Humanities Education in Karnataka

(A draft note prepared for the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, Government of Karnataka)

Sundar Sarukkai

Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities

Manipal University, Karnataka, India

Abstract: Everybody seems to recognize that there is a crisis in humanities education around the world. As part of a report which I wrote for the Karnataka Knowledge Commission, I looked at the state of humanities education in the state of Karnataka, which, incidentally, is known as the science and IT capital of India. These are students who primarily enroll for the BA program across the state. The data from Karnataka actually reflect a larger trend across India – that a large number of students in the undergraduate actually take BA and related ‘arts’ programs. The figures could be anywhere from 40 to 50% of the total enrolment of undergraduates. Thus, in India, the problem is not that students are not taking up liberal arts and humanities, but the quality of these programs which range from the abysmal to mediocre with few exceptions. This note discusses ways by which we could address this problem in the State of Karnataka but might have some lessons for some others too.

I Objective, Scope and Principle of Teaching Humanities

In the context of the undergraduate Indian education system, the Arts degree (BA) encapsulates both the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

Training in Humanities leads towards understanding, as well as promoting, the civilizational aspects of a society. As many of the programmes in Humanities programs, these disciplines promote critical and creative thinking, not just within a discipline but also about the larger culture. In this sense, the Humanities are the foundation for all disciplines for understanding the human condition and are a prerequisite to understanding the nature of knowledge and how humans should act. Disciplines like literature and languages not only enrich a culture but they are also necessary for other disciplines such as the social and natural sciences. As much as mathematics is called the queen of the natural sciences so also can philosophy be called the queen of the social sciences and arts. Philosophy is also essential to understanding the nature of science and its impact on humans and society.

Today, almost all disciplines underscore the importance of multidisciplinarity. Even within disciplines such as physics and chemistry, the need for multidisciplinarity is obvious. Research in these fields has become very multidisciplinary. One of the fundamental models of multidisciplinarity comes from the Humanities. Whether it is philosophical traditions or study of art or culture studies, there is an inherent sense of multidisciplinarity present in these approaches.

Most important of all, training in Humanities develops responsible citizenship. If education is seen as a process which is more than transmitting information then it is imperative that a student learns not just what is taught as knowledge but the very nature of that knowledge. To be a responsible citizen is to know how to understand how knowledge has and can be used for the greater good of society. For example, knowing about nature by learning natural sciences is not enough to teach one how to use this knowledge in a humane manner. It is training in the humanities which will alert the student to the various dimensions of this knowledge derived in the sciences. So also for other disciplines and activities.

Summary of Objectives of Humanities Education:

  • To create a rounded student well-versed in critical thinking, communication skills both in speaking and writing, creative action and social responsibility.

  • To inculcate the values of humanity, good and responsible citizenship, ethical action, equitable and just notions of social existence.

  • To understand how different notions of knowledge and truth, rigour and merit are present in these disciplines.

  • To help students understand the foundational basis of other human activities such as science and the arts.

  • To create aesthetic appreciation of civilizational contributions from literature and the arts, including music.

II Present Status of Humanities Education in Karnataka

There are a large number of students who are enrolled in BA. The popular subjects covered in BA include History, Economics, Sociology, English, Kannada, Hindi, Urdu, Social Work, Political Science, Library Science, Philosophy, Geography, Education, Home Science, Psychology, Archaeology, Musicology, Physical Education, Journalism and so on.

Significantly the BA has the highest number of colleges and students in the State. At the undergraduate level, statewide the highest enrollment is in BA. For example, for the year 2007-08, the enrolment figures were as follows: Out of a total of 2,01,459 students, 84,075 students were enrolled in the BA courses as compared to 34,933 in BSc, 64,119 in BCom and 18,332 in other courses. Also important is the gender breakup: out of 84,075 students in BA, 44,432 were male students and 39,643 were female. Males were less in BSc compared to females. Overall there were more male students – 1,04,900 to 96,559, but the difference is not much.

In terms of regions, except for Bangalore and Mangalore, the enrolment in BA was higher compared to the other streams. In the case of Bangalore, this disparity is primarily in Bangalore Urban where BCom enrolment exceeds BA and BSc enrolment, and is nearly double – 19,597 to 8,839 (BA) and 8,665 (BSc). However, in the rural and semiurban areas the BA enrolment was the highest except for Kolar where BCom was significantly higher.

Similarly in the Mysore region, it is only in Mysore city that the enrolment in BCom is greater than BA but elsewhere BA has the highest enrolment. In Mangalore region, the total number in BCom is greater than in BA and BSc. Both in the Dakshina Kannada and Udupi region falling under this division, the BCom enrolment is more than BA (and BSc). In Dharwad division, all the regions have highest enrolment in BA; so also for the Gulbarga region.

So it seems that in more urbanized areas such as Bangalore, Mysore and Dakshina Kannada, there is more interest and availability of BCom courses. Even in these areas, BA comes after BCom and the science stream has the least enrolment among these three.

