Global Concerns, Local Politics

By Oeendrila Lahiri, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, 4Humanities International Correspondent

While spending time with my little cousin who is about to head off to the UK for his undergrad education, it seemed to me that some equations are being readjusted. As we send the kids to study abroad – this time with our own money and not with first world scholarships – two things have become clear. First, that the economy, especially of the UK, is truly in a sad state, and secondly, that Indians continue to treat the sciences as a more dependable investment than the humanities.

Education has always been sought in foreign lands (the UK and US mainly) by the rich and the qualified. However, the Indian middle class recently has made some remarkable sprints in this direction. I say this because my cousin is not very academically inclined and neither has he scored high in his school leaving exams. He therefore stands a slim chance at getting through an engineering college in India unless expensive private colleges are an option. We were worried about the future. But instead words like ‘Hertfordshire’ and ‘Sussex Universities’ were suddenly floating about.

Not top universities, agreed. But this was the second best option. Instead of going to a private so-so college in India, he’d have a (more expensive) ‘foreign degree.’ History has proved so far that if he wishes to come back to India a foreign degree might stand him in good stead. (Although, to be fair, I have to say that not all foreign university stamps can do the magic.)

Anyhow, the total expenditure will be huge for a middle class family. It would have been unheard of ten years back. But India’s economy has benefitted this section of society and we seem to think that if UK’s education is on sale now then we too shall buy it!

So I asked the family if they would fund the child’s future if he wanted to study the arts or read literature. The answer was not surprising as it reinforced traditional views on the matter:

  • Engineering is better suited to boys, implying that the humanities are for girls.
  • It’s not hot enough for this level of investment.
  • He could just read English here then and get a job with one of the international business houses.

The third option is something that has been a trend for a while now. Reading English literature has little to do with a love for literature or the humanities. It is an easy stepping stone to a good job, to be augmented at some point with a degree in management studies. The hundreds of applications to the undergrad course in literature ought not to make universities and faculty happy because a sizeable chunk of candidates hold English to be the last, yet handy, option. This should also say something about liberal arts education and the market.

However, English is not in the same league as the hard sciences in India or abroad.[1] Medicine and engineering, stereotyped careers for Indians, are still very much the favoured options. But India has always depended on the sciences with or without budget cuts in the humanities. It is the naturalised scheme of things; it is part of our culture. Nowadays, management comes in at a close third. Over the decades, this has created two generations of well meaning nationalists, growing in strength along with the economy, who have recently led the populist agitation against corruption. It was a very important moment in national politics that seemed to need an intervention from the humanities for the future of the country’s democratic commitments. But more on that in the next post.


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