Higher Technical Education: Distinctiveness of Humanities, Indian Engl…

Higher Technical Education: Distinctiveness of Humanities, Indian Engl…




I am grateful to the organizing committee for thinking about me and inviting me to deliver a guest lecture on distinctiveness of Humanities and social sciences in higher technical education. I feel rather uneasy and highly septic, as I stand here with no pretensions of a high-brow professor or specialist whose discourse goes overhead. I speak to you as a practicing teacher of English language skills, especially for science and technology, and Indian English writing, especially poetry, with interest in what concerns us in the Humanities division, which, unfortunately, enjoys little academic respect in the over-all scheme of things in almost every technical institution.

Maybe, a conference like this augurs well for friends in the department of Humanities & Social Sciences, as they seek to analyze interdisciplinarity, which indeed expands the scope of teaching and research. But I must provide a perspective to my several remarks that be later to from my reflections on the quality of intellectual activity in most technical institutions vis-a-vis the negligible sustain for scholarship in the Humanities, perhaps with the belief that the humanities are not ‘real subjects’ or that these have no bearing on learning of technical subjects, or these bring no demonstrable economic assistance.

The discipline has declined more perceptibly with, to quote Nannerl O. Keohane, “the creation of increasingly specialized disciplines and rewards for faculty members for advancing knowledge in those areas.” We have a marginalized position in technical institutions already if we may have been playing a crucial role as teachers of languages and letters. I don’t want to dwell on them here. But, we should be aware of the ground reality.

Yes, study in humanities is not always a matter of communicating ‘new findings’ or proposing a ‘new theory’. It is rather ‘cultivating understanding’ or thinking critically about some profound questions of human life; it is often the expression of the deepened understanding, which some individual has acquired, by reading, discussion and reflection, on a topic which has been ‘known’ for a long time. To me, practices in arts and humanities elevate consciousness, improve susceptibilities in various directions, create deeper awareness, and permit us to respond critically and independently to the ‘brave new world’ we live in. Arts and humanities alone can help us to analyze what it method to be human, and sustain “the heart and soul of our civilization.” Perhaps, it’s the usefulness of humanities which is acknowledged by inviting me to speak to a distinguished audience like this.

I intend to divide my fleeting into two parts: I would mirror on technical institutions as schools of higher learning; and then, I would say something about the business of English language teaching, which is my chief specialized concern. in addition, much will keep unsaid, for I am aware of the controversies I may be raising.

I strongly feel most university level technical institutions in India, like the general ones, have failed in promoting or upholding healthy intellectual attitudes and values, and academic culture and tradition, expected of a university, just as, it’s painful for me to observe, the culture has been virtually dismal in the case of studies in arts and humanities in the last four decades. The dullness and sameness has marginalized both creative and basic performance, or the standards handed down to us have become out of use, or we have fallen into an abyss of unbecoming elitism, or we have become used to a cornucopia of pleasures formerly denied us: I won’t comment. But an opportunity, such as this, is necessarily not to offer any authoritative judgments but to mirror on, or to provide insights into, issues that concern intellectuals at the top of university teaching hierarchy. Should I say ‘non-university’? for I fear most of the faculty do not want to move beyond the parochial confines of thin exclusivity. It’s the age of specialization they say, and discourage varied, tolerance and inclusivity: they do not strive for intellectual mobility and change of attitude; we, as seniors, too, have not tried to reach out, or analyze!

As a university, we are not oriented to the transformation of our social order, nor are we obligated to act as a moral deterrent in inhibiting the growth of selfish motivation. We think of education in terms of laboratory or industrial practices in mineral and mining sectors, energy, electronics, engineering, computer application, ecosystem, management, law, health sciences, life sciences, and all that, but hardly care for ‘producing’ fully competent and spiritually mature human beings. We do not pay attention to the growth of individual creativity and to an intuitive understanding of individual purpose. We do not bother to educate with, to quote Rabindranath Tagore, the “knowledge of spiritual meaning of existence” which is also the ethical and moral meaning. We have been, unfortunately, bogged down in schemes that inculcate a habit of the mind which indulges in seeking only better opportunities to survive, or higher pay packages.

