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Paper plane Factory, Rahul De (Economics)

Oh ! The Humanities

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 promise.

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 education.

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.

Economics - CORE takes off in Bangalore
- Arjun Jayadev

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.

Our ambitions:

  • 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 economic policies.
  • 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 involved.

The next day a student asks wistfully: “can’t we separate these ethical questions from economics?”

Something they will hopefully grapple with over many years.

The Case for a broad Undergraduate Science Degree
- Rajaram Nityananda

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