On Education - Articles - Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)












4.00 p.m.


2 April 1999



Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)


Let me at the outset congratulate the Indraprastha College for its Platinum Jubilee Celebrations, which signify its glorious past and the promise it holds out for even a more glorious future. The National Seminar which the College has organised on this occasion is focussed on a very important issue that confronts higher education in our country. I am happy that distinguished educationists, scholars, scientists and leaders of the humanistic and social thought as also educational administrators have participated in this Seminar. I am sure that the thoughts and the papers presented at this Seminar, when brought out in a book form, will serve as a guideline for improving higher educational policy in the country.

In the history of education, not long ago, humanities played an overwhelmingly major role. Even the study of the sciences was sought to be glorified as a part of the study of philosophy. But the ascendancy of science and technology in the succeeding centuries has reversed the balance and many of the studies in humanities are sought to be glorified as studies in science. The coinage of the phrase "social sciences” is a testimony of this trend. In recent times, increasing stress is being laid on applied knowledge, and not only on manipulation of machines but also on management of human beings and human affairs. Hence, we witness today increasing tide towards management studies and towards those human and natural sciences, which have close connections with the theme of applications, management of affairs and production of wealth.

Let us acknowledge that no branch of knowledge, no activity of thought and practice needs to be derided in order to highlight or exalt any other activity for which we may have personal preference or predilection. In a broad vision of unity of knowledge, and of unity of the totality of life, everything has a proper place and even an indispensable place. And yet, in the domain of relationships, there is a valid distinction between what is essential and what pertains to manifestation, between what is chief objective and what is primary objective, between what is important and what is peripheral, and between that which is foundational and all the rest that depends on the foundational. In other words, interdependence among different branches of knowledge and its applications should not lead to a blur in respect of the exact role that each branch should play in the totality. We hear from the Upanishads that one can arrive at knowledge of Reality, having possessed which everything becomes known. This underlines the necessity of assigning chief importance to the study of Meaning in the light of which meanings of details can be properly understood. And, at still higher levels, greater importance should be assigned to the study and realisation of what may be called “meaning of meaning."

From this point of view, it can be said that since things in the world are pursued by human beings and since this pursuit is dependent upon the pursuit of values that human beings erect from time to time, and also since education is primarily centred on the growth and development of human beings, the study of humanities ought to receive chief importance in any ideal scheme of education. It has been rightly suggested that the most important subject of study for the human being is that of the human being, and we should, therefore, conceive and design a scheme of education in which the study of the human being receives focal importance.

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

This suggestion poses a great challenge to all those who are related to the framing of educational policy, particularly of higher educational policy, since it is in the field of higher education that ultimate ends of education are reflected best and which determine the drift and direction of other levels of education. This suggestion also signals warning to the society at large and to those who consciously participate in giving directions to the development of civilisation, particularly when, as today, they confront phenomena that are pregnant with avoidable possibilities of the decline and fall of our present civilisation. We have to be aware that the import of the subjects that are studied and emphasised in schools and colleges transcends the limitations of the classrooms and invades the larger issues of civilisation and culture and even those which relate to the frustration or fulfilment of the highest human aspirations.


We must admit that there is something fundamentally wrong in our approach to humanities and social sciences, the way in which the courses of the relevant studies are designed, and the methods that we employ in the conduct of these studies as also in the way by which we evaluate the progress of students in respect of these studies. All this has greatly to do with the gradual decline of the importance of these studies.

In the first place, we need to take note of the unprecedented explosion of knowledge and of the exponential rate of the growth of this explosion. There are also breath-taking developments in information technologies, which multiply the impact of the explosion of knowledge. One important result of this explosion is tremendous pressure on specialisation; it has been rightly said that everyone is today obliged to learn and continue to learn more and more about less and less.

Specialisation produces fragmentation, which in turn, blurs our vision of the whole. Consequently, as it has been rightly suggested, holistic knowledge, which is the hallmark of wisdom, has been lost in systems of partial knowledge, and these systems are again lost in plethora of information in respect of unending details.

