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Interdisciplinary subjects: How mixing science, humanities streams can promote better education

The Indian Express
By Professor  
Srivatsan Manivannan

Educational institutions in the country today are now faced with a singular struggle – teaching the sciences and the humanities in a co-dependent fashion and understanding that true interdisciplinary study is a quest to combine the best skills of various, at times opposing, fields of study.

Calligraphy and technology, art and medicine, environmentalism and marketing, engineering and philosophy, conflict studies and biology, astronomy and religion studies, chemistry and ethics, to state a few combinations, are important duos in a world where the actions of man create more problems than solutions. Steve Jobs’ knowledge of calligraphy and the serif and sans serif types led him to create the fonts used worldwide today. Art psychotherapy is another such field, the lovechild of medicine, art, and psychology.

While an approximation of 1.5 million engineering students graduate each year, a study conducted by an employment solutions company, Aspiring Minds, on 150,000 engineering students, found a bleak 7 per cent being employable – these are statistics that the Indian is well accustomed to.

If the engineer was to learn philosophy, perhaps Aristotle’s concepts of being, Thiruvalluvar’s notions of governance and planning, or John Locke on identity, or even the Socratic dialectic, they would be in a position to not only possess the knowledge that their field provides them, but rather understand the sources of knowledge, and to understand the consequences of their acts.

No chemistry, biology, nuclear physics student or IIT graduate is taught ethics or humanity. We fail to understand that it is not always about the ability to act or create, but of the morality and consequence of our action. One such example is research in nuclear power, which can either be our salvation with clean energy options or our destruction with global nuclear war. In Indian educational institutions, it is hard to find a single course in History, Philosophy and Science on the history or philosophy of science, fields that are logical analyses of the evolution of thought.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said so in a tweet, “In school, rarely do we learn how data become facts, how facts become knowledge, and how knowledge becomes wisdom”. Academics, professors and students of the humanities replied telling him that this is what the entire study of epistemology, philosophy, and much of the humanities focuses on.

Gender, caste, sexuality, class, privilege, discrimination, religion – these are themes every student, regardless of being in the S and T fields or the humanities, must engage with. Textbook deletion and exclusion of information from must be questioned and not blindly accepted as the truth. The IITs and the liberal arts schools need to work together, engage in social entrepreneurship and service-learning initiatives that could change the world.

Criticism of seemingly perfect and idealistic structures must turn into a necessity. Open spaces must be maintained for free speech and expression, and the disciplines must come together not merely to embolden professions, but to encourage newer ways of thought, to question the well-established authors and writers we read of in our textbooks, and improve upon them, outdo them in an epic competition for a better life, one that spans throughout all of time and space.

Perhaps then, only then, can we claim to be propagators of the interdisciplinary and world-class learning that most universities boast of.

— Authored by Srivatsan Manivannan, Student, Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University