As technology penetrates our lives ever more deeply, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects continue to be students’ preferred choice. Degrees in Finance, Law and Medicine are also sought after, as they lead to high-paying jobs. However, apart from a few select Liberal Arts institutions in the country, the Humanities fail to attract the cream of talent. Subjects such as English, Philosophy and History are sidelined in higher education leading to a vicious, downward cycle. A paucity of students and funds is causing departments to downsize or even close down. Even as we embrace new technologies, the study of the Humanities will continue to remain relevant, if not imperative, for our individual and collective well-being.
In an article in Harvard Magazine, James Engell, professor of English and Comparative Literature, argues that the Humanities play a pivotal role in shaping our culture and values, as they inform the “better angels of our nature.” The Arts and Humanities not only help us understand the world, but also our inner selves. The study of History, Literature, Philosophy and Religion plumb our inner worlds and give us a more balanced perspective to deal with the conflicting pulls and tugs that the external world imposes on us.
Rather than taking the status quo for granted, we may ask what forces created the status quo in the first place. And, how it might have been different if other forces had been at play. Studying the past not only helps us view the present from a different perspective but also allows us to envision various possibilities regarding the future. The question, “(I)n what kind of society do we wish to live” cannot be answered by the Sciences, but it is fundamental to our well-being and possibly even our survival as a species.
Many rights activists who fought for marginalised groups delved deeply into Art, Literature, History, and Religion to inform their views. Even if they weren’t formally qualified in the Humanities, they read widely and gleaned insights from these disciplines. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Rachel Carson, and Betty Friedan were all humanists at their core. As Engell aptly says, “If we pursue collective good, shun venality, exercise empathy, and remain open to people unlike ourselves, then we are humanists all.” Of course, studying the Humanities doesn’t guarantee that a person will be compassionate and a champion of diversity. But the odds of acquiring these values are significantly increased when we pursue the Arts.
As part of the Literature and Economics project, economist Stuti Khemani has authored an insightful paper that examines how the works of writers like John Steinbeck, Vikram Seth, and a Hindi folk song can cast light on how people from different times and societies perceive and navigate prevailing economic orders. Her paper is an apt example of transdisciplinary analysis augmenting our collective understanding.
In an article in The New York Times, historian, Daniel Bessner laments that History as a profession is threatened. As STEM subjects have more “pragmatic value”, research in the Humanities receives a paltry 0.7% “of the amount dedicated to STEM R and D”. Moreover, tenure track positions in universities in the U.S. have dwindled, with only 27% of history doctorates in 2017 having found secure teaching positions as of 2021. If bright young minds aren’t incentivised to pursue disciplines like History and Literature, we are at risk of becoming an ahistoric and less reflective society, which can have adverse consequences. Vibrant democracies thrive only when the historical scholarship is regarded highly and historians are granted academic freedom. Democracies also require critical thinkers who can introspect and communicate cogently. As the study of the Humanities fosters deep thinking and strong oral and writing skills, we need more students to opt for these fields. Literature, Art, Music, and Theatre, and, society, as a whole, flourish when the study of the Humanities is accorded its due.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com