June 10, 2015
The social sciences and humanities will be critical in helping us understand what the sciences will become in the future
Common sense has defeated the social sciences and humanities in India. As the rush for college seats begin, parents worry if there are any viable options outside of medicine, engineering, management or studying abroad. What good would a B.A. in history or sociology do other than a roll-of-the-dice chance at the civil services? As a historian, I have often faced blunt questions: what can a job prospect possibly be if you spend three/four years learning the causes of Mughal decline or the Permanent Settlement of 1793? This ably describes why most people see the social sciences, with the exception of economics, as a losing proposition. But has the tide begun to turn?
One of the most significant bursts of funding in the social sciences and the humanities occurred during the Cold War years. The United States, keen as it was then to establish spheres of influence, invested heavily to learn about how societies understood themselves and which ideology appealed to what individual. The money ran into hundreds of millions of dollars with the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York pulling funds from deep pockets. The Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies were other key players who helped sponsor innumerable workshops, conferences and academic seminars. These efforts resulted not only in a vast number of publications, but helped develop many enduring concepts which arguably continue to explain the world we live in. Scores of scholars, research communities and university departments, in being caught up in strategic concerns, ended up harnessing the social sciences and humanities to understand how nations and societies dealt with authority, ideologies, politics and power. Hardly the ‘soft sciences’!
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, funding for the Area Studies expectedly dried up. On the other hand, academic explorations under the rubrics of nation-making, democracy, globalisation and multiculturalism could hardly wield the previous heft.
In a study published in Research Trends (2013), Gali Halevi and Judit Bar-Ilanit point out that globally the financing for humanities sharply fell between 2009 and 2012. In part, while the 2008 financial crisis could be blamed for the sudden yanking of the proverbial rug, the loss in the lustre of the social sciences had already begun by the mid-1990s following the steady commercialisation of education. Unsurprisingly, student debt and education loans fell harder on those in the social sciences, arts and humanities than they did on those pursuing vocational skills such as engineering. At heart, however, this big turn against the ‘soft sciences’ was what Bill Reading described, in his classic The University in Ruins (1996), as the sustained attempt to transform the university from previously serving as an “ideological arm of the nation-state” to instead now being redesigned as a “consumer oriented corporation”. By morphing the citizen-student into a consumer-student (weighed in by debt), the actual rout of the social sciences was announced.
It is amidst the aftershocks of this change in the meaning of education that we should make sense of Ella Delany’s startling report in The New York Times (December, 2013) in which she catalogues a growing disquiet against the humanities and social sciences. In 2012, a task force convened by Governor Rick Scott of Florida recommended that students majoring in liberal arts and social science subjects be made to pay higher tuition fees as they were in “nonstrategic disciplines”. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013 “reprioritised” 103 million Australian dollars from research in the humanities into medical research. In Britain, Robin Jackson, chief executive of the British Academy for the humanities and social sciences, in 2011 announced that direct government funding for humanities had been withdrawn and was to be replaced by tuition fees “backed up by government loans”.
Is this total defeat? Ironically, just as the social sciences and the humanities are being written off in many countries, there have emerged vigorous calls for resituating its importance. Notably, climate change research and global environmental change programmes the world over are stridently advocating for what they term as the urgent need for “integrated analyses”. It is imperative, they argue, that the natural sciences be drawn into productive dialogues with the social sciences in order to explore critical themes such as global sustainability and green development.
One of the most significant international science initiatives in recent times called the Future Earth has, in fact, in their ‘Strategic Research Agenda’ (2014) urged for initiating a new generation in interdisciplinary and integrated research which can grapple with the realities of a warming planet. The initiative, however, is not entirely novel. For decades now, interdisciplinary efforts such as science studies, environmental history and full-fledged post graduate programmes under the rubric of science-technology-environment-medicine (STEM) have successfully broken down the hard divides between the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. These interdisciplinary initiatives have also compellingly revealed that the natural sciences are ideologically driven and are often oriented by political practice. In effect, the social sciences and humanities will be critical to help us understand what the sciences will become in the future. Significantly, given that an entirely new script for economic behaviour is being drafted in the context of climate change, these conversations have acquired pressing strategic consequences for the developing world.
The Indian scenario
The university system in India is, unfortunately, ill-prepared to take up these challenges. In part, it has put all its research and teaching eggs on the vice-chancellor system for administering higher education. The vice-chancellorship, as an organisational logic, is an ailing legacy and remains a bad marriage between the Mughal Jagirdari system and the rigidity of the British colonial bureaucracy. The higher you go up the administrative ladder, there is less transparency, accountability and intellectual oxygen.
There is an urgent need to initiate a generational change in our university leadership, with fresh blood and new ideas brought in with rigorous metrics to judge the performance and contributions at the very top of the administrative chain. If the social sciences and the humanities in India are to be cutting edge by providing knowledge for the future, then the old has to be entirely dismantled.
(Rohan D’Souza is associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.)
The natural sciences should be drawn into dialogues with the social sciences to explore critical themes such as global sustainability