Return of the Angry Arts Student

If you remember the thing I wrote some time ago titled The Loss of Science Stream Privilege, this is a follow-up on that idea. One that tries to be a little more constructive after my previous barrage of mostly unfiltered discontent. I want to make this note about the system as it exists now and what all can be done to bring about the shift we need with respect to the space that the Humanities occupy in modern Indian society.

Believe it or not, the problem is not the Science Stream. The problem is that we put the Science Stream on a pedestal and use it as a benchmark to measure all other modes of academic expression.

I still get asked if I agree with the following sentiment — Science students can do Arts things easily but Arts students can’t do Science things. And it is also implied that the corollary is true — that Arts students therefore are less intelligent than Science students. And the last and most offensive part of this equation — Science students are better at everything.

So let’s break this equation down.

Are all Science Students good at Science?

If I had a paisa for every time an actual doctor or engineer sent me unadulterated pseudo-scientific garbage over WhatsApp, I wouldn’t need a Patreon page. Getting into the Science stream in India has little to do with getting a scientific education. Most do it for employment or for bragging rights. People love a little Dr. before their names. Or even that bewildering Er. thing that engineers use these days because they were not happy that doctors get a shiny label that they can’t have.

Science, in an ideal world, is about exploration and curiosity. We don’t live in that ideal world. In this country, we live in a world where people enter the sciences because historically, technical careers have proven stable. People usually don’t have to fight their parents to become engineers and doctors. Those professions are part of the established career templates — the things you are expected to do in order to be normal.

And somewhere down the line, these templates stopped caring about even competence. We produce hordes of sub-par engineers every year — young people who are good at neither the subject that they went through because it spells stability for their families, nor at anything else because they were never allowed to pursue any other interest. Unsurprisingly, many employers say India’s crop of young engineers lacks communication skills and is unemployable as a result.

Fact is, much of the Indian education system (Science as well as Arts) is not at all about learning. It is about winning competitions, “scoring”, and eventually getting to a point where you can hang your certificates on the wall. I just ran a quick search for “mark-fetching subject” and… well… the results never fail to break my heart.

People Googling these things aren’t bothered about learning. They just want to pass exams. It breaks my heart to see anthropology on there. These are areas that are nothing short of an exploration of the human condition and we are using them like slot machines to end up with large numbers on a piece of paper with minimal effort.

Are all Arts Students bad at science?

This question calls for a more nuanced response because those who ask it are often somewhat binary in their mindset. This means that they have been brainwashed into thinking of the world as being divided into two kinds of people — smart folks who choose Science and dumb folks who get into the Arts. What they often neglect to do is acknowledge the social aspect of it. And the reason they don’t do it is because it would mean having to acknowledge their own privilege in India’s academic scheme of things.

We have this system where right from childhood, mathematics and sciences are treated as being more important than art, dance, music, and literature. We are given some leeway of course — you can do those frivolous things on the side, we are told, as long as you don’t make them your central priority. Focus on what will get you marks because marks will get you jobs and jobs will get you respect and respect will get you married and then you will get to do all these things to your children until cosmic cows perish in the heat death of the universe.

Small wonder then, that almost everyone, regardless of their aptitude and interest, ends up clinging to science subjects (not Science mind you, just science subjects) for their lives. And when many of them prove to be human enough to fail in subjects they had no interest in anyway, they get into the Arts. Why? Because in our system, that is the space that has always been reserved for them.

I cannot emphasise this enough: we don’t perceive Arts students as failures because they are failures. We do so because we define the Arts stream as a place for those who are failures. We have marked the Arts stream as a trashcan where academic rejects go, and in the eyes of the great Indian education system, an academic reject is anyone who does not fare well in Science subjects.

It may be argued that our standard for excellence is rather unforgiving and that we only value the most exceptionally skilled or talented. I think that’s a heap of cowdung. Because we do not have high standards. If we did, we wouldn’t be condemning half of tomorrow’s workforce to the sidelines and treating them like second rate citizens in the school-going world. If we had high standards, we would have a more holistic education system — one that allows children more flexibility of choice at a young age so they don’t have to waste half their lives working towards jobs that might very well not exist by the time they are adults.

And of course, it goes without saying that because we think of the Arts stream as unimportant, we also think of those who enter it willingly, as less than. There is enormous stigma associated with getting into the Arts stream in India. Even if you are someone who never took an engineering or medical entrance because you were not interested and actually chose the Humanities over the Science stream, you will still get looked down upon because you went to that place where only fools or (if you are feeling particularly sexist today) girls go.

It is possible for someone to be good at studies and not choose the Science stream because they prioritise Arts. The reason many don’t do this and end up at least trying to fit the Science stream mould is because of parental, societal, and peer pressure. And these same pressures are right now moulding our political landscape into a nightmare. A nightmare that involves not only adding expenses to academic institutions that teach Humanities subjects like sociology and history, but also physically attacking students who pursue their futures in these institutions and imprisoning scholars who teach Humanities subjects.

The elder in your family who once rhetorically asked you “Arts leke kya hoga?” is the same one who is right now saying “Unn JNU-Jamia waalon ke saath yehi hona chahiye”.

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