The Importance of Humanities in Engineering Education


On 23rd February, Prof. MS Ananth, our former director, gave a lecture titled ‘The Importance of Humanities in Engineering Education’. As a Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) student, I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and felt that both engineering and HSS students could have taken away a lot from it and enriched our respective fields and also the way we approach our studies. I’m writing this article to give a summary of the things Prof. Ananth spoke about and add my thoughts as an HSS student in a technical institute.

A ‘definition’ of what the humanities and social sciences are can be found here and here. Please take a quick look before you read this.


Prof. Ananth’s Lecture: The Importance of Humanities in Engineering Education

Prof. Ananth emphasized the university as subject to a ‘wonderful randomness’, by which he meant the prospect of continuous improvisation and unending growth. The purpose of a university here is to open and refine the mind. But this lies forgotten, Prof. Ananth lamented, in the culture of placements, where employment is often independent of the education that students have received (say, with engineering students seeking and entering jobs that have nothing to do with engineering). He also criticized the current system of regular evaluation which only tests fragmented pieces of knowledge, stressing that “we must not let evaluation become more important than teaching itself”. More widely, holistic learning would mean learning both the sciences, and the humanities and social sciences (referred to collectively as HSS from now on). Another relevant thought here is one which came out in the panel discussion on ‘What is the idea of the university?’: a university is (rather, should be) a safe space to collectively challenge our assumptions and build knowledge, but these days this is seen as contrary to the process of gaining an education.

Valuing the Humanities and Social Sciences: Why?

Prof. Ananth remarked, “We must not ask why it’s important to study the humanities: then we might as well ask, why do we live?”, explaining that it is valuable for its own sake, for the scholarship it cultivates, because it gives us a distinctive qualitative understanding of culture and because ideas of knowledge are inextricable from human subjectivity. Some important considerations brought up by Prof. Ananth that reflect why a basic understanding of the Humanities and Social Sciences is essential to each one of us include:

  • Preserving a democracy: HSS develops respectful citizenship by cultivating the ability to evaluate historical evidence, use economic principles and appreciate the complexity of the world around us.
  • Human development: By developing in us the capacity to visualize and internally revise scenarios of future interactions and possibilities for the human race at large.
  • Creativity: It’s very important to cultivate a synergy between the left and right brain, but contemporary educational institutes often neglect this. Creativity involves developing aesthetic judgments, social emotions, moral sense — things cultivated through an HSS education.
  • Developing leadership: The world over, Prof. Ananth remarked, few engineers are in leadership positions, not because they are not capable but due to a lack of crucial skills such as critical thinking, self-knowledge and the ability to be a productive member of society: all things imparted through an HSS education.
  • Moving towards a better society: There will always be two (or more) sides to every issue, but these can only be resolved by extensive discussions without anyone getting personal. Conflict resolution and the ability for constructive debate are crucial to resolve important issues and move forward together, and these are inculcated by studying the HSS.
  • Aliens!: Quipping about how fast aliens might figure us out if/when they visit us, Prof. Ananth said the process of scientific evolution can be easily figured out, but an understanding of cultural evolution is much more difficult (though equally important) and involves the knowledge of our personal, diverse histories — a record that the HSS has been keeping.
  • Importance of intuition: Speaking about how intuition plays a big role in many major scientific discoveries, Prof Ananth quoted: “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant; but we have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”.
  • Cultural literacy: We should have a grasp of the worlds, metaphors, ideas and core values of the culture(s) we hold in common. The objective of such literacy is communication — and this should be an outcome, not objective, of HSS education. In Prof. Ananth’s opinion, this will happen when teachers are passionate.
  • Finally, he stressed the importance of cultivating the three critical abilities brought up by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum: critical self-examination, the ideal of the world citizen, and the development of the narrative imagination.

