24 March, 2023


The Humanities Under Attack!

By Nandaka Maduranga Kalugampitiya

Dr. Nandaka Maduranga Kalugampitiya

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realities, regressive (non)thinkers who resist change, and individuals who uphold their supposedly old-fashioned and outdated modes of knowledge production to the detriment of the future of their students.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.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Forget about all dogmatic arguments about science and it’s connection to western civilisation. But tell is why quality of education in arts and humanities gone down in Sri Lanka..
    Why ?
    Is it lecturers are not good enough today….I think more than 50% of them in arts faculties are dodgy and copy cut from old notes …..
    Do you agree with this ?.
    Do you think that lecturers working honestly now..
    Most of them are milking the universities ….
    Compare the quality of old graduates of 60s and 70s and 80s they are so good than new ones.why is it..
    No point in Blaming students but blame lecturers who do not know how to teach ?
    So pathetic to see it..
    I could give examples
    Many of them get book allowance..
    Never buy books
    Never read books
    Some of them are not qualified even to be teachers at schools.
    Most of them got lecturership from back doors ..
    You know it ..
    But you can not tell that..
    How many juniors are promoted with political influences.
    Sri Lankan universities have had long tradition of respecting all seniors in hierarchical order ..but politicians put their men and ladies in post as they like..
    So many issues like this

  • 1

    While agreeing with everything the writer says, he must admit that there is a case for improving access to science for rural and estate children in Sri Lanka. Although only 28% of schools in Sri Lanka have A/L classes, a mere 9% have A/L Science. Students should be free to decide what courses they wish to take at A/L but the current school situation does not provide most rural and estate children with such a choice.

    • 0

      Yes, seems a wonderful article; need more time to digest it.

  • 3

    A beautiful and an insightful essay on encroachment of scientific methodology over all other forms of investigation, as I understood it. All things said and done I would coach my children on Mathematics, Physics, Music and the English Language and let them free into the wild. Encourage them to read widely and be totally unbiased on matters of religion. I also would emphasize to distinguish between trying to fool others and fooling oneself, avoid the latter even at the cost of life.

  • 5

    Whenever a discipline is intellectually challenging and is respected as such, good students would opt for it. It is not only the humanities, but even Mathematics, once known as the Queen of Sciences, has been progressively downgraded. It is among the least preferred of science based courses. It partly results from the policy of downgrading intellectual attainment and making all courses job-oriented. To satisfy this a course seems incomplete unless a fair dose of computer applications is thrown in.
    The fate of the humanities is partly linked to this trend. Intellectual standards have been thrown overboard in the interest of producing partisan histories in relation to both language and religion. Questions that have no answers are asked and answered – such as who came to this island first? A whole history is based on a name or a word found on a second century BC inscription, forgetting that human beings of whom we know nothing were here long before that, but left no inscriptions and their speech is lost. A subject that should have united us has instead driven us to war and murder. Not surprisingly history now attracts very few students.
    Philosophy that should have been closely linked to the sciences tends to be associated with psychology – job oriented perhaps – and we don’t welcome those who could teach real philosophy. Standards will continue to drop. The fate of our humanities is more to do with suicide.

    • 1

      ‘Questions that have no answers are asked and answered’
      very enlightening. This single statement clears away the bog that is created by the stream humanities. At the school university entrance level, the stink of this bog is so appalling that one would be seriously inclined to think that the people involved have serious cognitive defections because some subjects are so illogical in nature. People on the top with crooked brains are seemed to have cooked this primordial soup.

    • 0

      There is a good deal of nonsense in Dr Rajan Hoole’s comment. After all, he should know of Electrical engineers who are not sure how a phone should be charged; who don’t know what virus guard is running on their computer.

      Clearly, in the case of some guys even “technology-oriented” Electrical Engineering has got “progressively downgraded”.

      He talks of the importance of History. No problem so long as guys like him are around. He has forgotten all his engineering and has turned in to a remarkably accurate writer of History. And, I don’t think that he needed to be in the History Department of any University to turn himself in to the accomplished Historian he is today.