I’m afraid for too long we have practiced the “how to” of life and neglected the “why”. I believe it is comparatively easy to learn how to accomplish certain material responsibilities, but much more difficult to learn “what for”. If our educational system has failed over the years, it is because we have never come into a working knowledge of our humanity. We have attained incredible amount of technical knowledge, perhaps more than enough to resolve many problems with which mankind is presently faced, but we have never tried to mirror on how to apply it constructively and successfully for the good of all, with a sense of human dignity.

Some of us rightly worry about the general without of mutual respect for the rights and feelings of others, the inclination to be suspicious of the unknown, the inclination to take liberty with the sanctity of the individual person, and complain about the general without of character and integrity, despite higher education. I see our failure in communicating with the spiritual insight which is marked by a balance between individual desires and social demands; I see our failure in creating the awareness of the world of values and rule of the spiritual oneness inner the great variety found in the world. I see our failure in the humanity being torn apart by intolerance and fundamentalism, the suicidal urge for self-destruction. I see our failure in the rising ethnic, linguistic and religious tensions that now belie the scientific, technological and enlightened euphoria of the sixties.

We seem to have lost a sense of obligation toward creating a good, tolerant, forward-looking society. Thanks to the role of money in democratic processes and institutionalization of corruption at all levels, people have lost faith in politicians, bureaucrats and government. The invasion of governance by the criminal-politician-bureaucrat nexus has done the country greatest harm than the shift of strength following the wave of globalization, multinational capitalism, corporate economy, politics of war on terror, environmental concerns, human rights and all that. There is a reshaping of self, values and norms with dominance of the Western discourse in basic reasoning and reflection by perils and delights of growth and change; by survival skills vis-à-vis emigration, sex, parenthood, and age; by re-visiting past and present with vested awareness; by political orthodoxy in the name of democracy, religious fanaticism, casteist dominance, and repression of the liberals and the simple; and by the new processes of fossilization of the pre-colonial/colonial/post-colonial that renders many of us in the profession irrelevant. I surprise if we are not terribly dislocated in our small world.

Let me not digress any further. Ladies and Gentlemen, every university is a school of higher education, but how high is high? If we are only interested in technical education for the sake of developing specialized ability or skill in some area of life, then we are talking about a vocational school or polytechnic, and not a true university. Unfortunately, most universities (and technical institutions) have been vying with each other to become specialized schools, not committed to the teaching of better morality, higher philosophy, universal order or universal culture. They are not producing morally and ethically conscious good citizens. I am afraid all one can expect from the present priorities in the so called higher education is survival, pursuit of money, and strength.

When science is transformed into technology, it becomes a form of strength. And, as history would testify, strength is the strength for good and for evil. The technological culture we live in pervades and shapes our lives. The computer and internet culture, electronic gadgets, microwave, fridge, mobile phones, antibiotics, contraceptives and several such devices have been more than new method. Our sense of vulnerability has been changing fast. The new consumerist culture has taken away what was earlier meaningful and high experiences of life.

We in the Humanities & Social sciences department need to argue the multifaceted reality that modern technology offers-not only its devices and infrastructure which are its material manifestation but also skills and organization, attitudes and culture, perhaps constructively and contextually. Thinking by technology should make possible for us to develop and contribute to humanities philosophy of science and engineering just as different visions may be possible to discuss by social philosophy of technology. Researchers in the West have already been talking about technology as liberator, technology as threat, and technology as instrument of strength. Our lives and ideas have consequently changed and will continue to change. In fact, every field has been changing rapidly these days. The discipline (HSS) needs to incorporate their study, especially as media such as internet and social networking have already alternation and redefined human relationship and identities everywhere and at all levels.

