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Science and humanities must be on an even plane

Colleges around the world infuse their STEM degrees with a general education in the arts and social sciences

Engineering or medicine? That’s an age-old question faced by Indian students. The arts and humanities are out of the picture. Only those whose grades aren’t great study commerce or economics. But literature, history or political science? That must infer that the student has either failed or is rebellious.

But why does the average middle-class Indian parent think so? It’s simple — money. STEM majors earn much much more than others over a lifetime. If you want to venture a guess of what the lowest paying majors are, you’ll probably be right. Majors such as early childhood education, human services, visual arts and international studies — all part of the arts, humanities, and social sciences — pay far less. The dream of a secure financial future can seem rosy, but will it compensate for broken dreams and a world without innovation?

Those broken dreams have a scarring effect — data show that India is facing a youth suicide crisis, with suicide being the leading cause of death among those aged 15-39 in 2016. For the same year, suicide was was the third most common cause of death for that age group on the global scale. In Kota, a city renowned for its “coaching institutes” — cram schools which have continuous four-hour lectures — suicide rates are high. A large contribution to this rise is academic pressure, with many students being forced to abandon their dreams and study STEM. The time-consuming, monotonous and mechanical workload of STEM classes drives the creativity out of students, and leads to an increase in stress and anxiety.

Similar to how cram schools dry students’ creativity and ingenuity, it seems that the funding for the arts and humanities is drying up as well. R&D and manufacturing have been some of the largest contributors to India’s fast-growing economy, and STEM education has been placed at the forefront, with polytechnic institutes and IT schools popping up everywhere. The top STEM schools in India receive more government funds than Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the nation’s leading liberal arts and social sciences university. The funding for JNU includes funding for its Schools of Engineering and Science, which results in even lower budgets for the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This gross imbalance shows the clear bias towards STEM.

If maths and the core sciences provide strong foundations, the arts and humanities help the flow of new ideas and perspectives born out of innovation, critical thinking, and creativity. Without the arts and humanities, STEM will be forever stuck in its current state, with little development and progress. The skills provided by the arts and humanities are essential for the progress of mankind into the next era. Was it the technical knowledge of Leonardo da Vinci which helped him make discoveries in anatomy, geology and optics? It was Da Vinci’s ingenuity and creativity which sparked his discoveries — not his knowledge of algebra. His technical and scientific abilities came into play as he developed his ideas. Da Vinci had the perfect combination of skills from both fields. He was a polymath.

A STEM education must not be spent only in laboratories looking under microscopes or sitting with calculators in front of stacks of paper. Colleges around the world infuse their STEM degrees with a general education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, whereas 11th and 12th grades in India are usually devoid of any content resembling history, literature, or creative writing. At the Indian Institute

of Technology, Bombay, for a degree in computer science, only 4.5% of all credits must be from courses in the humanities or social sciences. For the same degree at Carnegie Mellon, around 20% of all credits must be from general education courses, which are mostly courses in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. There’s a difference in the rankings as well, with Carnegie Mellon being ranked three and the IIT-B below 50. The better university is providing a more well-rounded education, making their graduates better prepared to face real-world problems.

There shouldn’t be any argument of which field is “better”. Both STEM and the arts and humanities are important in their individual aspects. While the humanities and social sciences lay out the blueprints of mankind’s future, STEM starts building. There is no use creating a skilled workforce which lacks innovation or an understanding of humanity and society. STEM and the arts and humanities have become intertwined and it is time for India to understand that. The two fields are symbiotic in nature, and with today’s ever-evolving world, the boundaries seem to fade with fields like cognitive science.

Unfortunately, the old attitude still rules supreme in India. The principal of my school called the mother of one of the top achievers of the graduating class, and asked her why her son was choosing to study history, and not science. The most surprising thing was that the Hindi (second language) teacher called and asked the same thing. This mentality is present even in teachers of the arts and humanities, which shows how bad the situation is.

I’m not advocating for STEM or the arts and humanities. I’m advocating for a curriculum in which STEM and the arts and humanities are intertwined and symbiotic. It’s no use having a STEM major forced to study hours and hours of humanities or social sciences. But they do need to gain the critical thinking skills and ability to expand their perspectives to be well-rounded and successful in their career.

Similarly, arts and humanities majors could benefit from a better understanding of the physical world around them, or understand the beauty of mathematics or the functioning of a computer. It is time for Indian institutes to adopt more liberal general education policies, which will lead to better all-round development for their students, and the country as a whole.

I’m also asking parents to stop the pressure. Forcing children into engineering or medicine is contributing to the death of creativity, fragmentation of dreams, and an increase in anxiety and stress. Let them be “the music makers, and dreamers of dreams”, for they will be “the movers and shakers of the world forever, it seems”.

vshome@ucdavis.edu

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 11:02:44 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/science-and-humanities-must-be-on-an-even-plane/article30712898.ece

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