  • 0

    Let us not forget that ancient universities evolved round ‘Humanities’. Mathematics was a hobby. Perhaps Geometry evolved because of grandiose structures like the Pyramids.
    Nowadays “Humanities” is at the wrong end of university systems the world over and is whipped by all and sundry.
    Unfortunately ‘Rationalism’ has got displaced from ‘Humanities’. For example religious teachers were not ‘scientists’ as we understand. Superstition has found its way back into the practice of their teaching.
    World’s thinkers were not inspired by ‘Science’.

    • 1

      Sign above the entrance to Plato’s Academy in Athens which dealt with all extant branches of knowledge:

      ‘Let No One Ignorant of (Euclidean) Geometry Enter Here’

  • 1

    Is this article parroting what others have said about education in the West or is it appropriate to Sri Lanka? As I know it, we have had a proliferation of humanities departments teaching a lot of Pali, Sanskrit, Tamil, Sinhalese and Buddhist Civilization of little practical value to anybody. So, the idea that modern courses are devised to be of practical use has little relevance here. We had sudden spate of new universities opened for political reasons and courses were taught by unqualified persons. That is the initial problem, Research, if it did take place, was of a sort that distorted facts to suit political agendas. The major historical and geography research has been so muddied by distortions as to who came first to Sri Lanka and who should own land. The progress of the country depends on scrapping these departments and starting anew with a limited number of humanities departments staffed by top notch scholars. like in Singapore, where humanities is no doubt taught, the emphasis must be on science. Polytechnics are given an important place so that skills necessary for economic development are taught. What happens in Sri Lanka is that we produce more Pali, Sanskrit and Buddhist/Hindu Civilization types who can only become school teachers and impart their prejudices to the young perpetuating the calamitous situation that exists in the country now. The rich politicians revel in this situation. They send their young abroad.

  • 3

    This is a very important article, how sad that there are so few comments on it. I was hoping that abler minds would tackle it; that they haven’t is itself proof that our society has already degenerated much.

    Dear “Mama Sinhalam”, none of us is perfectly balanced; all of us have our prejudices. They can be overcome only through more disciplined scholarship.

    Of course you are right when you say we should not be over-producing unemployable Arts graduates. Why are they unemployable? Why are they disgustingly prejudiced? Bot because of quantity, but because of a lack of quality.

    We are in this mess because we have not, for a long time, considered it important to place stress on effective teaching of the Humanities to all children in schools up to O. Levels. The snowballing effect of this may be that few are really concerned about sub-standard Arts graduates being produced by our Universities. We should be producing disciplined graduates who go in to schools and teach History and Social Studies so effectively and with such balance that all students leaving school are people who can think clearly about subject related to our human existence.

    In other words, the effect of having good teachers of Arts Subjects in schools should be ensure that prejudices disappear. What will happen if these subjects are not taught at all in schools? Children will emerge with minds even more warped on these subjects. The fact that so many who have gone beyond Basic Degrees to PhDs and the like confirms have proved to be knaves, rogues and racists only goes to prove that the writer is correct in his surmise. The Humanities are not taught properly.

  • 3

    We are thrilled and dazzled today by technology. Yet our lives feel empty.

    Our wonderful technology has extended human life-spans, and we have over-populated the world. For Two Centuries religions have not recognised the importance of limiting births if we extend our existence on earth. Such elementary mistakes. Why?

    Garbage builds up. There is something called “Electronic Waste” nowadays. It wasn’t there even twenty years ago. Why?

    Stephen Hawkins is talking about the importance of rockets to take us to other planets after we have turned this Earth of ours toxic. Why?

    One could go on, and on. It’s just that we are so obsessed with the latest gadgetry that we forget the most basic values. The only way to counter these trends is to have the Humanities studied by sharper minds with greater zeal.

    Rajan Hoole has seemingly gone off at a tangent and made a case for Mathematics (how unexciting!), and Science and (soulless) Philosophy. Doesn’t he know that it is the Humanities that are being discussed? That is the level at which some guys sometimes talk. Example, Prof. Sivasegaram talking about the labels to be put on various faculties, and the importance of an Astrology Department in a Hindu University.

    All this rot is essentially because we don’t take the Humanities seriously enough. Studying Arts subjects should never be allowed to become the soft option for those who have to remain in the village school for A. Levels because they cannot afford the shoes that are necessary to travel in subsidised school buses to the city.

    Yes, this is a really serious subject which must be be tackled by minds that are sharper and younger than mine.

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