Then, there is the emergence of what has been called ‘knowledge society’. The growth or creation of knowledge society that we have been talking about since the beginning of this century presupposes our capacity for idea generation. But if knowledge is not made freely obtainable to all who seek it, how can one promote humanity or make it strength for a liberal democratic society. additionally, as scientific and technical knowledge spreads or becomes more powerful, it would become more problematic for the scientific community to assume moral responsibility for the use and abuse of scientific knowledge. To mitigate this challenge, one needs an education not so much in science but in humanities. When scientists say they want to live up to their social responsibilities, what they seem to average is that they want more strength than they have; it method they want to run things, to take charge. They should not end up ‘doing politics’ in the name of improving the world or society. Let them be interested in themselves, in facing the task of their own self-improvement, and learning how to think about their own responsibilities in a more serious and reflective way, their own moral education.

As a faculty in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in one of the leading technical universities in the country, what I think the scientific and engineering community has to confront up to is its own self-education, its own social education. Our unexpected engineers and scientists have to analyze answers to such basic questions as: what is a good society? How do we go about achieving it? How do we-what do we-learn from history? What do we learn from political philosophers of the past? Or, why scientists think and speak the way they do? They cannot neglect this kind of educational enquiry in technical education because there is more and more to know as the fields grow in number. Which method, the department of Humanities and Social Sciences should equip them with the basics that helps them demonstrate understanding in and across the major disciplines: scientific understanding, technical understanding, mathematical understanding, historical understanding, artistic/humanistic understanding, cross-cultural understanding, and understanding of moral and political philosophy, and philosophy of science etc. There is need for providing new unfamiliar concepts and examples to promote such understanding which will later permit them to take enormous decisions vis-à-vis the complexity of the world science and technology has brought about.

With the present consciousness, accept it or not, we, in educational establishments, have perpetuated living with a world in upheaval, and in some situations, have already shown a preference for it. But, with a higher order of awareness that approaches intuitive levels of understanding (something arts, culture and humanistic studies essentially seek to develop), we should be better able to look at an issue from many different dimensions, and rationalize how we ought to live in the future “as complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize traditions, and understand the significance of another person’s sufferings and achievements,” to quote Martha Nusbaum from her book Not for Profit.

A technical university needs to provide for education which also elevates the consciousness and extends the strength of the soul; that is, we need to shift a part of the current educational priorities from the intellect to the heart, and from scientific and technical thinking to soul cognition. The end and aim of a university, be it technical or general, is the perfection of man, strive to evolve the consciousness in tune with the universe.

The education we ‘sell’ needs to be re-tuned towards creativity, innovation, and respect for basic freedom; our policies and curiculums should help in strengthening the culture and values of a global society which is characterized by multiculturalism, intercultural interactions, mutual respect, tolerance, dignity and respect for values, and consciousness of ourselves as one human race, human rights and global responsibility for change in attitudes. We must, at every level, strive for a balance between the traditional attitudes and the need for a modern multi-cultural society.

I believe most of the new technical institutions can continue their distinctiveness by seriously opening to the varied of our times, by sharing freely with students representing the varied of our larger society, culture, and future needs. The community approach which seeks to shut out or at the minimum seriously limit the different socio-cultural needs and understanding may not help any more to continue distinctiveness of the institution.

I also worry about the system’s unwillingness to nurture the ethos and sensibility that sustains a university spirit already as, according to the current govt. policies, an institution of higher learning is expected to run as a business enterprise which in days to come, will modify, perhaps irreversibly, our attitudes to teaching and research, our notions of knowledge, our administrative practices, and our relationship with the state and society. We need to make a move from the concerns of the immediate present to the future and visualize a different typology of cultural, linguistic and educational problems against the backdrop of a very fluctuating socio-political climate and pressures of all types.

