The human in humanities: New era options for humanities students
Meghaa Aggarwal, 06 Apr 2019
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Studying the humanities comes with its share of preconceived notions, but things are slowly changing…

Swati Salunkhe has been an education counsellor for 20 years and she finds it hard to remember even one student who approached her for counselling on pursuing humanities. “On the contrary, I’ve had parents who have approached me to dissuade their child from pursuing such courses. In fact, even when I think the child is genuinely interested in the humanities and will do well in this field, they disagree,” she grimaces. However, Salunkhe isn’t surprised. “It has been this way for a very long time. It was like this even when we were students!” 


The beginnings of a bias 

The problem begins in schools and homes where science and maths are given precedence over other subjects.

“There is an obsession around engineering and medical entrance exams after school, which surpasses everything else. Students will be studying for and attending IIT or NEET coaching classes, solving paper after paper in the sciences or maths. The media will be full of stories around these exams. Students are made to believe that studying these subjects is a sure shot formula for success,” says Salunkhe.

Renowned educationist Dr. Minoti Chatterjee, former Principal of Delhi University’s Kamla Nehru College, adds, “I’ve seen so many parents who want their child to become a doctor or engineer and pursue this goal with extreme focus and single-mindedness. No one talks the same way about having their child study subjects like economics, sociology or political science.”

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Lack of understanding

The problem is rooted in the fact that there is a lack of understanding around the humanities.

Shares Salunkhe, “It is a common belief that students who underperform or are somehow incapable end up in the humanities. Many students opt for the humanities because they don’t want to continue studying science or maths after school. But this is a misplaced belief, often borne more out of ineffective teaching and irrational fear instead of a genuine passion for the humanities. However, unlike what they might think, the humanities is not an easy option. To do well, you need to read and analyse a lot. There is a lot of subjectivity and one cannot expect straightforward answers and easy marks.”


Many students are also unaware of the rich breadth of the humanities and restrict it to a few odd disciplines, when, in fact, it includes any subject that deals with human society and culture. The choices are as varied as languages, literature, law, philosophy, history, politics, human geography, religion and the arts. Many institutions also include social sciences such as economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology within it. 


Liberal arts Vs Humanities

With the growing popularity of liberal arts programmes in the country, many students are also confused about the distinction between the two, i.e. Liberal arts and Humanities. The liberal arts is a form of education that includes subjects across the sciences as well as humanities. A liberal arts student might study both psychology and physics together, before choosing to specialise in one of them, but this is not the case when one opts for a humanities degree. The choice and exposure is limited in humanities programmes.


Times are changing…

One of the main concerns about the humanities is the dearth of placement options upon graduation. However, things are changing today. Chatterjee, who inaugurated a placement cell at Kamla Nehru College in 2006, corroborates, “Today, humanities students can enter a variety of professions, from law and journalism to entertainment, aviation, teaching, translation, human resources, hospitality, event management, counselling, publishing, public policy and even the social sector.”


Nandini Nayar, one of India’s most successful children’s writers who comes from a humanities background, reminisces, “I did my masters in literature, worked briefly in schools and then began to write for children. When my writing was published in the children’s pages of a newspaper, I was thrilled. All of a sudden, my dream of being a writer seemed very possible.” Today, Nayar has more than 45 books to her credit with several more in the pipeline.


Success stories

Like Nayar, there are several success stories that have emerged in this field. In fact, several globally-renowned icons like the Chinese business magnate Jack Ma, YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki and Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell have a background in the humanities and give great credit to it. There is an increasing understanding that tackling today’s challenges requires the ability to think critically about the human context – something humanities graduates are trained to do.

Apart from growing opportunities, increasing affluence and greater exposure have created a generation of parents and students who view education as more than just the means to a career. 


Nayar says, “There is greater acceptance for all kinds of subjects and I think the new generation parents have a lot to do with this. Parents today actually listen to what their children have to say and encourage them to follow their heart when it comes to making career choices. Money is always important but these days job satisfaction is far more relevant. I believe this has led to a blossoming of children and given them the ability to stand by their choices and take pride in them.”


Corroborates Zoya Chadha, who studied BA English at Ramjas College, Delhi University, and then MA English at Shiv Nadar University, “Placements were not so much a concern for me. I am currently applying for research degrees so that I can become a full-fledged college professor someday. I think making a difference is on a lot of students’ minds these days. For instance, Teach for India isn’t a comfortable choice by any means. It involves low pay and lots of investment but people will still opt for it knowing this.” Chatterjee concludes, “Things are better now and engineering or medicine are no longer the automatic choice. In fact, admissions at engineering colleges have been falling across India. Today, cut offs for humanities courses are pretty high, going up to 95 percent or even higher.”   

Nandini

Nandini Nayar, Children’s writer 


There is greater acceptance for all kinds of subjects and I think the new generation parents have a lot to do with this. Parents today actually listen to what their children have to say and encourage them to follow their heart when it comes to making career choices


Dr-Chatterjee

Dr. Minoti Chatterjee,

Former Principal, Kamla Nehru College, Delhi University


Things are better now and engineering or medicine are no longer the automatic choice. In fact, admissions at engineering colleges have been falling across the country. Today, cut offs for humanities courses are pretty high, going up to 95 percent or even higher



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