Chief Justice of India N V Ramana highlighted a concern that generations of children and parents can connect to. The drive for professional degrees turns life into a prison drill for kids, and what these degrees provide is, at most, private success for the students who get it through and the businesses that profit from their labour. He correctly pointed out the lack of humanities in school and the need for "idealism" to complement "ambition."

If the balance of goals between students and teachers in universities once lay between a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (say, humanities) and that of knowledge for personal benefit (professional degrees), today the picture seems to have shifted towards a different ideal supplanting both — social justice. University leaders are concerned about issues like equity and diversity, and increasingly, corporate employers too have taken to the language of social justice and change.

But, as the deep polarisation in America in recent years shows, this seeming wedding of idealism and ambition in education has been a dismal failure. Schools, parents, professors, diversity experts, activists — everyone seems to be in conflict with everyone else. In a recent election for governor in Virginia, the Democrats lost because of a feeling that the party establishment and mainstream media had demonised parents concerned about a new “social justice”-oriented curriculum in schools as racists and even terrorists. “Woke” has become an insult in some circles, and a badge of honour in others.

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. If education aimed at promoting social justice of the sort taught widely in American colleges and schools has led to a growing polarisation along class lines and has failed to inspire real understanding and empathy for the poor, where might the growing promotion of activist culture and social justice rhetoric in Indian schools and colleges lead us? Will we end up with a small group of well-meaning but uninformed, and even heartless professional elites?

Will “let them protest” become the “let them eat cake” of our times?

There is a danger already in Indian society that polarisation has pushed us into “Left” and “Right” silos, from which everyone else looks like either “anti-nationals” or as “fascists.” We can also see signs of this being institutionalised into permanent divisions along lines of class and educational privilege; an elite transnational liberal arts culture on one side, and a more modest patriotic middle-class culture on the other. In time, one group will occupy the positions that will define the discourse, while the other will merely focus on earning a living, finding its voice ever diminished in the running of the nation.

Is there a way out of this path of polarisation? Critical Humanities from India, edited by D Venkat Rao, offers a deeper insight into the role of education in addressing Indian pasts and futures than most “critical” paradigms have offered so far. Even as Indian and Indian-origin scholars abroad (mostly identified as “South Asian” for the convenience of the American ivory tower) profess a “critical” postcolonial position, much of what has been normalised as humanities education from or about South Asia has been along the lines of the “mantra” (as Western critical scholars called it) of “race, class, gender,” with “caste” filling in for “race” at best.

Unfortunately, “caste, class, gender” cannot be the beginning and end of humanities education in India, because much of the discourse around these terms comes not from Indian life or thought but from European religious assumptions. Indian liberal humanities education, we learn from this book, is limited by its location in “deeply nurtured Christian theological ideas of moral self-formation (Bildung).” The “crisis in humanities” comes from “our failure to understand the conception of man that is deeply enshrined in the discourses of the humanities that we continue (instrumentally) to service.”

There are, however, different conceptions of “man” that still exist and express themselves, albeit in complicated ways, that we might learn from. One such space in my life happened to be Prasanthi Nilayam, the ashram of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba where Justice Ramana spoke recently. At the end of his formal speech calling on students to live up to the ideals of their institution, he suddenly switched from speaking in English to Telugu, because, he said, Baba valued three things: “Matrumurthi. Matrubhasha. Matrudesam.” The audience broke out in applause. To use a creative writing analogy, it was as if everything else had been about “telling” what was important, and these words, in Telugu, were now “showing” it. Macaulay, it seemed, was slain momentarily by an evocation of Matrutva.

(This is a slightly modified version of an article originally published in Indian Express. The original article can be found at https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-humanities-education-idealism-7675034/)