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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More science, less of everything else?

There are certain issues that keep exercising my mind all the time, and the face-off between science and the humanities happens to be one of them.

I should like the reader to go through the two links here; the first to a 2010 news item that I came across only recently, which tells about how a prominent Indian industrialist has donated a large sum of money to set up a liberal arts centre at Harvard University, his alma mater, the second, written by an ex-professor of English at Yale who first majored in science, and writes about how ideally studies in science and the humanities should complement one another – something that I have been insisting on for a long long time, and something that our leaders/educationists seem increasingly to be losing sight of. It is my (I believe very reasonable) fear that without that kind of well-rounded education, not only shall we stop producing mature, civilized citizens who can be equally good at parenting and teaching and ruling the nation at all levels from the municipality to the federal government, but even stop producing any real science at all, reducing ourselves instead to a country full of rude, ignorant, greedy, mentally unbalanced petty technicians of all kinds… hardly the sort of nation with any hope of a glorious future! Last night I heard an old boy – now in  a very renowned engineering college – saying that when he reads the newspaper in the canteen or in the hostel, his friends/roommates taunt him for it, calling him a ‘retired person’ with nothing ‘worthwhile’ to do, worthwhile in their book meaning getting drunk, watching smut on the net, chasing girls, zooming about on  bikes bought by their fathers or loitering in shopping malls, of course, not working in some lab or listening to a scholarly lecture or doing some part time job or writing music or anything like that…


Sayan Datta said...

Dear Suvro Sir,

Thanks for the post and the links. The articles on 'The American scholar' made a great deal of sense. Sir, as you already know, I have been thinking along these lines lately and intuitively/ subconsciously as well as through discussions with you, the seed of the idea discussed has already begun to take shape in my mind, albeit in a nascent form. The author has only hit them hard and home, particularly with the last paragraph. It is also something you have been talking about for a very long time... Will have to reflect quite a bit more though and return to this post thereafter. Looking forward to hearing/ reading more on this topic.

I want to end with this quote I found in the book I am presently reading. It is related (at least to an extent) with the topic under discussion - "I maintain that the human mystery is incredibly demeaned by scientific reductionism, with its claim in promissory materialism to account eventually for all of the spiritual world in terms of patterns of neuronal activity. This belief must be classed as a superstition...we have to recognize that we are spiritual beings with souls in the spiritual world as well as material beings with bodies and brains existing in a material world" - Sir John C. Eccles

Debarshi Saha said...

Dear Sir,

This is an ideologically driven question,and one that continues to be a subject of debate.It is sadly very common to hear undergraduates and recent college graduates,especially the ones enrolled in Technology courses,to complain,"I think I wasted a lot of time in college being forced to take humanities classes that had nothing to do with my area of study." Nothing indeed could be further from the truth.

However,I would like to put forward my thoughts regarding the great importance of the humanities in technical education:

1)The humanities subjects(if learnt and interpreted properly) have the potential to provide us with a strong foundation to fulfill our civic and cultural responsibilities.The humanities provide an insightful understanding into moral, ethical, political, and ideological forces. A successful society depends upon altruism, charity, civility, compassion, and generosity, and the humanities evaluate and emphasize the importance of these characteristics. The liberal arts introduce aesthetic values to the student. While it may not be obvious how these characteristics are essential to finding a research position in academia or industry, they are keys to a full and meaningful life.

2)Studying the humanities allows us to assimilate and be familiar with creative ideas from great minds outside of Science & Technology.Robert Young, who carefully traced this link in his 1969 publication, Malthus and the Evolutionists: the Common Context of Biological and Social Theory, points out that assumptions in the humanities about human nature and society contribute fundamentally to approaches taken in the scientific study of nature.

3)The study of humanities, both in its pursuit and the perspective it provides, rewards the student with the skills needed for self-critical reflection, adaptability, and self-teaching. These are the functions needed to be an independent learner, thereby extending one's scientific knowledge and teaching abilities throughout his or her professional career.

4)Humanities study teaches us that the supposedly sharp dichotomies that separate science from humanities do not really exist.All of the greatest minds from both Science and Humanities have arrived at this ultimate truth from their unique adopted approaches.

Finally,as Albert Einstein put it so eloquently,"Science without religion is lame;Religion without science is blind."

Best wishes,

Shubho said...

This is a good effort from your side, Sir. You have given two links, written well, and tried to convince people that humanities and science go hand in hand. But I am a bit sceptic about the effort that you are putting in to making a public discussion on this matter. Trust me, this post will not be liked by the parents of the children who are going to appear in the medical and engineering entrance examinations, or by the parents whose children are doing engineering and medical courses. They will tell their children, ‘osob faltu kotha sune besi labh nei… ekhon mon diye porikkhar jonno poro, esober jonno onek somoy pore achhe…’ And MBAs – do not consider them. You may get comments like “Bl**dy as***le” from a group of people for this post.

