Trigger warning: Rape, Graphic violence
Brace yourselves: the JEE wave has landed with enough force in India to fill coaching institutes’ pockets with millions, and bombard 17-year-olds with a choice between either backbreaking work or lifetime stigmatization. Because if you are not getting into the IITs, what is the point of life, really? Oh, you may still choose to be a doctor – but never ever make the mistake of taking up the humanities!
You will be questioned forever, like me, a deviant who chose to go into the Arts. However, if you take the plunge, you may just be asking a few interesting questions of your own, or having a few interesting discussions in your classrooms. Like this: it’s an overcast day in July when my classmate says to me, “Nobody can escape a humanities course without taking up feminism, social activism, full time. Comment.” And in her statement lies my argument for this article: the humanities are fighting an important battle all by themselves, one as significant as the new inventions the Sciences are striving to make.
Studying the humanities for three years, I did realize every one of my classmates was aware, to varying extents, about the need for pro-minority and pro-rights movements like feminism, simply because our course mandated we were taught these issues in class every day. If you are shown dire realities of others, like people being raped until their intestines came out, like children never getting to meet their parents again because they belonged to a certain ‘caste’, like people forever denied jobs because they did not fit into a certain place’s “immigration laws”, every week, you are bound to be sensitized to those issues. And if you are shown that those realities are your own, if you are female or “lower-caste”, you’d be bound to fight those fights yourself, to rid the world of such sickening prejudice. Which fights are the need of the hour.
Many of my classmates were aware, to varying extents, about the need for pro-minority and pro-rights movements like feminism, simply because our course mandated we were taught these issues in class every day.
And that, my friend, is why my female classmates from the sciences (some) are content to keep quiet about a sexist jibe because “boys will be boys” – they never took a compulsory course on harassment. They didn’t need to. The STEM curricula of most countries including India have no very hard-hitting courses on social injustice, like the humanities do. The most important of all causes, the right to a life without fear for females, the rights to abortion, the rights to get a rapist punished, these are never discussed in classrooms which gear you for the best paid jobs, which people are dying to take. And therein lies the problem. The women of STEM are not as educated, in most cases, as they need be about their rights. And the men don’t care.
I went to a liberal arts and sciences college, sufficiently elite, where some STEM people at least took it upon themselves to learn about these issues. But I shudder to think what goes on in places like the small town I hail from. Where I was dismissed by a respectable male Mathematics teacher for debating rape penalty in his class for five minutes, for “wasting [his] time on frivolous issues”, him enjoying the support of a full seven sets of educated parents. Because of course the issue of a girl being physically taken apart and mentally annihilated were secondary concerns only to five minutes of discussing quadratic equations. And suburban people agree. Even people from the older generations in metropolises agree. That when an IITian rapes a content writer, he may be condoned. Their degrees count, not their lives.
In a world that is ferociously profit-driven, the value-preaching humanities are bound to take second spot to the cash-spewing STEM-heavy MBA and data mining degrees. And when the education for those degrees teach no moral lessons, while the humanities do, you understand that the world wants values, female lives and abortion rights to make way for hotels and cars. And that is what needs to change. If you, as government or lawmaker, are making up payment structures that incentivize people to study the sciences, it must be your very pressing prerogative to include course material that teaches the creation of a population that can at least live without terror before they can join your workforce. To change STEM curricula, to model it on the supposed “below par”, but actually superior, humanities.
Because when you do not, you are hurting the minorities more than the majorities, which has been the case throughout history. If there has been one thing that society values as much as money, it is respect. Especially in the Indian context, where a STEM education is fetishized as much to earn money as to fend off the fear of “log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?). Most STEM students do not make it to the IITs and earn less than top academics of the arts, but are forced into engineering because their parents will earn bragging rights. This love of money and respect is not unfounded on reason – both make living significantly easier. And both, unfortunately, deprive themselves to the arts.
I know a person in an MBA coaching institute who said both “Do not try to compare your English degree to my Engineering” and “If you wear strapless, you will not leave this room un-raped”. I practised what he did not, decency, and kept his identity secret in the institute, but that was because I was unafraid. I was performing better than him in the standardized tests, and had sufficient social foothold to find him ridiculous – but here I raise my voice for those women who have the privilege of neither added bookish knowledge nor a liberal upbringing. Those women who are directly hurt by the disparaging of the arts.
In the Indian context where IITians, the “paradigms” of society, freely distribute sexist content on Quora, parents endorse them, daughters are kept uneducated and rape laws are rather lax, women face severe backlash when they study the arts. First, homes do not allow them into education, or if they do, not into the sciences, because “She’ll be married off, why spend on her NEET coaching?”, conferring on STEM-educated males much greater social and monetary power. Next, these females are held inferior by the same parents to their male counterparts. Beating all these odds, a girl may build a career for herself after all – in the arts, where the pay gap between hers and STEM fields will add insult to the lack-of-respect injury, crushing her. All this when she never had a chance to prove herself as good as STEM folks in the first place.
I know a person in an MBA coaching institute who said both “Do not try to compare your English degree to my Engineering” and “If you wear strapless, you will not leave this room un-raped.”
Second, there may have been girls with a choice. They may have just liked the arts. They may have weighed the risks in an (exceedingly male-dominated) STEM workplace like an engineering firm, of sexual harassment, which will go unpunished by Indian laws. These combined may just have turned her against STEM. But wherever she goes, in India, and even abroad, she’ll hear “you weren’t smart enough, hence the smaller paycheck”. In a misogynist world where women are already considered intellectual inferiors to men, and are paid less for similar roles, these poor females thought they could build a career in the comparatively less inhumane arts and hit back at the world demeaning them – but capitalism won’t let that happen. It’ll cut PhD grants to send the funds off to Silicon Valley – because those in power NEED more unearned privilege, more money, and less minority voices seeking justice.
The differential educational curricula and pay structures aren’t incidental – they are weapons of the powerful. In a world where the humanities are female-dominated and STEM male-dominated, where the disciplines themselves act out the treatment received by their student pools (the humanities, oppressed, women, and STEM, majority, men), belittling the humanities is directly belittling the people who populate its classrooms, overwhelmingly women.
The solution lies in striving for a world which pays, and respects, the arts and the sciences just the same. Which makes STEM curricula more holistic, and educational access easier for women, especially in developing countries. It frightens me how the courses most people want to study in India keep the most important issues, those of fundamental rights, at bay, making only a small section, the outcasts, the “humanitarians” aware at all.
However, they ARE aware – more than in the past. And that is one progressive step, in an imperfect world. The world is imperfect because even the humanities themselves aren’t safe havens for career-oriented women. There have been shocking cases of renowned academicians endorsing regressive views, and the humanities have managed to stand up for only select minorities. While it endorses feminism, discourse is notably meagre around the rights of the “lower castes” or people with disabilities, to name a few. While those with the good fortune to receive a liberal education boldly take up the feminist or queer cause in many cases, the humanities have not been able to, yet, do enough to make campaigning for the latters’ causes extremely widespread.
At the same time, women in STEM workplaces have shown considerable valiance in standing up for their rights, making the educational worlds explored in this article as grey as the real world we inhabit. However, the humanities do provide course material that arm people with better knowledge about their rights, and it is only a matter of time before it spreads out into greater inclusion than it already supports – making STEM curricula further modeled on it will equal making at least one soul in the world more liberal, at a time.
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