Friday, January 06, 2006

Study humanities, be human

RADHIKA SRINIVAS The Times of India Monday, January 2, 2006
The dawn of this millennium has seen the gradual alienation of man from humanity. While technology has made path-breaking progress, the human race is at the crossroads of existential angst. The demands of a self-centred upwardly mobile society, the shift in family values across cultures and easy availability of technological innovations are slowly desensitising the individual. Terrorist attacks, petty power struggles, manic depression and workplace stress are only some indicators of such a fall-out. Today, increasingly, there is a need to inculcate stabilising factors in human existence. The perils of science can be addressed by the wisdom of the humanities.
It is in this context that a study of subjects in the humanities gains significance at the engineering undergraduate level. The goal of engineering education is to prepare graduates for effective and responsible careers as practising professionals. The ultimate objective of instruction is, therefore, to be of service to humanity. Technology has made this possible. The marvels of innovative engineering design are near miracles. Loss of sight, hearing, limb or organ are no longer dead-end catastrophes; space and time are virtual concepts cutting across geographical and time barriers. Yet, a study of an engineering student's background reveals that he has little exposure to critical thinking skills, communicative ability and the economics and management affecting a business set-up.
As an educationist looking into engineering Fred C Morris says: "The ever-increasing influence of the technological upon the social and economic order has intensified the long-standing need that the engineer be better educated in the humanities so that he will be better able to accept his responsibilities". Engineering design and science subjects should necessarily dominate the engineering curriculum. Each branch of engineering offers its unique contribution in its make-up of theory and practicals. However, it is equally important to acknowledge that 'soft' skills such as ethics, economics, language and communication, legal and management aspects are necessary and crucial to holistic education. While the outcome of engineering subjects can be measured through designs, experiments, procedures and products, the contribution of the humanities in the evolution of a student can only be perceived in real-life situations in real time — as freshers seeking anchors in unfamiliar surroundings; as troubled teenagers seeking counsellors; as job aspirants seeking grooming for interviews, seminars and discussion forums; and as aspirants for higher education seeking those vital recommendations.
Daniel Goleman, a writer on issues of EQ, points out that young engineers are not good at teamwork, sharing data, helping out and receiving feedback. Such workplace skills help foster a vision and strengthen a youngster against a storm of obsolescence. These life-coping skills can only be provided by the humanities. As Martin Luther King said: "Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men". The humanities can only be taught as an on-the-job human skill through interactive sessions.
Discoveries, inventions and innovations in the present advanced scientific age demand constant knowledge enhancement; the resulting stress, angst and personal limitations require continual ministration. Teaching engineering subjects requires research and breadth of knowledge; imparting values and skills needs expertise and depth of wisdom. Excellence in engineering quality is achieved when both, the process and the product, are given relevant treatment. Engineering education is the process which places the product, the engineering student, before an industry that forms the lifeline of the economy. The process of education needs attention if the product is to be of value. The study of humanities is a value-addition to a degree in engineering education. Through counselling, mentoring, lecturing and training, the discipline transforms the student as he meta-morphoses from the confines of a rigid curriculum to the freedom of innovative learning. The writer heads the Humanities Department at VJTI, Mumbai.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your existential guidelines for this persistent problem. When sciences - with its rabid positivism bent on thingification of the world - revels in its insular progress by letting technology triumph over human life and meaning, I see little use of something like “counseling and mentoring.”

    Surrender to thinking humans as floating things is a mental illness, whose treatment lies in students “turning inside out” and honest self-introspection has to ensue. But, with leisure scarcely available nowadays, I’ve seen people approach counseling as something that maltreats and demonizes them.

    Most anchor their meaning from anything from costliest cushions, inviting ipods to take over them to their prowess to LOUNGE on weekdays.

    If this seems to be normal, any counseling would be abnormal for them. Rather, I feel instead of extracting them from their domain into a utopia, one can enter their utopia and try to gradually realize the limits and not the potential of it.

    Give them something to accompany their structures of meaning; not overwrite the existing structures.

    This is a collective enterprise and as Martin Luther King Jr. had envisaged: “Our destiny is tied up with them.”

    I also think that that “them” has to gradually converge into a common humanity. This may sound spooky but one can enjoy a slice of utopian idealism in their life.

    PS: Moreover, it is not just engineering students but humanities students have also succumbed. But, sciences seem to be staring through this narrow telescope.
    I think it is a common malaise.