As part of the language and literature teaching fraternity for over 38 years and working in a specialized university, I know how meaningful Humanities teaching is to hone the mind, basic thinking and communication skills. I am tempted to quote Erwin Griswold (of the Harvard Law School): “You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts or habits; for the art of expression, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of suggesting assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time; for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage, and mental soberness.”

Now, let me talk about the business of English Language Teaching. I say ‘business’ because it has developed into a multi-million dollars commercial enterprise outside the native bases. We too, have an opportunity to capitalize on it in our own way, if we can. We can reach out to people in over 70 countries where English is one of the main languages.

The global spread of the language has now taken an interesting turn: the ratio between the native speakers of English (in countries like the U.K., the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and the non-native speakers (in countries like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Sri Lanka, Zambia, Philippines etc where English is used along with the mother tongue) is almost 40: 60, and it has expanded fast to other countries (like China, Japan, Egypt, Indonesia, Korea, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, Taiwan, the Gulf Countries, and the countries of the erstwhile Eastern Bloc). It is virtually a native language in South Africa, Jamaica and West Indies. Its acculturation, its international functional range, and the different forms of literary creativity it is accommodating are historically unheard of.

As Braj B. Kachru notes, the situation today is such that the native speakers have an insignificant role in the global spread and teaching of English; they seem to have lost the exclusive prerogative to control its norms of use or standardization; in fact, if current statistics are any indication, they have become a minority.

This sociolinguistic fact and its implications have not in addition been fully recognized by most linguists, ELT practitioners, ESPists, administrators, language policy planners, and college and university teachers in India. What we need now are new paradigms and perspectives for linguistic and pedagogical research and for understanding the linguistic creativity, including the scientific and technical writing, in multilingual situations across cultures.

You will appreciate the English we all speak is not like the English the native speakers of the language speak. We don’t need to. The yardsticks of the British or American native speakers, or their standards as reflected in GRE, TOEFL or IELTS etc, or their kind of tongue twisting, are simply damaging to the interests of non-native speakers. We have to develop our own standards, instead of teaching to sound like Londoners or North Americans. Pronunciation must be comprehensible and not detract from the understanding of a message. But for this nobody needs to speak the so called uniform English that makes inter- and intranational communication difficult. David Crystal too appreciates this reality and favours local taste of English in India and in other places.

Our Indianness is clearly reflected in the pronunciation of certain vowels and consonant, in the stressing of words, in the rhythm and pauses, in the vocabulary and lexical acculturation, discourse patterning, code mixing, usages, grammatical deviations etc. The prolonged linguistic and cultural contact of English in various states of the Indian union has given it a rare character which deserves serious academic exploration. It has acquired a important functional range and thoroughness, and it is preposterous to expect that the language would not be ‘shaped’ or ‘moulded’ according to the local needs or keep unaffected by the influences of local languages and literatures, cultures and users. It is, in fact, the consequence of such thorough-rooted local roles, that we have now an institutionalized form of English for intranational uses. The way India’s multilingualism and ethnic pluralism have additional to the complexity of Indian English, except ‘mixing’ words, phrases, clauses and idioms from the Indian Language into English, and in ‘switching’ from one language to another, perhaps to express the speaker’s ‘identity’ or linguistic ‘belonging’, the role of ‘native speaker’– the British or American– as become peripheral, as Kachru rightly asserts, unless he or she understands the local cultures and cultural presuppositions.

I am not very much concerned with the literary perspective of Indian English here, already if I have been actively associated with Indian English literary practices for over thirty five years. I am professionally interested in the language use and usage of Indian writers, and scholars and researchers of science and technology, the localized educated variety they have developed to communicate native innovations. You can appreciate this if you have noticed development of local registers for agriculture, for the legal system, for entertainment industry, for ecosystem, and so on. The publications of Indian practitioners of science and technology have certain discourse features which are rare to Indian English, but not examined.