The importance of the HSS to STEM*: A Complementary and Crucial Relationship

Prof. Ananth stressed the importance of involving several teams trained in the social sciences into science and technology research, in order to ensure efficient and successful implementation. I would add to this, that with regard to solving problems and coming up with innovative products: science doesn’t lie in a vacuum. It is impossible to make engineering work sustainably and over a long term basis in the real world without an understanding of the social context and without involving the people for whom it is designed.

Thus, the HSS and sciences should and do complement each other. Talking more fundamentally about the synergy between the two, Prof. Ananth discussed how the interplay between the HSS and the sciences leads to new formats of media and forms of expression, and that innovation arises from the links between beauty and technology, networks and culture: it is up to us to create and cultivate these links at the intersection of science and art.

Prof. Ananth was very right in pointing out a fundamental asymmetry here: he said that while liberal arts aficionados consider those who don’t know Hamlet uncultured, they take great pride in not knowing the difference between differential and integral equations (and this may well also work the other way around). But as he remarked, Hamlet and calculus are both difficult and gloriously beautiful, and his contention that every individual must have a basic understanding of all important developments in both HSS and science from the past century at least, was to me very sensible and welcome.

Finally, he also stressed the importance of ethics (a topic explored in great depth in the humanities) with regard to work in the sciences, especially when it comes to practical applications of science and technology.

Practical Recommendations For IITM:

This brings me to the last part of Prof. Ananth’s talk, where he made practical suggestions to ensure that engineering students in IITM learn humanities and social sciences in a constructive way:

  • We follow less than half of the HSS course requirements that universities abroad have for their engineering students, and within this, we also pass off basic courses on speech and writing as HSS, which is detrimental. This has to be remedied.
  • Curriculum wise, all students should take that set of courses that the faculty consider most valuable: with this designed set of HSS courses preferably oriented across a specific theme or set of themes in order to allow them to immerse themselves in the topics.
  • It is important that BTech electives in HSS are loaded and engage the students thoroughly; “students may protest” but they will come around when they see the value of this knowledge, Prof. Ananth remarked. (More on this in later sections).
  • At a broader level: It is a pity that students with better understanding often score less than students who ‘mug’ successfully: faculty are capable of, and must have the freedom to come up with ways to test this understanding in students successfully. In the current scenario, he said, students are getting a raw deal.

What the Humanities and Social Sciences Means to Me

As a student in this campus it is difficult not to notice the underlying assumption that HSS has a secondary status to science and engineering and is a ‘light’ subject. This opinion is expressed not only by students but also faculty members.

I won’t repeat the very relevant points offered by Prof. Ananth, but I do have this to say: with its own multitude of research approaches, methodologies and methods — learning in the humanities and social sciences is a creative exercise with its own internal discipline just like in any other field. As Prof. Ananth remarked, there are many ways of reaching the truth, and as a social scientist would argue, there is no one truth, only several ways of looking at it. And HSS helps one find these perspectives by recording, analysing and making sense of the different paradigms and processes that shape our world. (And one of these paradigms happens to be that of science).

It’s also worth remembering that the origin of science is inextricable with the discipline of philosophy, and in contemporary times these two have drifted so far apart that we revere one and think of the other as something completely, and only, in the abstract. This is another great pity, because apart from the more intrinsic connections between science and philosophy, the latter also brings in questions surrounding ethics, morals, and usage of science — highly important considerations today, when the products of science have the potential for great devastation.

More broadly, HSS has to do with each one of us, how we construct our identities and through them ourselves, how we behave, what controls how we think and act and feel — and this is worth understanding; if not to understand ourselves better then to understand the world around us better. Getting a grasp of several different lenses through which to look at the world around us imparts a new kind of “objectivity”: instead of one (usually rigid) way to approach things, you now have several. This has the potential to change your outlook towards life, help you make well informed judgments and decisions, and transform the way you approach your work and the people around you as well.

