The Value of Humanities

For 3-4 years I visited the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi every month for their monthly film screening followed by a discussion. The discussion was moderated by persons who have done doctrates in film studies, and teach the same or allied subjects in universities. It seemed strange to me that much of these people would talk as if they had invented their own language of academic terms that I did not understand. They were so involved in these terms that they did not realise how cut off a layman was from them. Later, as I pursued my M.A. in Comparative Religion, some of the teachers made a similar impression on me. There was often a feeling that academicians are disconnected from the world out there, that they indulge themselves in researching what they like without caring whether their work makes anybody’s lives any better.

Also, often one comes across a research topic that makes one wonder what the value of it is, for instance, “The state of the economy in the Central Provinces from 1550 to 1600”, “The Europeans of Calcutta in the 20th century”, and so on. These topics may well have a value that I am blind to, not being a student of history, but the point is made that there may be areas researching which time, money and energy is spent, often from public funds, which seem to be entirely based on a whim of the researcher and not have any positive implications on society.

So one may see that humanities research is not about changing the world, or to put it better, it’s primary aim is not to change the world. On the other hand, that does not give one the licence to indulge oneself in topics that are of relevance only to oneself. What then, is the objective of having an academic class dedicated to the humanities? The modern university system provides for a class of specialists in areas like history, literature, culture studies, anthropology, and such “human sciences” who are clearly not out there to create new jobs. As Frank Zappa would say of himself, their products have “no commercial potential”. So what is there importance?

I propose that academia in general, and academia in the field of the humanities in particular, should be one of the most highly valued fields of activity in society. Very fundamentally speaking, academic activity consists of understanding the truth. The truth is the missing link between two separate facts, which seem connected but not in a clear way. Taking an example from my field of study, Comparative Religion: when I read two religious scriptures from different ages, such as the Vedas and the Gita, I know that there is a basic affinity between them, even though they talk of very different things. The first talks of veneration of deities while the second talks of duty. By filling in the gap between the two texts through an empathic understanding of how it feels to be the person who lives his life according to these texts, combined with rational conjecture, one may come to a hypothesis about why the Vedas and the Gita express a religiousity that is the same in essence and different in manifestation. Both speak of an absolute reality that goes beyond every experiences and is expressed in an order inherent in all things. The Vedas relate this to order in the cosmos, the change of seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, and the responsibility of the human being to preserve this order through ritual sacrifice. The Gita speaks of a spiritual consciousness that is beyond material appearances, a spark of which is contained in one’s own self, and one’s work in the world as doing one’s duty in line with one’s true nature. Hence, a truth that connects two existing facts (the texts of the Vedas and the Gita) is discovered, that leads us from the surface of the aspect of reality in question to a deeper understanding of that reality.

Looking at things from a purely evolutionary perspective, this is one of the major qualities that makes human beings the pinnacle of the development of nature that starts from primitive forms of life. It is only gradually that the ability of species to reason out things and to empathically put oneself in the position of the other (perhaps the two most important qualities needed for a humanities researcher) develops. At the present time, the human being is the most sophisticated form of nature when it comes to these qualities. Other work, such as manual work, activities related to commerce, mechanical work, etc. are things that we have more in common with other species to varying degrees. For this reason, we may consider academic activity, along with artistic activity and certain other types of work to be on a high level of civilisation. A civilisation needs a certain degree of economic well-being before such non-commercial activities as academic research and art can be promoted on a large scale.

One may go even further and say that to understand the truth in a particular research in the area of humanities is to understand the truth about life. The humanities – literature, film, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, philology, etc. – are expressions of human life and therefore contain in them some sense of what is the absolute truth. Understanding one aspect of the absolute truth contained in these gives on access to larger parts of the absolute truth. To understand deeply what other human beings have done, said and expressed, and what it feels like to be those other human beings, broadens one’s sense of experience. A sense of experience that goes outside one’s own personality is something most of us do not have usually. It can be reached through psychological techniques such as meditation and psychotherapy, or through strong life experiences like a major accident. But it can also be understood through academic research into these areas. Any broadening of one’s boundaries of experience, whether academic or not, takes one closer to the absolute truth, and not just our truth.

Finally, one must say that being privileged to pursue the truth, academicians have a responsibility towards those who are not in a position to do so. The knowledge must be passed on to other scholars, students and the broader public, so that it broadens their experience of life and takes them closer to a more satisfying and realistic view of how life really is. That there is a need among people for such knowledge is clearly visible from the popularity of a book like ‘The Story of Philosophy’ by Will Durant and a TV series like ‘Discovery of India’. Not every academician may have the ability to write popular books or make movies and that is understandable. But to pass on the knowledge at least to those who may understand it and also to pass on the skills required to unearth new knowledge completes the endeavour that we call the humanities. Perhaps a knowledge that is not passed on is incomplete knowledge.

Alex Sanderson, a scholar of Sanskrit at the University of Oxford puts forth similar views in the second part of this interview.

“By studying the other we get a deeper understanding of what constitutes a human being.. People have a deep desire to experience beauty through music and art, and I would say the same thing about the study of literature and philosophy” – Alexis Sanderson


~ by tdcatss on September 20, 2009.

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