The crisis in humanities

Print edition : March 03, 2017

A student Jonathan outside the Widener Library on the Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A file photograph. Photo: Michael Fein/Bloomberg

The author makes a forceful argument for freeing academia from the clutches of corporate interests and correcting the bias against the liberal arts, which are so vital to civilisation.

Academics have a stake in shaping the world of ideas with a commitment towards changing the future university landscape and realising its new role in society. Education must be regarded as a process of reflection in the midst of societal transformation, especially when academia is continuously experiencing upheavals because of excessive state interference.

In times such as these, we need to initiate serious discussions on reform initiatives, with a focus on the promotion of creative ideas and on systems of governance and financial management, while ensuring transparency in decision-making and decentralisation at all levels. Such efforts can usher in a new era of significant qualitative and quantitative changes wherein teachers, scholars and researchers become the driving force in the promotion of a welfare state.

Martha C. Nussbaum, who has visited universities all over the world and interacted with stakeholders, makes a hard-hitting and insightful case for reversing the onward march of corporate hegemony that has resulted in the corporate world taking control of university finances and, consequently, academic policies, relegating the field of humanities to second-class status.

Take, for instance, the impact of the Koch brothers’ initiatives in universities in the United States. They have set up various institutions such as The Institute for Humane Studies, The Center for the Study of Economic Liberty and The Institute for the Study of Capitalism that primarily aim to control thought, expressly of students, in a bid to garner public support for libertarian, anti-tax and anti-regulatory agendas. Their ideology, which promotes a single-minded pursuit of power and profit, has had a chilling effect both on academic freedom and administrative governance. Having spent tens of millions of dollars in funding hundreds of colleges over the last decade, the Koch brothers strongly influence the formulation of university policies that are in line with the corporate agenda.The constant preoccupation of academics with overpowering financial matters is doing irreparable harm to the progress of research and teaching. Martha C. Nussbaum underscores the view that the state must ensure autonomy to the university and guarantee an independent environment conducive to undertaking top quality research and hiring the best staff.

Over the years, there has been a rather lopsided bias towards promoting the sciences and business management at the cost of the humanities, arts and social sciences. This prejudice needs to be examined so that adequate measures are promptly taken to prevent any further neglect of the liberal arts that are so vital to civilisation. Science and commerce cannot be valorised; like the humanities, they have to be examined critically. While one cannot overlook the rising importance of engineering and technology in our society, it is imperative that efforts are made to build universities without walls, where the arts can flourish alongside the sciences. As Rabindranath Tagore, whom the author quotes, writes in his book, Nationalism: “History has come to a stage when the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the…. commercial man, the man of limited purpose. This process, aided by the wonderful progress in science, is assuming gigantic proportion and power, causing the upset of man’s moral balance, obscuring his human side under the shadow of soul-less organisation.”

When education policy falls into the hands of the elite and becomes market-driven, there is bound to be a civilisational crisis. In such a context, when parents and students begin to weigh courses in terms of their relevance to the job market, the humanities and the arts come under adverse scrutiny. In the process, the generation of ideas and the nurturing of a critical sensibility falls into insignificance.

Martha Nussbaum argues that economic progress alone is not the measure of a better way of life. Sidelining humanities in the hierarchy of disciplines amounts to jeopardising the institutions of democracy. Liberal arts degrees go beyond economic principles to study history, politics and other areas that shape contemporary societies. The foundation of global citizenship is wholly dependent on the arts and humanities, without which we put ourselves in peril.

Martha Nussbaum seeks the replacement of authoritarianism or “the myth of total control” with “mutual need and interdependency” so that people can enrich themselves with an active imagination that understands human “vulnerabilities” and “sees people as real and equal”. She calls for a focus on liberation, justice and activism with an emphasis on innovation to provide an impetus to the areas of research that work towards eradication of poverty. Only then can we establish a climate of non-discrimination and anti-racism, promote sustainability and realise that higher education is vital for facing contemporary challenges.

As pointed out by Noam Chomsky, “Education is a vital weapon of a people striving for economic emancipation, political independence, and cultural renascence. A truly emancipatory and democratic educational system could only emerge from a broad-based people’s movement that [is] dedicated to the needs of its people and expressive of their aspirations.”

However, any attempt to homogenise education deserves to be rejected for not taking diversity into account. This problem is visible in many educational institutions and needs to be addressed with a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic approach. Multiculturalism expresses the spirit of a free and just society that has overcome the forces of fragmentation. Importance of humanities

The defence of humanities, therefore, lies in the unassailable commitment to free thought, to a belief in the acts of resistance and the indispensability of dissent that takes education to a higher level. It is through arts and literature that universities have, for centuries, served as engines of social mobility, as drivers of the economy, as custodians of our culture, and, more than anything else, authors of new ideas, even when it means “speaking truth to power”. The book, with its diligent on-the-ground research and compelling analysis of the crisis in humanities, is indeed required reading for anyone looking to make the connection between education and the world we live in.

It ought to be a part of the conversation that public intellectuals engage in if we have to see “the importance of learning to play well with others—and then how to think for ourselves”.

Martha Nussbaum is of the view that democracy needs humanities in order to guarantee a collective commitment to social responsibility. From classical antiquity, humanities and the arts have been considered essential education for a free individual active in civic life. Effective problem-solving requires strong analytical and creative processes that lead to unconventional approaches which constantly challenge established notions.

With such an approach, the realm of education becomes a self-directed forum of ideas, conversation and debate. A broad spectrum of intellectual engagement can reinvigorate institutions of democracy that would otherwise wither if society does not pay constant attention to novelty and excellence. Let academics get on with what academics do best. Let them be judged by the quality of their minds and not by their political affiliations or ideological leanings.

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