The academic departments and programmes in Sri Lankan universities with a humanities focus have constantly been criticized, over the past four decades, for their alleged failure to be productive spaces that are relevant to society. The charges levelled against those departments and programmes are primarily based on the (mis)conception that they fail to be ‘scientific’ in their outlook. They are often seen as spaces that produce individuals who are misfits and who fail to take part in the productive processes in society. The academics in those departments and programmes are often seen as armchair-scholars who are out of touch with ever-so-dynamic social realities, regressive (non)thinkers who resist change, and individuals who uphold their supposedly old-fashioned and outdated modes of knowledge production to the detriment of the future of their students. The students of such departments and programmes, in general, are viewed as a group of hapless souls for whom the humanities were the restricted choice. The whole situation surrounding the idea of the Humanities in the Sri Lankan context is basically (mis)understood to be one that is in dire need of some sort of a messiah.
The current discourse on the humanities not only in the Sri Lankan context but also across the globe, particularly in all-important western centres of knowledge production, indicate that quite a number of institutions and individuals have offered to play the role of this much-needed messiah. The proposals made by such institutions and individuals with the supposed intention of salvaging the humanities include calls for streamlining the disciplines with a humanities focus with the rest of the disciplines, particularly those with a “scientific outlook”. Some of the proposed ways of accomplishing this goal include reorganizing the body of knowledge into smaller, isolatable segments that could be mastered within short periods of time; incorporating technology into the learning process irrespective of whether that necessarily enhances the learning process; redefining the research approaches and methods used in the Humanities along the lines of the scientific, if not scientistic, methods that place a high premium on the principle of objectivity; and redefining the pedagogical process so as to ensure that the products of the process conveniently fit into predefined slots in the broader socio-economic fabric. In this context, any kind of knowledge that cannot be put to immediate practical use is increasingly being viewed as knowledge that is not worth pursuing.
The widespread obsession with the idea of science that defines the current discourse on the humanities is disturbing for a couple of reasons. The overwhelming superiority that natural sciences enjoy in the current academic discourse worldwide has ensured that the idea of science is always understood in relation to the natural sciences. This understanding projects science, in its current form, as the only pathway to truth. However, Arjuna Parakrama’s work on the genealogy of the concept would show that the current understanding of ‘science’ is limited and also narrower than the meanings that the concept has had over the past, while Aleksei Losev has already established that what constitutes science at any point in time is a form of myth. Irrespective of whether one would want to agree with such analyses and theoretical positions, there is no question that the issues that they raise are too big to be ignored. In a context where such analyses and theoretical positions are possible in spaces that come under the humanities, the fervent call for the disciplines with a humanities focus to model themselves after the natural sciences is not only grossly misguided but also disturbingly self-limiting, as such a move invariably entails weakening the existing modes of thinking that could provide critical insights into the very idea of science.
A closer look at the relationship between what is termed science today and global capitalism shows that ‘sciencification’ of knowledge is crucial for the maintenance of the global capitalist world order. (This is a claim that warrants a detailed discussion of its own.) In such a context, education is reduced to a process whose main, if not only, aim is to empower students with certain skills and tools, which they can use to get things done in the world of work. This conception of education is disturbingly limited and limiting, as it takes the world of work as a given and ends up justifying/legitimizing the global capitalist world order. One could argue that this is yet another theoretical claim that fails to take into consideration the blatant reality that everyone needs a job. There is no question that everyone needs a job, but to tailor academic programmes with a humanities focus primarily, if not entirely, to suits the needs of global capitalism is to turn a blind eye to the noble responsibilities that the humanities disciplines have historically been entrusted with.
Any attempt at rethinking the humanities programmes should recognize the fact that the sciences, both natural and social, and the humanities have had two different historical trajectories. To model the latter after the former would be like asking a traditional Kandyan Wes dancer to perform the traditional kohomba yak kankariya wearing a tuxedo. Not only will the whole purpose behind the Kandyan dance tradition and the Kankariya performance be lost, but also the whole exercise will end up becoming a ridiculous one.