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Fortunately, there is growing awareness that corrective measures must be conceived and designed, and new types of courses of studies should be developed, which combine stress on specialisation and stress on essential and holistic knowledge. Unfortunately, humanistic studies which ought to aim at the search of essence and holism have themselves become fragmented, and they have tended to lay overwhelming stress on unhealthy lines of specialisation. In our Indian system of humanistic studies, the course of philosophy, for example, has been so designed that the philosophy student is debarred from the study of mathematics, Sanskrit, classical languages and broad outline of history, ‒ which are essential if one has to study philosophy in a competent manner. This is only a stray example, but many more examples can be cited, which will show not only the poverty of our designing but also our incapacity to handle the problem of reconciling the demands of specialisation and demands of holism.

Redesigning our courses in humanities and social sciences is a challenge, and our higher educational policy should be so framed that adequate machinery is created in the country, which can give proper and adequate response to this challenge. We have to confess that our Boards of Studies are themselves stuck in the prison of specialisation, and we cannot expect them to give a new lead that is urgently required for redesigning the courses. Academic Councils are even worse, as will be evident from the unwieldy agendas that are put up at the meetings of academic councils, where patient and deliberate thought required in designing the courses is practically infeasible. The panels designed by the UGC have also proved to be largely unsuccessful; some of the panels meet once in a blue moon, and that, too, only for a few hours. We must, therefore, think of some other machinery through which the best minds, which are imbued with largest vision of vistas of knowledge and which have also expert knowledge of some of the specialised disciplines and their interconnections, could be invited to work together for a sufficiently long period and to prepare basic guidelines for the redesigning of courses of humanities and social sciences. These guidelines should not again be blind to the requirements of our times, which emphasise orientation towards applications, scientific and technological advancement and the drive for dynamism of life, management of life and production and maintenance of wealth. While not denying the needs in a total civilisation of opulence and prosperity in material terms, the proposed new courses should give to the students a message that although pursuit of material welfare is the primary need, the development of intellectual, humanistic, ethical, aesthetic, and spiritual capacities constitutes the chief end of human life.

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)


But redesigning of courses is not enough. What about the teaching-learning materials? This is even a greater challenge. And we have to remember that teaching-learning materials are directly related to the methods of teaching and learning. Our present system of teaching and learning bears the marks of primitiveness, since it appears to be based the unacceptable assumption that the task of the teacher is to give lectures, and the task of the pupil is to listen to them. Sometimes we hear of the advocacy to encourage students to put questions but we forget that mere putting questions is not enough and it is not the end of education but only a part of the process of education. And we must admit also that if students are encouraged to raise questions in the classrooms, our classroom system itself will happily need to be broken down, since questions will incite further questions which, in turn, will incite more and more detailed answers which, in turn, will require long hours for discussions and even individualised dialogues between students and teachers.
There is no doubt that we must transcend our primitiveness; we must introduce dynamic methods in teaching and learning, and all study should be pursued through the methods of joint partnerships of teachers and students, through the methods of exploration and discovery, and through the methods of problem-solving. One of the reasons why reasons why colleges and universities have deteriorated into what an eminent educationist in our country has described as “baby-sitting institutions” is because our studies in humanities and social sciences are supposed to be learnt merely by listening to lectures, —mostly absent-mindedly, — whereas what is most important here is the need of sustained processes of reflection and meditation and laborious laboratory work, which would involve practical application of what is being taught and what is presented for assimilation by students. We think that only science subjects require laboratories; that humanistic subjects require no laboratories, no practical experimentation, no project work, no demonstration. The time has come when these ideas are exiled and replaced by higher heights of chiselling and sophistication.

We have earlier spoken of “meaning of meaning", and studies in humanities and social sciences should be distinguished as tools of mature process of thinking and meditative reflections as a result of which “meaning of meaning" can begin to shine in the minds students, and which can also be appropriately grasped, felt and practised by the hearts of the students. Our emphasis on teaching humanities and social sciences should aim at this goal. This would change totally the “baby-sitting" or worse atmosphere that prevails in nearly 80 % of colleges and universities in the country. We might even say that if we cannot change this situation, it would be best to close down the present so-called teaching-learning system of colleges and universities or else to turn them into open systems of teaching and learning where students can sit at home, learn whatever they can on their own and prepare themselves for examinations under their own responsibilities, — with some occasional help through personal contact classes, where only those students would be allowed to participate who agree to be regular and punctual in their attendance.

