What it means to study the humanities, and why it matters
This 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 political and the commercial man, the man of the 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 organization.
--Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism, 1918
There was a time, not too long ago, when the Humanities more or less exhausted the knowledge
and wisdom of the times. The humanities encompass a wide range of disciplines, from the study
of language, literature and the arts, architecture, philosophy, religion and kindred disciplines like
history, archaeology and anthropology. These different disciplines all approach the same topic:
human personal, cultural and aesthetic capacities and experience. But they approach this topic
with a broad variety of methods. So, it’s best to apply the label ‘Humanities’ loosely and non-
dogmatically. Indeed, the Humanities are willing to foray into areas that sciences and the social
sciences often hesitate to call their own and this abiding puzzlement and commitment to seeing
the world as significant and meaningful, as our world, is the perennial reward that the Humanities
offer to the devoted.
In the age when the humanities was almost the entirety of our knowledge and wisdom, we
scarcely needed justification to be included in a curriculum of higher education. That age has
receded and the world of the early 21 st century expects the Humanities to earn their keep and
provide at least some instrumental reasons for their place. As Tagore lamented almost a century
ago, the inexorable economic, scientific and technological changes of the last few centuries have
taken their toll on the collective imagination of what counts as worthwhile knowledge. The
Humanities today are asked to justify their importance in cultivating capabilities such as
leadership, critical thinking and communication. This perhaps is not to be deplored.
However, two other less instrumental considerations make the study of the Humanities a
rewarding and an important element of the education of young citizens.
Why the future needs humanities
The world of the 21 st century is a world both of immense promise and persistent and
disappointing distortions. Great wealth and great poverty coexist in almost all continents. While
many communities have managed to achieve wealth and splendour unimaginable even a century
or two ago, many more remain trapped in vicious deprivation. While populations in large parts
of the world live in relative peace, war and violence continue to haunt millions. There is
mounting evidence that humanity is heading towards an ecological disaster that will have
unimaginable consequences on most life on the planet, unless urgent corrective measures are
taken. The much-heralded panacea for the ills of the time, be it new science, technological
solutions or new and revolutionary social formations, each has inevitably failed to live up to its
In the face of the failure of these tales of progress, in the face of the failed hope of ending
history, education that encourages critical reflection and responsible citizenship is essential. The
Humanities are an irreplaceable element of such an education. At their best, Humanities serve as
a mirror to societies, to help them recognise their locations and trajectories and to continue the
struggle for peace, justice and sustainability. In bringing diverse modes of exploration and
meaning into education, Humanities open up important questions for public debate. Humanistic
exploration remains an important source of critique, hope and reassurance. That promise,
however tenuous, remains a strong argument to include the Humanities in any system of
Humanities and humans
The world that the Humanities see, describe, and analyse is not just a world of facts and things
but of interpretations and meanings that arise from the boundless generative capacity of human
experience and its contribution to understanding our own humanity. This has historically been
expressed, through times of stability and turbulence alike, in the art, literature, technology and
philosophy of the age. That this impulse is not just an accident or a mere luxury of the few, there
is enough evidence in support. This shows both the importance of such meaning-making and its
expression and the role these play in the very definition of what it means to be human.
Thus the second argument for studying humanities is the ability of the Humanities to trigger and
nurture a dimension of personal reflection, understanding and growth that help young adult
learners to reflectively engage with their own actions and experience, and connect it to the social
and cultural contexts that they are part of. This contribution to meaning-making and self-making,
if you will, is not a personal quest alone, but is inextricably linked to the process of informing
and building the collective. In other words, the Humanities curriculum in the UG programme is
committed to train students to critically interpret and act in the world into which they are cast as
individuals and social beings. It seeks to expose them to a wide gamut of historical, literary,
philosophical thinking and artefacts, and equip them with conceptual, methodological, and
analytical tools to engage these. And through this, it intends to foster in students a continuing
dialog with the world(s) within which cultural ideas and matter are imagined, produced,
circulated, consumed, felt and mobilized.
