Sidelining Humanities

A 'Disconnected' Generation

Bibekananda Ray

When the other day, a graduate Bengali housewife dropped a brick in a social parley that she did not know, what and where Santiniketan was, her kin went agape; she defended her ignorance by saying that she was brought up, and lived long, in Bhubaneswar. Prodded further she might have added that she did not know, who Rabindranath Tagore was and what he was famous for. Although atrocious, she may not be an exception, many of today's youngsters are ignorant, like her, about Bengal's past—its icons, literature, other arts and culture, which elders preen on. No previous generation was so 'disconnected' with the previous in knowledge of racial glory! This is not a familiar generation-gap lament but can be amply illustrated!

Why did it happen? Youngsters in their thirties were born in the 1990's in the apogee of the Left regime that abolished English learning in primary classes. From 1980's, except children of well-off homes, affording to go to English-medium schools, others learnt English alphabets in Claas V, at the age of 11-12 years. Computer had just come and parents goaded children to learn it and take up in graduate course in the hope of their landing on good jobs. Technology had begun to transform the society and lives through sundry machines and gadgets. The entertainment scenario had changed too with the spread of the TV, CD/VCD players and home theatres and a new milieu was dawning under their impact. Good newspapers keep up links with a race's past through features and memories but, these days, few youngsters read them. In many urban Bengali homes, parents forbid children to speak, read and write Bengali, because in their perception in mother-tongue no computer books are written; thus they pull the shutter down on children's imbibing Bengali culture. "Home is the place where one starts from", wrote T S Eliot; when homes discourage links with the past, children's 'disconnection' obviously begins!

Fifty years ago, Bengal's milieu was different. Radio was not as ubiquitous as it became after the invention of transistor. As a school boy in 1955, I used to walk 2-3 kilometres to a friend's house to listen to AIR programmes on headphone. Black & White TV came in early 1980's after the Delhi Asian Games; colour TV came a few years later. In 1950's, even villages had small public libraries which stocked and lent Bengali books—the work, of Bankim Chandra, Rabindranath, Saratchandra, Bibhuti Bhushan, Tarashankar Bandyo-padhyaya and a host of other popular writers. People used to celebrate Rabindra Jayanti with gusto by reciting his poems, rendering his songs and staging his plays and charades. On AIR Kolkata Rabindra Sangeet was broadcast several times on records and solo voices or in chorus in a day; well-off homes played songs and plays on gramophones; on Friday evenings, radio plays were avidly heard even by assembled neighbourhood people. In the 1990's, this familiar milieu began to change with gradual in-road of western culture—pop songs. T-shirts, blue jeans and provocative tops and brassieres by girls as well as with drugs sold and taken on the sly.

A more devastating impact was on formal education. As computer and internet spread, youngsters, often at the behest of parents, opted for information technology subjects, ignoring traditional humanities like literature, economics, history, Sanskrit, geography, civics, philosophy and political science. Even in 196O's, a sizeable section of good students, passing out from secondary and higher secondary schools, used to take up honours in science subjects and engineering or medical; to this was added the siren lure of computer engineering. In West Bengal the Left Front, led by Jyoti Basu resisted introduction of computers in banks, LIC and offices but following Rajiv Gandhi's fillip from 1984, computers returned with a vengeance. It needed a huge work force in myriad positions and youngsters naturally became grist to the mill. Boys and girls picked it up fast, as it fetched good jobs at home and abroad. From talents to riffraff, every boy or girl went for computer study, to which governments gave a boost too by opening a plethora of training centres. In this rat-race, the traditional liberal education—a gift of the British to India—trailed behind, generally, second or third division pass out took up humanities in higher secondary and graduate levels in the hope of getting teachers' jobs in schools and colleges. The 'disconnect' became wider, day by day.

Someday, this insane rush for computer studies will end, or diminish; already, saturation has begun but the field is still fertile with scientists in all continents engaged in newer researches and inventions, like artificial intelligence (AI), e.g. robot which is high on Western research; despite warning by Dr Stephen Hawking, it is extending its frontiers. Liberal education improves the mind ("With arts your mind improve", wrote John Donne); computer education only facilitates life and streamlines work. Humanities may lack precision and not be verifiable—Albert Einstein did not regard economics as a science—but they enrich the mind with new ideas. This writer met a JNU professor of philosophy, who was attracted to the subject in the first year of an engineering course which he gave up. No computer engineer or genius has yet been deemed a great man or woman, endowed with creativity of high order; they may be getting five-to-six figure salary but most of them remain woefully ignorant about their racial culture and creatively zero.

In free India, governments bungled in formal education; they appointed many commissions that made too many experiments with syllabi, divisions in classes and toyed with new-fangled ideas, like abolition of 'pass-fail' up to eighth standard which is now being reversed. On their own, few students venture out of text books to study liberal arts; if included in syllabus, they cannot ignore them. If you scratch a graduate in the new generation, their poor general knowledge and cultural ignorance will amaze. A computer engineer, convalescing in this writer's home, asked for 'Tintin' comics; he was not interested in Bengali or English classics. Even many of those who studied in so-called English-medium schools or colleges, cannot put two sentences in English together, grammatically and idiomatically correct. The marginalisation of the humanities affected other fields too; in Rabindnnath Tagore's land, doting parents name their children in meaningless jingles. What does, for example, Moumita, a favourite name for girls; mean; literally it means, 'friend of the honey' which makes no sense; if it meant 'friend of the honey bee', it could have a semblance of meaning. A baby girl was named Mayurika; when it was pointed out that a peahen is just Mayuri in Bengali and Sanskrit, her grandparents won't agree. Although proper nouns are non-connotative, is it not ludicrous to name a public bus as Sonar Taree (Golden Boat)? An MBBS doctor showed a draft letter; when it was pointed out several errors of spelling and grammar, he said, he did not know that they were really! While in AIR, New Delhi, this writer interviewed a young lecturer of political science of a Howrah college for Lok Sabha Interpreter's post, who did not know, what the Preamble of the Constitution was! Guides, digests and made-easies abound in every subject; instead of being treated as supplementary, they have become substitutes for text books. How many of English honours graduates read prescribed Shakeaspeare's plays in original? Teachers in primary schools warn students that they would 'fail' them if they did not reproduce his notes. How will creativity blossom?

India is making a grievous faux pas by side-lining the humanities in higher education. This will have bearing on the society, economy and politics. In Nehru's time, best brains went to politics to serve the nation; now riffraff abound in plethora of political parties. They merely play calumny Ping-Pong with clever mix of half-truths and untruths to capture and remain in power, as if one has to cut a rival's legs to be taller. A Chief Minister claims prevalence of the Wi-Fi and the Internet during the Kurukshetra War; how else could Sanjay see and narrate its progress to blind Dhritarashtra! The Deputy Chief Minister of UP claimed that the IVF technology for producing babies in test-tubes was known in the Treta Yuga, how else could Lord Rama's consort, Seeta be born in a pitcher!

US and European universities and colleges still encourage good students to go for humanities with offer of fellowships and scholarships. Good books are being written abroad in these subjects, which are yielding new ideas and insights. In the 1980's Sanskrit was made an optional subject in the Left regime on the plea that it was a 'dead language' but in Germany, France and England particularly, ancient Sanskrit and Pali texts and scriptures are avidly taught and learnt. Two of Rabindranath's greatest translators- William Radice and Martin Kampchen—are British and German, respectively. Let India's education planners and the HRD Ministry review and revise their policies and perceptions in respect of the humanities and restore them to their deserved places!

Vol. 51, No.5, Aug 5 - 11, 2018