Again of some significance is the figure for government colleges. The BA enrolment in government degree colleges is far greater than BCom and BSc – 77,602 in BA as compared to 12,537 in BSc and 19,015 in BCom. So if we compare this with total enrolment in private and government colleges, we can see that private colleges enrolment should be as follows: 7,013 in BA, 22,396 in BSc and 45,104 in BCom. As seems obvious, the courses which are preferred in private colleges seem to be BCom and BSc. Therefore, the government colleges essentially carry the burden of teaching BA in the state.

Given the general problem of standards in government colleges, this has serious consequences for the state of undergraduate education in social sciences and humanities in Karnataka. Given that among all these streams, BA is the one which has the most number of mainstream disciplines – history, sociology, political science, economics, anthropology, psychology, journalism, home science, philosophy, literature and so on – it is all the more worrying that private colleges only show an enrolment of 7,013 students. This is about one-third of BSc students and one-seventh of BCom students. In terms of total enrolment in private colleges, BA enrolment is less than 10% whereas in government colleges it is nearly 60%

This also means that the number of faculty in arts is significantly more in Government colleges. For example, in Kuvempu University, the number of teachers in arts stream is 964 as compared to 161 for commerce.

Under Mysore University, out of a total of 224 colleges, 97 of them offer Arts degree. The number of teachers in Arts is 1,780 out of a total of 2,858 teachers (in Arts, Commerce, Management and Law). Nearly 28,000 students are enrolled in the Arts stream out of a total of nearly 50,000 students. (The number of girl students in arts is more than the male students: 14,721 to 13,475.)

In Karnatak University, the total number of students in arts is about 48,000 compared to a total of nearly 77,000 students in the combined disciplines. (Interestingly, the number of students enrolled in BA has steadily decreased from 2003 to 2008. The enrollment for the 2003-04 was 68,100 students and in 2007-08 it was 50,770 and there is a decline every year.)

Both in Gulbarga and Kuvempu Universities, the enrollment in BA is significantly higher than in other streams. In both these universities it is over 50% – again we can note that this is largely due to the semi-urban and rural enrollment in these areas. In Karnataka State Women’s University, Bijapur, the Arts intake is 9,265 out of a total of 12,045 students enrolled in arts, commerce, management and law.

Students from liberal arts background and with access to good schools tend to take subjects in the art stream because of their interest in subjects like history and sociology. But the majority of the students take BA in rural areas and in government colleges. Very often, this is because they are not interested in science or are not particularly inclined to mathematics. BA offers them options such as the Civil Services, teaching or a wide variety of jobs which only require a general graduate degree. Another important reason for so many students taking BA in rural areas is that these students study in Kannada or take Kannada as a major subject in their BA.

Even in the urban areas, students tend to take BA largely because of their disinterest in science subjects or in professional courses. However, there a good number of students who are drawn to BA, particularly in the field of literature.

The colleges are classified as government, private aided (private colleges aided by the government) and unaided colleges. But the distribution of these colleges is again skewed towards the urban sector. For example, in Bangalore Urban the ratio of government to private aided colleges is 19:44 and in other regions it is 50:17, a complete reversal. Given the state of government colleges, one can see the impact this has on overall education in the State. Interestingly, almost all other Universities such as Mangalore University, Karnataka University and even Gulbarga University do not show this disparity since there seem to be more equitable distribution of private and government colleges. This is so except for Bangalore and Mysore Universities. This is an interesting phenomenon worthy of more attention.

The total budget for all the 647 colleges in the state (including government and private aided colleges) for 2009-2010 is 51721.89 Lakhs. This is not a small amount but it should be seen in the context of the overall budget.

III Similar Programmes Elsewhere

Around the world, Humanities and Liberal Arts have responded to changing times in many creative ways. They are able to attract some of the best students because of the way they position themselves. These disciplines are also respected in the larger society which makes it easier for students to join these courses. But almost all the good programmes in Humanities stress certain common advantages of getting an undergraduate degree in Humanities such as developing critical thinking, improving writing and communication skills, capacity for problem solving, learning to do research, bring together ideas from different disciplines and so on.

The stress on critical thinking and language skills, particularly writing skills, is common to many such programmes across the world. Among the core disciplines in Humanities are philosophy and literature. Arts – fine arts and performance arts – are also integral to many programmes. Also, in recent times, there have been many interdisciplinary combinations of themes which define the Humanities degree.

Typically, a BA degree has one major and one minor discipline. It also allows a selection from many languages. Many good programmes also allow for double degrees – majoring in more than one discipline. Typically, the subjects that are taught as part of the BA degree in many good programmes in the world are as follows:

Languages (this would include teaching different languages such as Japanese, Chinese, French etc., In the Indian context, this would include various Indian languages.)

Traditional disciplines such as Anthropology, Classics, Economics, History, Linguistics, Philosophy, Politics, Psychology.