As a final word: the business of social science, as a professor said at yesterday’s ‘What is the Idea of a University?’ panel discussion, is to jolt you out of your common sense, assumed understanding of the world by giving you the tools to unpack common understandings with rigour. It offers us a way of placing ourselves in a rapidly changing world and being able to articulate our discontents so as to resolve them better.

How Humanities and Social Sciences is Learnt in IITM: Some Issues

So far, I’ve been writing without looking too concretely at our campus. So let me do that now. Well, we all know that most of us don’t really have an understanding of what the humanities and social sciences is. I just took a walk around my wing to talk to my classmates and confirm: all of us have faced so many strange questions over these four years about what we study. My favourites are:

  • You do research in arts? Really? (Also the use of this word ‘Arts’)
  • So you read novels in your courses right?
  • Do you learn grammar in English Studies courses?
  • Do you make new theories in your thesis?

I don’t mind it when people ask questions. In fact, it’s super nice when curiosity leads to long, interesting conversations about what you each study. I really enjoy that on the rare occasions when it happens. But I do feel irked facing a question like ‘How can you possibly do research in Arts?’ for the tenth time. The huge disbelief that accompanies it is even hurtful, because it comes around so often. But it’s understandable, because most of us have had very limited and negative exposure to what HSS is growing up, and we are quite dismissive of all of it as a society. This is changing though, as people are slowly realizing the importance of these areas, and I’m glad to see it. Moving on, there is a tendency in insti to only choose HSS courses which are attendance-free and grade-easy and then dismiss all HSS courses or the field at large as lame and/or worthless. To illustrate, here is a sheet for informal HSS elective course feedback that is shared and edited every semester.

This spreadsheet, though it has its fair share of positive comments, is shared among students every time the need to select HSS electives comes around and rates every HSS elective based mainly on whether you can get away with not attending classes and how easy it is to get grades (and on at least one occasion, also how many girls you will have the benefit of co-studying with). I am sure many other non-HSS electives may be chosen based on these considerations, but the kind of immediate dismissiveness that applies here lies mainly with HSS classes — whether towards professors, the topic, or both — to a degree that is probably much higher than in engineering classes.

Nope, this isn’t just an angsty HSS student talking. A third year BTech student from the Electrical Engineering department who prefers to remain unnamed (and several other people I have talked to over the last four years) agrees, “Engineering people just see HSS courses as a way to increase their grades. None of my HSS electives challenged anything except my ability to write long paragraphs”. I know there are many BTech and DD students here who have truly enjoyed their HSS courses, but there is no denying that that spreadsheet above represents the broad state of affairs.  

We must ask why. For one thing, and this is crucial, the way engineering students are allotted HSS electives is quite bad (and nobody seems to know exactly how it works). On the one hand, the course ‘Principles of Economics’ is offered 8 times in the same semester, because there is an overwhelming demand to take that course (probably because it will sync best on a resume meant for non-core jobs). On the other hand, most people don’t get their preferred electives.

Thus it is not surprising that so many people don’t enjoy their HSS classes — if I had wanted to take ‘Introduction to Pop Culture’ but ended up getting ‘Principles of Economics’ it’s very likely I’d have a very bad time.

Further, the associated problem with this situation is: because HSS profs realize that most engineering students have made up their minds about these electives before they even begin, many eventually end up delivering incredibly diluted versions of these classes, confirming the idea that HSS classes are easy and worthless. Meanwhile, those BTech HSS electives that are also core HSS courses, pose a problem for both HSS and engineering students: the former learn only a fraction of what they would have in a regular HSS core course (losing out on some crucial courses in the process), while the latter may face a large gap in terms of background and familiarity for the particular topic, and consequently get RG-ed. This is a clear lose-lose situation.

So, this allocation system needs a serious revamp, and especially in light of Prof. Ananth’s recommendations. A possible suggestion from my side would be to introduce more (i.e. a whole new set of) BTech HSS electives, so that there is something for everyone and the preference is not skewed deeply to a small set of courses. This would also ensure that BTech HSS electives and HSS core courses don’t overlap.