Now let me give you one small example of an experience that I had yesterday in office and my reaction to that. There is a new joinee in my team – a girl about 23 years old. She is a trainee. Yesterday, when I had logged into my gmail account, I found that there was one comment on my last blogpost, and was waiting for moderation. I read the post and logged into my blogger profile to approve the comment. The whole thing took just 5 minutes. The only mistake that I had made was I had used the system that this girl was using, and that too because I had not taken my laptop yesterday to office because of certain problems. When I logged into my blogger profile, she told me, ‘Subhadip da, esob faltu ki sob koro? Keno esob kore somoy nosto korchho?’ I told her in return, ‘Eta amar blog. Ekta comment achhe. Just approve kore di, taholei hoe galo…’ She replied back, ‘Ami jani. Egulo puro faltu jinish. Esob mail aste thake notification er…’ I tried to convince her by telling that I had written about something on the arrest of the two Mumbai girls and she began to mock at me for it. When I told her that it is easy to talk about dirt by staying out of it she did not understand the meaning, and she in turn replied to me that I was also doing the same thing. I became angry, but did not quarrel any further. I just told her that I had criticized the Trinamool Government also in the same post, and that I could land up in jail anytime for that. I then fell silent. There was no use trying to convince her, because she already knew too much! In relation to this incident I recalled one dialogue that was there in the movie ‘Avatar’ when Jake Sully told Nitiri’s mother that he had come to learn from them. Nitiri’s mother in turn replied that they had tried to teach the sky people long enough. ‘It is hard to fill a cup which is already filled up’, was what she had told Jake Sully. It is the same with today’s people Sir. You are wasting your time and energy. Lord Buddha had a select group of disciples with whom he used to discuss serious issues. He never discussed those in public because he knew that people already knew too much to listen to and understand ‘faltu jinish’. I think that you should also do the same. You cannot fill up the cups that are already full.

(continued in next comment...)

Shubho said...

(...continued from previous comment)

I will like to say one more thing. It is not totally related directly to this post, but it is about education as a whole and about the mentally retarded parents of today who are making mentally retarded grown-ups out of their perfectly mentally sound children. Before I say anything, I will quote a few sentences from the book “The Men Who Ruled India” by Philip Mason. The writer is writing of a time sometime between 1833 and 1853 when officers were to be selected for the Civil Services. ‘…Everyone agreed that there should be an interview in which pleasant manners and social background would count for something; everyone agreed that some intellectual standard was needed….’ This is something that children of today will never realize. Sheer greed and disrespect for values and ethics (mostly inherited and also learnt from the parents) is leading to a generation of thoroughly unethical and ill-mannered people. Another quote, ‘…The course should have been longer, three years at least. Far too much was crowded into two years. And certainly the professors might have done much more to interest the students in the life they were to lead and the work they were to do….’ When I imagine that ‘children’ of 15 or 16 years of age were reading about 5 to 6 languages, both Indian and European, and simultaneously doing mathematics and sciences (they were studying arts and science together, that too in college), and were becoming officers and ruling this country by the time they were about 17 or 18 years of age, or sometimes even at a younger age, I wonder how much the education levels and the mental growth of both parents and their children have deteriorated today, so that parents fear to send their 18 year olds alone to tuitions, that too when the teacher’s house is not more than 2 kilometers far. You will hear from them, ‘Ekhono bachcha chhele to, eka ki kore chhere di bolun to?’ (In those days, 16 or 18 year old teenagers used to travel on horses through jungles where wild animals and dacoits resided, both ready to kill unknowing victims at any opportunity. They used to lead armies into war and they used to be the diplomats when dealing with the likes of Akbar, Ranjit Singh, Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Nizams and others.) The time is not far when we will have to hear of mothers who happily wipe the bums of their 18 year olds after potty and say, ‘Ekhono bachcha chhele to, ki kore porishkaar korbe bolun to. Jotodin pari koriye di, tarpor to neejekei korte hobe sob kichhu…’ Otherwise they will say, ‘Ki korbe bolun? Eto porar chaap. Potty korte korteo porte hoy. Somoy to aar nosto kora jaay na. Tai sob kichhu kore di. Jotota beshi somoy porte pare. Etto competition, baba…!’ Believe me Sir, this is going to happen. And if you are unlucky enough, you will live to see this day!

Shilpi said...

I don’t know whether this is a coincidence but I'd been re-reading up on one unfinished project of scientists working on the environment and their values when your post took me by surprise early last week. Yet I'd never heard of the term scientism till you mentioned it. I got to know of the Mahindra centre by accident last year and I did wonder why it was that he set up a centre for the humanities and one that supports research (for post docs from the Ivy Leagues, but still) on the relationship between facts and values.

