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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 21st 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 21st 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.