India, with its gigantic population and stunning diversities in every dimension, presents a
particular challenge to its own citizens and to the world as a whole. Azim Premji University is
entirely committed to the education of young citizens capable of being active participants in the
journey of thought, discovery, and action that such citizenship demands. We need such as these
in our country. We need the humanities.
Adapted from the humanities curriculum document, written by the Azim Premji University humanities
faculty and Venu Narayan.
More than 300 paper planes lie in a gigantic pile in the corner of my classroom. They
have been made over the last half an hour amidst a lot of hollering, hooting and
cheering from competing “firms” in Azim Premji University’s new undergraduate
program in economics. The classroom game, in which different-sized groups of
students organise themselves to manufacture the planes, was created by Juan
Camilo Cardenas of Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá as part of the supplementary
teaching materials being developed for the CORE economics course.
And in all the chaotic fun, there is a serious pedagogical point. Students have had a
first-hand demonstration of competition, diminishing marginal product, learning-by-
doing, economies of scale and other economic concepts as applied to the paper
plane production technology.
Maybe we can make a classroom mobile from this; a weird dangling display that will
hold multiple understandings for the students in the weeks to come.
Later the same week, I’m observing a colleague’s literature class. The topic is the
birth of the novel in 19th century Europe. A 17-year-old economics student from my
class raises her hand and asks: was the industrial revolution, the breakdown of
feudal ties, and the rise of a bourgeois class central to the rise of the novel? She was
bringing her thinking about the great transformation from Unit 1 of CORE to another
classroom. That evening, I get a note from the student:
“The discussion in the literature class also made me think deeper about what an
extremely important and all-encompassing field economics is,” she writes, “and I am
so glad to be learning it. Today was a good day!”
When my colleague Rahul De and I began to design the first undergraduate
microeconomics course at Azim Premji University, we wanted to think differently
about the economics curriculum. We adopted CORE because it has similar aims.
- To provide a sense of the deep relevance of the economy for our social
being:Understanding that our experiences and abilities have been strongly conditioned
by our economic circumstances, and this in turn shapes our daily lives and societies.
- To describe the economy as a dynamic entity: To give the students the basic
understanding that history and institutions have a critical role to play in determining social
outcomes and differences between individuals and places.
- To demonstrate the power of economic reasoning: How simple analytical tools, when
used with judgment, can help illuminate some aspects of debates—whether this is about
the genesis of capitalism, the dynamism of different economies, or the impact of
- To show how economic policy and reasoning is contested: To expose students to the
disagreements (and agreements) on the role of decentralised coordination, markets and
other forms of social organisation.
But to make it really relevant to students in India, we would provide supplementary
materials which we can integrate into a south Asian version of CORE in the
future. Finding material focused on India to make this relevant has not been difficult:
- In Unit 1 we introduced different outcomes across the Indian states in terms of growth
and distribution, which gave examples of some of the explanations of uneven growth. We
discussed structural transformation and the difference between a modern industrialised
economy and the Lewis-type economy that is more recognisable in India.
- In Unit 2, focusing on the Malthusian trap and the escape from it, we discussed the 1943
Bengal famine, Amartya Sen’s assessment of it, the green revolution, and the
demographic transition across Indian states.
- In Units 3 to 5, which discuss optimisation, strategic interaction and contracts, we used
material about urban commons, global climate change, NREGA, immigration debates
and other material. In the last class I taught, students were using the models in Unit 5 to
discuss the impacts of social insurance policies on allocation and distribution, and the
political implications in terms of voting.
Later this year I will be meeting with other teachers from The CORE Project in
Lahore, Pakistan to develop these and other south Asian adaptations.
Is the curriculum working? We think so. The students could not be more engaged.
One more story: in class we try an exercise from CORE called Capitalism among
consenting adults, in which we discuss whether individual contracts that lead to
Pareto improvements for individuals (selling of votes, a market for babies, the sex
trade) should be allowed. Economic analysis helps think about these issues, but
clearly they raise moral questions too. The discussion becomes heated. In the
dormitories, the debates go on into the night, and students from other disciplines get
The next day a student asks wistfully: “can’t we separate these ethical questions
Something they will hopefully grapple with over many years.