I found one link off that Am. Sch. site from the comment section, which though long picks on some pertinent bits in relation to scientism, and it might make for some interesting or informative reading if even one doesn’t agree with the whole piece for some, maybe. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism

Knowing that almost 95% of sociology departments websites and textbooks that I’ve seen claim that sociology is the 'scientific study of society' - I absolutely with D’s take on the number crunchers and even the ones who are seen as ‘experts’ (not that this automatically makes the humanities folks or qualitative social scientists any superior: they have their jargonized prose in formal academia). D is also quite right that a silly study surveying 50 or 100 college students on 'friendship' would not only have excellent chances of being published in one of those peer-reviewed journals but also get cited as being an invaluable study by an ‘expert’. I wouldn’t blame the media for citing them but it’s how they cite them and how the ‘experts’ portray their studies that is silly. For one thing, it would depend on whether one is interested in talking about averages in society or whether one wants to know/show how ‘friendship’ is viewed by the best minds or whether one demonstrates a comparison. The less said the better of course about more than most of the articles that get published in peer reviewed journals – but I’m sure D too knows that since he must have gotten more than a few of his articles published without which he would never have been hired nor given tenure in an Ivy League.

Shilpi said...

Where I do disagree with D is when he says that the humanities is about the 'true for me' proposition. If it were there would be no dialogue or communication possible for one thing, and if that’s the only question I’m asking then how would I become more empathetic or aware or connected or change ?
Secondly, I will insist that people need to be taught what and why something feels beautiful or wondersome or is good or valuable – this is what is so sorely lacking. There can be disagreements and agreements even after but one learns or re-gains the ability to discriminate and to see only with teaching and guidance.
From what I’ve noted and carefully it’s precisely the sentiment among current academicians/professors of restricting the proposition in the humanities and even in the so-called ‘social sciences’ (when they aren’t number crunching) to 'is it true for me' that creates the problem of thinking that values and morals and anything that is intangible and non-measurable or exceptional are airy-fairy and so subjective that they cannot be discussed or elaborated or 'studied' at all or transmitted and are made to sound boring and dry and utterly disconnected or extremist or trivial or that they hold no significance to doing science or to looking at what we seek to do with technology or to living life. There is also a distinct disjuncture in what many professors teach in class and how they act and live and many do not even find it problematic.
Or else it goes back to what D points out – these non-measurable qualities have to be made quantifiable in ridiculous ways through statistical tests to make them sound scientific and acceptable.
I’ll never stop harping on the one glaring problem because it becomes ever more clear just why the humanities and the social sciences are becoming stink-holes in a way and seen as being inferior to science and basically in relation to the material benefits of science, that is to technology: it’s because it’s infinitely harder to be a genuine teacher and a leader in the humanities and social sciences, and to live or try to live according to the tenets that one talks about in the classroom.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I think I can congratulate myself on how many serious issues I can raise, and how often, that leave my readers feeling uncomfortable and having nothing to say (unless they can abuse me, that is)!

Subhanjan said...

Thanks a lot for this post, the link to the article, and the valuable comments. For long I have been thinking on this matter, and sometimes have had unpleasant discussions with people who do not think beyond the convention. Going through the thoughts penned down here had been a valuable experience as it had helped me understand the issue from different perspectives. I would not speak much, but would prefer to quote Bertrand Russell from The Scientific Outlook: 'I mean by wisdom a right conception of the ends of life. This is something which science in itself does not provide. Increase of science by itself, therefore, is not enough to guarantee any genuine progress, though it provides one of the ingredients which progress requires.'

Suvro Chatterjee said...

See, so many ex students among my readers who have formally 'studied science', and no one among them who has anything worthwhile to say on a topic supposedly so relevant to their work and education beyond what they used to write in school-level essays. If studying science does not make people brain dead these days, what does?

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

It is true and sad.

Even after all the frantic exercises in studying and making a career in science, our outlook is so unscientific. Science has not been allowed to cross the borders of academic curriculum. People talk in haste, don’t listen, doesn’t analyse conversations and are quick to generalize and jump to conclusions. All of these run contrary to scientific reasoning, yet it doesn’t bother most unless it comes to expecting something from others. And humanities weren’t even that fortunate.

Pardon me I am digressing- here (http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2012/03/how-write-scientist) is a humorous take on why scientific reports are dry and why a blend of science and humanities is necessary even for the former to reach a broad audience in an interesting way.

With regards,

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the comment, Saikat. Nothing pleases me more than to find folks looking up old posts, and commenting constructively on them. Regarding the contents of your first paragraph, you are now finding out for yourself something that you have often heard me lamenting over in class. As for the link, thanks very much indeed. It is most relevant to the subject under discussion, apart from being sad and hilarious at the same time. I hope many of my other readers will look it up.

My blog is now ten years old, and I have just posted something to mark the occasion. Do read it.

Best wishes.