I speculate Indian English is not in addition recognized as an important area of research for ‘English for specific purposes’ (ESP) that we teach. [It is also, however, very sad that though ESP as an approach is now firmly established, it still has fewer supporters in India, possibly because nobody wants any changes in the conventional teaching-learning practices?] Having been in the spotlight of ESP movement in the country for over twenty five years, I am aware of the localized linguistic innovations in the huge output of Indian researchers, some of which has the possible for serving effectively and successfully as pedagogical texts or teaching materials. But it is unfortunate the English teaching academia are slow to recognize the pragmatic settings–the importance of intranational uses of English and according to local needs – and continue to stick to the external norms of English. It’s more regrettable that the conceptual and applied research on ESP in the West has avoided addressing issues which are vital for understanding the use of English across cultures.

The way ESP has turned international, teachers and researchers in Applied Languages in our country need to analyze: what accommodation a native speaker of English may have to make for participation in communication with those who use a local (or non-native) variety of English; what determines communicative performances or pragmatic success of English in its international uses; what insights we have attained by research on intelligibility and comprehensibility concerning international and intranational uses of English; and what attitudinal and linguistic adjustments are desirable for effective teaching of ESP based on a non-native English, like Indian English. These are a few basic questions, not functional to Western ESP enthusiasts.

I have noticed in the Western ESP in general, and science and technology in particular, a strong bias towards ethno-centricism in approach and neglect of intranational motivation for the uses of English. It is not possible to practice ESP effectively unless we respect, what John Swales call, “local knowledge” and “localized pragmatic needs”. After all, we use the language as a tool and we cannot ignore the localized innovations that have “code-related” and “context-related” dimensions. We ought to view non-native innovations in ESP as positive and consider them as part of the pragmatic needs of the users. It is the attitudinal change that I plead for!

Teaching of ESP in a university in the second language situation like ours is largely a “collaborative sense-making” with the class. When I say this, I am pointing to the interactive character of formal instruction, which, in terms of actual language use, is essentially Indian in tone, tenor and style. I am also referring to the need for understanding the division between the rhetoric of EST teaching and the practice enacted in the classroom from the viewpoint of adult learners, and language skills development and competence in the Indian social setting. We need to evolve a dynamic form of ‘communicative teaching’ of ESP which seeks to develop (i)linguistic competence (Accuracy), (ii)pragmatic competence (Fluency), and (iii) sociolinguistic competence (Appropriacy), without ignoring interrelated aspects of local practice, research and theory and at the same time emphasizes language awareness, which is a meaningful concept in ELT, in that it covers implicit, explicit, and interactive knowledge about language and provides for a basic awareness of language and literature practices that are shaped by, and shape, sociocultural relationships, specialized relationship, and relationship of strength. The approach can also ease cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts, and promote genre-based studies (i.e. how language works to average, how different strategies can be used, how meaning is constructed), basic to ESP, in that it truly develops individual’s performance competence.

Friends, I have hopped from one point to another, perhaps jumbled up, in my zeal to draw your attention to several aspects of English, Indian English and ESP that have wider and deeper implications. They touch attitudinal chords of English language users, teachers and administrators too. Teaching of English, both language and literature, today is not only academically challenging but also opens new uncommon avenues for applied research. This is because of the spread and changing position of English, which has grown from a native, second, and foreign language to become an international language of commerce science and technology, spoken among more non-natives than natives in the time of action of their specialized pursuits or everyday lives. I have also placed certain facts of science and technology education in the context of Humanities before you, raised issues, expressed my view, and now it is for the profession to accept, reject or analyze their implications. Thank you.

Copyright:
Professor R.K.Singh
Head, Dept of Humanities & Social Sciences
Indian School of Mines
Dhanbad 826004 India

[This is the Text of my specially invited Lecture at SRM University’s International Conference on ‘Role and Responsibilities of Humanities and Social Sciences in Technical Education’ on 17 March 2011]




leave your comment

Top