Saturday, March 8, 2014

Decline of humanities

In one of the stories of the Arabian Nights, an exiled prince, who later becomes a kalandar, is asked by his employer what his skills are. The prince replies that he is a poet and man of letters. “That skill is useless here. Take the ax and collect wood,” enjoins the employer. This anecdote reflects the current situation of humanities studies in Nepal and in other countries.

The studies of humanities suffer as students opt to join other streams. That is why many colleges in Nepal are phasing out humanities. Similar trend exists in universities worldwide. It seems the focus has shifted to business and vocational studies, which is understandable. 

Gone are the days when gaining education meant being able to introspect and ask existential questions. These days one has to be “saleable” in the market. Education that ensures jobs with lucrative benefits is held high. Deliberation on ontological and epistemological meanings is considered unproductive. One has to learn the tricks of the trade in this ever-growing capitalist market-driven society for survival.

Simon During, an Australian Research Professor, in an article in states that “in 2010, the UK government, in deregulating university fees, simply stopped funding undergraduate teaching in the arts, humanities, and social sciences while maintaining support for engineering, the sciences, technology, and math. Partly as a result, applications for the humanities fell by over 11 percent the following year.”

Similar dearth of students in humanities is seen in Nepali colleges. Deepak Khanal, principal of Bluebird College, Lalitpur, points out three reasons for students’ disinterest in humanities and fondness for management studies. First, management students get jobs quickly after finishing their studies. With the proliferation of financial institutions and banks, these students see a big job market. Second, humanities have been traditionally treated as a stream that students with poor grades join. Those with higher scores opt or are forced to join management or science. Third, there are plenty of optional subjects in humanities and students demand a certain subject, and not the other. The college cannot offer the subject or hire a subject teacher as per students’ demands and students join other streams where all subjects are compulsory. “We used to offer humanities in our college but the dwindling number of students forced us to phase it out,” Khanal says. 

More students enroll in Masters in English than in any other subjects: 1,412 completed their postgraduate in English from Tribhuvan University in 2012 alone. This is significantly higher than the numbers in other subjects in humanities. Sociology still attracts students but political science, history, culture, geography and many other subjects have very few takers. The lure of English exists among Nepali students, maybe because English is the international language and has the potential to fetch lucrative jobs. But the jobs available to English graduates are as teachers, journalists, librarians, translators and foreign education consultants, among others. None of these are attractive in terms of salaries. Jobs in international organizations based in Nepal are lucrative but they follow a tacit policy of “reverse discrimination” so that so-called upper-caste people rarely get these jobs. Other subjects in the humanities stream have even more limited opportunities for jobs.

It is a big disincentive for humanities that students don’t get lucrative jobs but they also lack basic employable skills. Even the English graduates’ writing is not up to the mark. This shortcoming hampers their eligibility in the limited job market. This is because English is taught in Nepali or other local languages in public schools from the very beginning. The instructors themselves are not adequately qualified to impart writing skills. The annual examination system gives no space to test the abilities of the students and to monitor their progress. Moreover, cheating in examinations is an established practice. Thus students with poor academic skills pass with flying colors.

It’s high time that the curriculum be improved so as to incorporate sellable skills rather than focusing on abstruse theories. 

However, there are incompetent students in other streams as well. There are worrying studies pointing to the incompetence of our doctors and engineers. Nepali medical graduates from Chinese universities repeatedly fail the competency exam conducted here. The local graduates fare better in this regard but there have been discouraging reports about massive corruption in medical colleges. Unqualified students easily become doctors by paying hefty fees these days. An empirical study carried out by BR Pahari concludes that “the existing level of graduating engineers from Nepal are not meeting the standard demanded by the market”. This is problematic indeed.

Unemployment rate in Nepal is estimated at around 46 percent. Most of the unemployed are University graduates. The gradual increase of service sector means that many graduates vie for the limited seats. The big pool of applicants in many job openings prove that population has skyrocketed while not enough jobs have been created. No wonder that both skilled and non-skilled youth choose to go abroad searching for jobs. 

The government should ensure favorable conditions for establishing industries (the job creators) and also encourage youths to pursue technical studies. Even the humanities can be improved given a little willpower. 

The author is with Republica’s op-ed bureau

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