As Prof. Ananth discussed, and as is evident, both disciplines can benefit enormously from learning about each other and incorporating principles from both sides to better themselves. But although we have a five year M.A course and a full-fledged humanities and social sciences department in our campus, I would argue that our engagement with each other is extremely superficial, and extremely limited (and even more so among faculty than students). The fact is that most engineering students do not take their token HSS electives (and they are but token courses at the moment) seriously, and I have not seen any forum on campus where faculty and students across departments can have interdisciplinary discussions to enrich each other.

Can We Do Better?

Let’s see what happens when BTech/DD students are faced with HSS courses at the same level that HSS students take them. Aroon Narayanan, our current SAC speaker, is currently taking the core HSS course Religion and Modernity. He says: “Once you do a proper HS course, you realize that the BTech HS electives are just a heavily watered down version of what content/rigour the Professor could’ve offered in the same amount of time. The BTech electives are designed to be just an introduction for BTech students to life other than tech, so most of these courses rely only on the Professor defining and expounding a few basic concepts which are then tested in a mild manner in quizzes and end-sems. There are only a couple of texts that the Professor prescribes, which often ends up being just one introductory textbook, and even these the students are not required to read beforehand. On the other hand, in a proper HS course, I’ve been expected to read, understand and reflect on my own using multiple sources/papers before each class. The class itself ends up being a detailed and in-depth analysis by the students and the Prof of concepts and their counters, rather than as a lecture. The amount of effort that goes into just preparing for one class is vastly greater in magnitude than a BTech elective. Doing it properly requires an immense and continuous effort on my part, which contrasts very well with the minimal effort I put in to get a good grade in my BTech HS elective.”

Of course, I am not suggesting that the BTech HSS electives be made as rigorous as our core courses. They are meant to be introductory classes. But they should also not become so diluted that the take-away is minimal — they may be introductory, but this does not mean they cannot be challenging and engaging (in fact, they must be both). And there are many BTech HSS electives where professors do offer strong, intensive classes, which are thoroughly enjoyed by the students. On the other hand, I also hope that this idea of HSS classes as a way to increase grades, or ensure a ‘chill quota’ for that semester, changes.

Prof. Ananth’s suggestions apply to the academic administration and faculty. But we as students can also definitely do better. Forget our approach to the classes we take; at a more basic level maybe engineering students can start with finding out just what the Humanities and Social Sciences is and then, what studying it entails. Being better informed about their opinions might in itself help foster constructive discussions amongst all of us. On the other hand, it is also true that many of us HSS students are used to using a certain kind of vocabulary to articulate our views. This might seem like an intimidating barrier, but just like solving integrals may be second nature to you, being aware of the theories behind these words and using them to discuss things is second nature to many of us. Yes, it does pose a barrier and we would do well not to assume that the other person will understand these words and be familiar with their histories and usages.

For all of us, being open about our language usage, opinions and willingness to discuss in such a way that we show respect and sensitivity towards the other person, might be a great place to start from. Certainly the culture of the way we think about the humanities and social sciences and how we learn it has to change, and we can start making it happen, if only by challenging ourselves through the classes we take and the nature of our engagement with each other. This can only benefit each and every one of us. I’ll end on that positive note, and I really hope to see more of these kinds of conversations in the campus.


1 Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

It’s no coincidence that our slow acceptance of these areas is occurring at the same time that those trained in HSS are starting to gain value in the economy and increasingly, in positions that were previously and mainly occupied by those trained in science and engineering — basically, not for the reason that we value these things in themselves. Still a pity, but an improvement from before.

Copyright for pictures:

Isha Bhallamudi is a fourth year student of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department in IIT Madras, majoring in Development Studies. Having recently discovered the joys of being off Facebook (which didn't last very long), she can be found reading, listening to strange music or making lists.

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