India's social problems and the science-arts divide in its education system

A large section of India's so-called educated middle-class is socially regressive and shows support for demagogues and opposes progressive values. People wonder why this is so.

I however, wonder why this is surprising. It's clear as day. It's all in our education system.

The other day, on a Whatsapp group, a software engineer - a school friend - shared a meme that pretty much said that rising petrol prices are okay because at least the BJP is saving us from Bangladeshis and Rohingyas and suchlike.

Before that, a doctor - another school friend and a trained psychiatrist - said that I had violated his freedom of expression by blocking him on Facebook.

I had blocked him because even after multiple warnings, he had been spamming my comment threads with the defence of a rapist.

When I told him that freedom of expression is something that exists between him and the state and not between him and me, he didn't get it. He didn't understand that freedom of expression didn't mean he was free to spew vile bilge on other people's social profiles.

I want to try to explain this lack of understanding. And this is not just a lack of understanding. It's a full on denial, not just of facts, but of the ways of thinking that the humanities teach.

These boys were science students. They spent their school lives focusing on science and math and did reasonably well there. They targeted technical careers and got through. They worked towards building "stable" futures for themselves as defined by our middle-class sensibility.

They are products (and supporters) of a system that looks down upon the arts and the humanities. They devoted themselves to technical skills in a society where arts students were destined for failure. They studied math and physics and medicine and became doctors and engineers.

They made it. They won. Their families demanded large dowries for them because they had that much social capital on account of being doctors and engineers. They weren't failures like arts students.

And what did the arts kids do? They resigned themselves to "second rate" lives.

Lives that society had assigned to them. They studied history, sociology, political science, and economics. The broad view - the disciplines that form the foundations of human culture - were all that was left to the arts students.

Then, out of nowhere, the internet happened. It was the early 2000s and blogs and an infant social media universe came into being. It wasn't tech heavy. The arts students liked it. For the first time since school, they had a playground.

They had avenues to explore their subjects with a level of depth their schools had never provided and their colleges couldn't care less about. And because many of them couldn't afford a liberal arts education abroad (this is small town India), they made the best of the internet.

They studied, read, communicated with experts, and even began to use the web to publish their own work and find their voice. They started getting what had been denied to them by our education system - a sense of self worth, and even the right to consider themselves intelligent.

There was no roadmap for them to follow. So they taught themselves and went into journalism, advertising, writing, and law. They became web publishers. They started websites. They began to mould a kind of heaven from the hell that they had been condemned to.

Now, the science students - the ones who had been too good for the humanities once, want a piece of this pie. The public discourse pie. The place where much of the talk is about politics, economics, history, and media. Many of them find they can't.

They lack the education for it.

And they JUST CAN'T DIGEST IT because their lives have been lives of educational privilege. They have always been the top rung of Indian society. They were brought up on the lie that they are better than everyone else. They have always been the ones destined for "success".

For the first time in their privileged lives, they find themselves having to contend with the fact that they might not actually be good at everything.

On an average day, it is hard to get these people to shut up about their houses and their salaries and their houses.

On days when the talking point is politics or economics or some other matter that they threw away because only girls study arts, they are positively sick with FOMO. They feel left out.

So is it any surprise that our "educated" middleclass is raging against "media" and "intellectuals" and "experts" and "stars" and "writers" and "artists"?

Make no mistake. This is the cream of India's educational caste system fighting back against its lost privilege.

So it's not surprising at all that an alternate ecosystem has popped up to cater to the insecurities of the "science stream caste". It tells them they are victims. It feeds them sweet nothings from morning till night over WhatsApp.

Remember that the Right Wing was the first to start waging war on the tech and social media fronts. They started the first blogs and had the first IT cells. They were the ones with armies of software engineers.

Cut to: 2018. Tell a software guy holding forth about politics and economics on a WhatsApp group that he is wrong about something and you'll get called an "elitist" or a "liberal".

Tell a doctor that what he has written makes sense on neither the logical level nor the grammatical one and he will ask you what makes you an expert and the fact that correct grammar is just a way for liberals to establish their superiority.

Now flip it. Imagine an arts student lecturing them about their areas of expertise - engineering or medicine. They would be justified in calling it out because the boy who studied economics and literature is not qualified to comment on these topics. He simply lacks the education.

Why is it then, that privileged members of the science caste consider themselves capable of holding forth on humanities subjects even though they never had that education? They literally rejected that education. They were applauded for not being interested.

I'll tell you why.

The doctors and engineers I am talking about didn't value the humanities when they were in school and college. And they don't value them now.

You will have to physically restrain them to keep them from boasting about the fact that they WON the race of life. But when it comes to things that the arts kids do, they seem to be of the view "ye sab toh koi bhi kar sakta hai".

In the present political and social climate, intellectuals, liberals, media persons, and artists are not being vilified because of the things they are saying.

They are the villains because in the eyes of the science caste, they were never supposed to amount to anything.

They were supposed to be amusements, sources of entertainment, and cautionary tales for them to scare their children with so that they never choose the arts.

In many ways, this "ye sab toh koi bhi kar sakta hai" thinking permeates our entire culture. People don't think art is worth money. People tell designers to work for free because it "can't possibly be that hard".

But the worst possible consequence of our attitude towards the humanities is currently playing out in the political and social arena.

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