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Writing is on the wall

Social science has historically been locked in an uneasy relationship with the so-called ‘demands’ of time. If the three preceding industrial revolutions had their own heretics beginning with such thinkers as Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi and others, social science is unlikely to customise itself according to the ‘demands’ of the fourth industrial revolution. A World Bank report on the state of higher education in India in 2005 for instance points out that ‘measures are also needed to enhance the quality and relevance of higher education so that the education system is more demand driven, quality conscious, and forward looking, especially to retain highly qualified people and meet the new and emerging needs of the economy.’

While social science has been congenitally slow in responding to these ‘demands,’ say, by crafting structures of governance or experimenting with systems of financial management necessary for it, it is nevertheless true that much of it continues to remain critical of these ‘demands’ because of its strong normative concern. While private universities in our country have been the first to respond to this ‘demand,’ it is disciplines like law, industrial psychology, labour sociology, management and accountancy, and global governance — and not social science per se — that they offer as courses. Of course, there are exceptions — but these are rare and it must be admitted that the overall social science scenario in higher education under private initiative (compared to such disciplines as various branches of life science and engineering) is still to come of age. Social science in this context faces the dilemma of having to respond to the ‘demands’ of fourth industrial revolution and at the same time remaining steadfast to the moral and ethical concerns that also prompt social scientists to keep ‘critical distance’ from the reality and its requirements and constantly interrogate them.

The nature of the ‘demand’ we are talking about (i) has the risk of selecting its narrow social constituency of students and teachers who have the potential of being trained to meet it; (ii) calls for radical resetting of the social science agenda — without which the demand might threaten to render the latter morally and ethically vacuous; (iii) puts an accent on education that has only instrumental value and thereby discourages basic and theoretical research in social science.

The day I first came to college to submit my application for admission, there were many like me who came to make applications from remote rural areas. One of them, a rank-holder in the school-leaving exam, who decided not to join the IIT only to study physics in our college. He now directs one of the flagship scientific labs in the US. Those were the days when it was possible for someone to climb the social ladder underlining at one level that recognition of merit did not have a necessary correlation to one’s class or social background and at another, that students from rural background did not feel unduly disadvantaged insofar as access to higher education was concerned. School education was not polarised as sharply between a minority of English-medium, public schools and the vast majority of vernacular medium state-aided schools — literally representing now two different worlds. It took a toll on me as I had to meet them in two separate tutorial classes, thereby, helping the divide widen further. It would be foolish to say that there was no divide in society at that time — but the divide could be bridged given the merit and through education. An average social science class in Indian universities today is split almost down the middle and the polarisation is now more pronounced and visible.

The strategy has changed even by conventional universities. As ‘world class university’ becomes the buzzword, members of the faculty, even vice-chancellors, are airdropped from abroad to create a market demand for the new centres of excellence. These centres do not have any linkage with the immediate social environment. They communicate not with us, but with other ‘world class centres’ and certainly owe no responsibility towards society where they are located — although they thrive mostly on taxpayers’ money.

We make the revolutions as much as they make us. In what way the rapidly succeeding industrial revolutions create a new being from out of us? Is this being too desensitised to teach or study social science? Social science builds on a kind of sensitivity and consciously nurtures it. A university is known — not in terms of how many graduates it produces or how many of them are rendered employable — but in terms of its contribution to the making of good human beings or citizens. Remember Tagore’s words: higher education is not about what we learn; it is about what we make of ourselves through what we learn. Insofar as the fourth industrial revolution threatens to replace human mediation by internet of things or physical internet, it is bound to desensitise us and depreciate social science.

The private sector’s strong emergence is reflected in the funding pattern: While the government’s share in the overall education expenditure has been declining, private expenditure on education has increased phenomenally over the years. But the story of private funding will have to be read with many other stories. For, private funding reflects a skewed pattern and often provides disincentive to certain sectors which are of fundamental importance to society. The members of the faculty of philosophy felt outraged when the review team visited a state-aided university in West Bengal and asked them to shut shop if they were unable to raise fund for themselves.

Many of the social science departments were shut down in some southern states on the ground that they were of no ‘use’ to society. Unless radically rethought sooner rather than later, the prospects of social science teaching and research in the wake of the fourth industrial revolution are not very bright in our country.

Multiple perspectives
A social science or humanities degree provides students with the ability to analyse multiple ideas and problems. Such skills are useful in life in general and group discussions or job interviews in particular. If you intend to work in the legal, government (civil services), creative or semi-creative fields, then a social science or humanities degree provides a wider perspective. A social science or humanities curriculum can allow you to explore your interests over three years. If, at any point, you think it is taking you away from what you wish to study for your Master’s, then you can enrol for short-term courses to fill the void. This is why, before signing up for a Bachelor’s degree (in a good college), it helps to know what you wish to do on graduation. If you plan to study an MBA, then a commerce or related course would probably be more apt. However, if you are unsure, then consider an arts degree keeping in mind what the coursework demands.


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