different linguistic zones. The progress of modernity, which includes modernisation of scripts, has been largely responsible for their disappearance from the school curriculum.

This is not to suggest that we add to the school-satchel of our children by teaching them arcane ways of writing. But innovative programmes are required, where the learning of classical languages and pre-modern scripts as inputs for humanistic studies is actively encouraged. Let there be special scholarships for budding historians and social scientists for the learning of Sanskrit and Persian, so as to deghettoise these remarkable languages and bring them into the humanist mainstream. Similarly, we need specialised courses, where graduate students sit together with the limited number of experts that remain to study pre-modern scripts such as ‘shikasta’ and ‘kaithi’, ‘modi’ and ‘mahajani’. Otherwise, we may soon have to rely on scholars from abroad to come and read our pre-modern texts and pasts for us!

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1 Comment

  1. fred said,

    +00002009-07-13T14:14:43+00:00312009bUTCMon, 13 Jul 2009 14:14:43 +0000 2, 2008 at 7.27 p07

    /,.,./,/;l/.,uzta nah poh kau


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