The Humanities and Engineering. Each of them has evolved elaborate methods and techniques in the schools of knowledge that they cater to. The skills required to master and excel in these disciplines are not similar. Both of them have many people of letters contributing. Each are as important as the other. One as old as the other; both have their own charm. And yet!
There are various questions that explore the ramifications of this one question, ‘Which one is brighter?’. The purpose of this article is to examine and bring to the fore the many views, perspectives and suspicions from both sides. This has been done a number of times, but doing it against the IITM back-drop brings about a localised view-point.
This is how the arguments begin. “They think JEE rank reflects their IQ. It is not the case. Once they get to their fourth year or so, they realise that there are tougher exams like the CAT, IAS and so on”, argues Preshant Sekar, a third year MA Economics student. He adds, “They judge us based merely on the Humanities electives that they get. They should remember that those electives are electives for us also.”
In fact, there have been several instances of the MA students being thought of as ‘less intellectual’. Bluntly, ‘They’re dull’ or lines like, ‘He’s MA; that explains a lot’ have been doing the rounds. All the same, the MA students too have a biased view of their engineering or science counterparts. There are very well entrenched rants like their ‘right brain is absent’, they are too ‘right-jacketed’ and so forth.
Sanjay Guruprasad, one of the Saarang Events Cores, disagrees. “I don’t think that’s true. If you look at the LitSoc performances in the past four years, they tell a different story. In many cases, B.Techs have done extremely well in the various LitSoc competitions.”
Another direction in which the MA students have voiced their contention is in the matter of B.Techs taking up non-core jobs. “Many don’t like what they are studying. Some have an inclination towards arts and science. Students of elite engineering institutions take up non-core jobs. Isn’t it like denying someone else, who is genuinely interested, his opportunity to do engineering?” points out Arun Sudarsan, an MA third year student.
The discussion will probably not be complete without considering the Indian education system. Of course, censure of our indigenous system has gone from being ‘fashionable’ to clichéd. Nonetheless, given below is an excerpt from a popular blog which outlines the advantages of a liberal education system:
One week into his premed classes at Washington University in St. Louis, Ryan Jacobson was rethinking his plan to become a doctor. His biology and chemistry classes were large, competitive and impersonal—not how he wanted to spend the next four years. “Sitting in a chemistry class, I knew it wasn’t the right place for me,” he says. Jacobson found the history department, with its focus on faculty interaction and discussion, a better fit. But he had no intention of leaving his medical aspirations behind. So Jacobson majored in history while also taking the science and math courses required for medical school. When he graduated last spring, he won the departmental prize for undergraduate thesis for his work on the history of race relations in Tulsa, Okla. He started medical school at the University of Illinois last month. “Historians are supposed to integrate information with the big picture,” he says, “which will hopefully be useful as a physician.”
Indeed, this is very hard to come by educational values against an Indian silhouette. Indeed, we can’t take the familiar line of accusing the Indian education system. However, one thing is for certain: both, the Humanities and Natural Sciences are integral spheres of human learning and knowledge. They are a true and systematic documentation of human achievement, one qualitative and the other quantitative. This is echoed in the lines of all our contributors who have been ardent supporters for their own domain of knowledge.
Preshant agrees, “There are many engineers. Few of them really like what they do. The work that these few engineers go about doing is truly amazing and absolutely likable.”
Sanjay Guruprasad quips, “I think such departments are essential. If not anything, they improve the general quality of B.Tech students. Campus diversity and the diffusion of different ideas which they bring about are indispensable.”
We will end with considering the views of Prof. Sudhir Chella Rajan, one of the very few individuals to have seen both The Humanities and Natural Sciences from the highest citadels of learning.
(Professor Sudhir Chella Rajan, is currently the HoD, Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras. Did his B.Tech in Aeronautical Engineering from IIT Bombay and M.S in meteorology from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He did his Ph.D in Environmental Science and Engineering, University of California, Los Angeles. As such, has seen both science (engineering) and Humanities at the highest levels.)
1) The role of the Humanities in IITs.
The Humanities help us understand ourselves. What is it that makes us who we are, how do we engage with each other? The source for our strife, how do we go about to make a living. When the IITs were founded, the designers of the IIT system wanted the nation to enter a higher technological stratum. Having said that they realised, questions of human relationships are central. We are not mere automatons. Understanding human relationship is extremely crucial. To a certain extent, could cite the US liberal education system. It has both the components – descriptive and normative, this is a very important impulse.
2) Humanities – Science or Art?
In France, the Humanities are called Human Sciences. Examine its contents – trying to understand phenomena, without obvious bias and without spiritual attributes.
Thomas Hobbes, well regarded as the father of Modern Political Philosophy in his ‘Theory of appetites and aversions’ regards and examines logic and reason, creativity, culture and uses analytical approaches to solve pertinent questions. There are a range of analytical methods in science. Humanities as a whole, uses many of these.
In retrospect, are the Humanities a science? Yes. If you have an expanded view of science. No. If you have a particular empiricism. The threshold is vague. Yet distinguishable.
Indeed, there are differences between a Poet and a Professor of Poetry!
3) There is an alternate school of thought suggesting that IITs have evolved from technological institutes to Universities. Science education forms only a part.
In that respect, most universities will have a ‘School of Liberal Arts’ or a ‘School of Arts and Sciences’, not so IIT Madras. However there is certainly scope for an interdisciplinary engagement. In this respect, it isn’t a bad thing to have cross-fertilization. For instance, while looking at the research papers this year, there was this Ph.D student whose research focussed on a whole dimension into looking at the way we look at children’s fantasy novels, the likes of Connor, Blyton and so on. Then, there was this Masters student whose research centred on Patent laws. I think this is considerable breadth and there is ample scope for Humanities even in an ‘institute of technology’.
4) There have been biased views on either side. The Science students looking down upon the Humanities students and vice-versa.
I strongly believe that this sort of unduly bias has considerably reduced from what it was, three or four years ago. Many humanities students have established themselves and have gained considerable notoriety. The bias on the Humanities side could be that engineers are essentially right-jacketed, straight thinking.
Many famous IITians aren’t even in an engineering workplace. The contention of the people, suspicious in Humanities and social sciences is that scientists are very instrumental or at least they treat knowledge as such. This is not true. For instance, in my B.Tech programme, I came across a well-known experiment, Jukowski Air foil. It involved use of conformal mapping to observe lamina flow over a cylinder. Instrumental maybe, but very exciting. Impressive for its own sake.
On the other hand, I had thought that humanities were a very simple branch of study – you could even study humanities in your spare time. That wasn’t true. It’s a lot about perspectives. Knowledge here is humanitive. Science is not controversial, humanities is not so. Humanities envisages a cumulative learning process, gives you more wiring in your brain.
5) Your career path has been very interesting. Originally an Aeronautical Engineer, now a principle researcher on the environment and political aspects.
(Chuckles) Sorry to say this to all the aeronautical engineers out there but, as an Aeronautical engineer I thought I was doomed the moment I took it! Mostly due to my own choice. In the end, I was glad I did take it. It gave me a lot of insights into Mathematics, Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and many other branches. I moved to a 5-year programme on atmospheric sciences, that’s when I started looking at humanities. I took a lot many humanities electives and slowly entrenched myself in this. It made me more of a generalist, than a specialist.