The cost of sidelining the humanitiesA major academic discipline is dying a slow death due to a system keen on quantifying success.
"What does my heart say?" I found myself contemplating this question several summers ago, quite unusual for a teenager raised in a society that teaches you early on to think what ‘people’ will say. "How do I want my life to blossom?” I asked.
I had just finished my school and was considering academic disciplines for further studies. And it wasn't long before I found my answers—in the pleasure and comfort that the humanities and social sciences (HSS) offered. After all, I had grown up reading stories, playing with words and keeping abreast of the goings on in society and politics.
In a world dominated by an unending quest for technological advancement and capital accumulation, a young student's decision to study HSS comes as a surprise, if not shock, to many. I joined the stream anyway, and, as expected, encountered people waxing eloquent about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. A degree in STEM, they told me, would be a golden ticket into a world of employment. They regarded my choice as "naive", "outdated", and "unimportant" and bombarded me with questions. What was the point of spending time on subjects that have no market value anymore, they wondered. How would I make a living with that degree, they worried. But I continued to be unperturbed by their concerns, for I was unequivocal about why I wanted to study the humanities.
Reading between the lines
The foremost art that humanities teach us is to consider what makes us human beings and create a world out of our imagination. They help us think critically, appreciate the arts, cope with life's pressing problems, understand the course of history, and enrich our understanding of the world through a study of language, literature, history, philosophy, ethics, and fine arts among others. Social sciences teach us to consider what we are as social beings and help us understand how we interact with the world around us through a study of sociology, anthropology, psychology, social work, political science, and economics among others. Together, HSS are married in such a way that they simply work on the expansion of human consciousness and foster a deep understanding of society.
The question of employability should not worry parents, friends and relatives of HSS students, for there is a plethora of career choices such as teaching, writing, editing, researching, volunteering, and advocating among others. But more than mere jobs, HSS scholars develop the life-affirming skills of empathy, humility, morality and ethics that cannot be quantified. Despite this, why do parents want their children to avoid HSS? Why don’t HSS subjects get the recognition they deserve?
At present, with the growing domination of science and technology all around the world, governments are setting out to achieve technological advancement and innovation as markers of development. They are funding the educational institutions that follow the national priorities that focus mainly on science and technology. As a result, governments across the world are watering down HSS while focusing increasingly on STEM. For instance, in 2015, the Japanese government asked universities to cut HSS and focus on "more practical, vocational education" to "meet societal needs." In 2020, the Australian government increased the tuition fees of HSS to "incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices." The government's focus on STEM in the UK resulted in a 15 percent decline in arts subjects. Furthermore, between 2015 and 2018, many universities across the world saw a decline in the share of humanities degrees. In this global trend of sidelining HSS, Nepal remains no exception, and that is bad news for our collective future.
The Nepal government views academic excellence in science and technical subjects as a solid foundation to achieve social transformation and economic development. It has incorporated secondary level technical education, diploma programmes, and vocational skills development and training in all seven provinces. The Higher Education Reforms Project (HERP) prioritises science and technology, medicine, agriculture, and forestry for research funding, stating them as "technical areas" and "research activities in those areas as priority areas". In addition, the University Grants Commission (UGC), which aspires to enhance technical higher education and advance economy-based knowledge and technology, funds and revises the programmes based on student demand and the employment possibilities of the subjects.
Given the government's emphasis on STEM subjects, several universities and colleges in Nepal are running HSS subjects only as subordinate to the degrees in STEM and management with poor resources, promotion and attention. It is due to this apathy that HSS was introduced as a four-year bachelor's programme in 2019, much later than any other faculty in the Tribhuvan University (TU). And with 12.6 percent enrolment in the same year, which was less than management, education, science, technology, medicine and engineering fields, TU witnessed the steepest decline in Geography and History with zero students in 2016 and 2018, respectively. At a programme conducted by the UGC in December last year, Minister for Education, Science and Technology Devendra Poudel advised universities "to develop new programmes of national priority and introduce subjects of market demand rather than traditional ones." It is these unscientific biases of those in decision-making positions that have corrupted the minds of an entire generation of parents, who believe that their children are good for nothing if they study HSS subjects.
As a result of the government’s bias, STEM subjects now appear saleable, having "market value" and "job prospects" while HSS subjects appear to be of little market value. In this scenario, the value of education is accepted only in terms of "market", ignoring the social and moral ones that the HSS subjects offer. What students and parents infer from such a biased attitude of the government is that only those with degrees in STEM subjects can land decent jobs and contribute to the prosperity of the nation. Ultimately, this has led to a collective consciousness that HSS subjects are for students who are "not smart enough" to study STEM subjects. And that is as wrong as it gets.
HSS subjects are dying a slow, painful death not because they are unimportant but because they are sidelined by a system keen on quantifying success. Science and technology have indeed made our lives easier with innovations that fulfil the daily necessities of the modern world. Still, it is irrational to discount the significance of HSS for scientific and technological necessities. The relevance of HSS is crucial in countries like ours to ensure equality, inclusion and a better understanding of diverse communities. We need not look too far to understand why we need HSS as much as we need STEM. As the coronavirus pandemic ravages the world, scientific innovations have saved lives through the development of vaccines. But in a world that is highly diverse and unequal, it is ethics, morals, and values that ensure that vaccines reach even the poorest people of the world. A world devoid of the life-affirming values of humanity ends up creating a monumental divide between vaccine hoarders and losers. We certainly do not want such a divide.
Whenever people reflect on the past and envision the future of humanity, they overlook how literature, an essential component of HSS, has helped people decipher the complexities of the real world, make sense of life, and deal with uncertainties and ambiguities through myths, stories, and folklores which are as important as scientific innovations. Both STEM and HSS have saved humanity and society over time, and an artificial divide between the two is totally unwarranted. Authorities cannot continue to weigh them only in terms of their "saleability".