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Admittedly, this would not be an entirely desirable course of action. For, even though open system has its own merits, and the methods of open system are in many ways profitable, there still remains the indispensable role of the dialogue between the teacher and the pupil and even of individualised process of teaching and learning, which can be developed and fulfilled only by continuous teaching-learning situations. But this would mean that lecture systems should be substituted by consultation system in a very large way, and teachers have to be geared to the task of teaching through methods of exploration and through participation in students' growth not only in their studies, but also in respect of their personalities; teachers have to upgrade their own levels of studies on continuous basis; and teachers have to develop not only sharpness and expertise in their own specialisation but also ever-growing sense of holism, synthesis and comprehensiveness.

As a consequence, new teaching-learning materials will need to be so developed that they will yield to the new dynamic methods that teachers and students will be required to employ. This would imply a gigantic task.


But even this is not enough. As long as our present system of examination remains what it is today, the entire system will constantly tend towards the gravitational pulls of learning by cramming and learning at the last minute just before the examination. The present system of examination is the greatest challenge, and if we have to change it meaningfully, major steps have to be taken at the national level, and not only the policy makers, educational administrators and experts have to come together, but teachers, students and even parents have to extend their utmost collaboration. First of all, we have to distinguish tests, which are meant for stimulating students' pursuit of studies and achievement of personal excellence, from those tests, which have in them elements of uniformity, standardisation and competitiveness, which are relevant to the requirements of employment in the market. The latter should be the function of local, regional, or national testing services. The former should be a part of the teaching-learning process in schools, colleges and universities.
In either case, however, tests should really test, and they should really assess the students' real and intrinsic capacities. Secondly, tests should be of varied nature; they should not merely aim at testing memory but also understanding and comprehension; they should test practical abilities. They should test even the physical fitness; and they should test students' value-orientation. May we suggest that all this is practicable provided that we all collaborate in the difficult task of evolving the needed means and techniques.

Not long ago, a very important report was brought out in the United States of America under the title “The Nation at Risk”; it was a powerful statement of the challenges that the American educational system is confronted with; it can be said that our nation is even at a greater risk, since our problems are much more complicated, our work power is relatively at lower levels of efficiency; our work ethos is deplorable, and we have to catch up not only with the ever-advancing achievements of the West but also to recover the best that is available in our own Indian heritage but which has greatly been neglected and forgotten. Such being the reality, we shall realise at what level we should work in framing our higher educational policy. We have to understand the challenges properly and provide responses meaningfully and usefully.

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)


There are many other aspects of the challenges that confront us. One of them is that of finances. And the question of finances is closely related to the needs of the growth and expansion in higher education in the country. We have today nearly two hundred universities and ten thousand colleges; and they are all starved of funds; this is visible even when we pay a cursory visit to the corridors of some of the central universities. One need not describe the deplorable conditions in which the classes are run and the way in which students have to manage with outdated equipment in laboratories. For the last fifty years, our entire educational set-up has been completely dependent on the State funding; when we are now told that colleges and universities must find their own avenues of augmenting their financial resources, we do not know how this demand can be met. Unless citizens become more enlightened and come forward to pay higher fees and even make voluntary contributions, unless our taxation policy allows a special educational cess with corresponding special benefits, and unless we learn how to make our budgets more balanced, more economical and more cost-effective, — we do not know how we shall be able to manage our higher education system even at a tolerable level of efficiency. This is not the question of State versus people; this is a case of State and people working together.

We know that today out of 21 crore children in the country, only six crore cross the level of elementary education; the rest of them drop out earlier and a very large number of them give up education at a level where they can easily lapse into illiteracy. Our country has rightly decided to work on universalisation of elementary education. We all wish that this programme should succeed. But then this is the time when we should also plan for the future on the consideration of what pressure this will mean on our present system of higher education. How many more universities and how many more colleges shall we need to open? Even if we take recourse to open system of higher education in a large way, — as we must, — do we have any perspective planning in this connection? Again, if we want to provide different dimensions in our higher education, — which we must, — do we have any realistic assessment as to what facilities we shall need to develop in respect of physical education, sports, cultural activities and activities that could foster the integral development of personality along with appropriate value-orientation? Unfortunately, we are almost blank and we have no right responses.

This is not the occasion to elaborate on these important and difficult problems. We should only be thankful to the Indraprastha College that it has given us an opportunity to raise our level of awareness in respect of challenges and responses, and I am sure that these two days of deliberations have stimulated our thinking, our concerns, our anxieties and also our courage to face the future, which is difficult and which we cannot escape.

Humanities and Social Sciences in Higher Education Policy (2 April 1999)

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