Variety of new disciplines such as: International Studies, Asian and European Studies, Development Studies, Music Studies, Gender Studies, Environmental Studies.

New combinations of themes are also offered as subjects: Arts and Value, Biography/History, Film, Globalisation, Cultural Studies, Religion and Ethics.

As we can notice, such a wide variety of disciplines are not offered as part of BA in our colleges. Nor is it possible to choose subjects from these disciplines and mix courses from different disciplines. Also, courses in interdisciplinary topics such as “Gender and Work”, “Art and Creativity”, “Biography”, “Film”, “Globalization” and “Popular Culture” are not only topical but also of interest to students. Such courses are not a part of our BA programme.

IV Problems

As the numbers indicate, the number of students doing BA is very high. However, the problem seems to be that most of these students are in government colleges and in non-urban areas. For students who are not in the urban areas the problem of infrastructure is a serious one. This includes lack of access to books, journals and in general the absence of a decent library.

But the problem begins earlier. Students do not know what the BA degree is about. They are not sure of what they will be studying and learning, particularly because of the step-motherly treatment towards these disciplines at the school level. Given the emphasis on science, engineering and medicine it is not surprising that there is a lack of interest not only in teaching the subjects of humanities but also a lack of information about the higher degrees in humanities.

Even the parents are often clueless about what these courses are. So very often the BA degree becomes a default degree if the student does not get admission into any other course. Part of the disinterest lies in the lack of information on the career options that are available to the students after their BA degree. This cultural ignorance about the BA subjects has serious consequences since parents are not encouraged to send students to the BA courses even if their children are interested in these disciplines. This problem is compounded also because there is no strong tradition of arts disciplines in high schools.

Once students join BA, then they run into a different set of problems. First of all, the courses are very regimentalized. There is little creativity in the syllabus. And except for disciplines such as literature, students often have little understanding of why they are studying what they are asked to study. The diversity of disciplines is another problem since very often specialized teachers are needed for each of these disciplines.

On the ground, the situation is not that good. For example, while there is a recommended teacher to student ratio, it is often flouted in the case of BA courses. College teachers in Bangalore inform us that many times there are about 150 students in a class. This not only increases the load associated with teaching and the pedagogical style adopted (with lecture mode being the most expedient) it also creates new problems related to grading.

The market dictates the amenities for the teachers also! Well paying courses have better infrastructure for teachers. For example, we were told that for teachers in humanities there are no toilets and proper staff room since these courses do not generate income like some other courses do.

The payment to teachers is also a problem. If teachers are paid by the government then there does not seem to be much of a problem. But in many private colleges many teachers are underpaid and work on contract system and these lead to their own set of problems.

Associated with this is the more worrying problem of teacher training. Most often students who get a postgraduate degree directly come into teaching. There is no idea of teacher-training for these new recruits. Interestingly, the teachers themselves have repeatedly asked for some kind of teacher training before hiring somebody as a teacher.

Generally, it is widely accepted that one of the most serious problem afflicting the BA programme is student evaluation. Both in terms of quality and quantity, and also because of obsolete ways of testing students, there is a serious lacunae in evaluation.

It was also generally felt that the curriculum has become almost obsolete. It was felt that some soft-skills were a must for the BA students. Given the rigidity of the courses and syllabus, it is not a surprise that students often find these courses outdated and irrelevant. The flexibility which is a mark of an effective educational system is badly missing in the BA courses.

The Administration also contributes to this problem. Teachers have told us about the unnecessarily high staff to student ratio in colleges. Among other things, this also leads the administration to treat the students badly. This is a complaint that is almost universal in Indian colleges and universities.

While the lack of library is universal – both in urban and rural areas – the added problem in rural and semiurban areas is the lack of books in Kannada. For disciplines in social sciences and humanities where much of the literature is derived from the west and published in English, the lack of books in Kannada is a serious obstacle to effective teaching of these disciplines.

Finally, unlike the best programmes in the world in the humanities, our colleges and universities do not have a rich research culture. Most often, there is no research activity at all. As is well understood around the world, a good research culture also leads to a quality teaching culture.

One contributing factor to these problems is the lack of a public culture around these disciplines. There is very little in the news media about these courses, especially when contrasted with the large amount of material published on the science and professional courses. Often there are no public figures who speak on behalf of these disciplines unlike the community of scientists. Even social science students will find it easy to name the well known scientists in the country but find it problematical to name such figures in humanities and social sciences! This public nurturing of these disciplines is a must if students and parents should change their views.

The lack of proper national or state agencies to support and nurture these disciplines is another important problem. For example, the sciences have very well established agencies both at the state and national level which support teaching in various ways. The social sciences as well as humanities suffer seriously due to this lack.

There is also a fundamental problem of language. Since so much of BA is taught in the rural areas, the language of instruction often is Kannada. Proper textbooks and other resource material in the disciplines are not available as much in Kannada as in English. This means that students cannot access important texts in these disciplines.

The case of philosophy

Philosophy is the queen of disciplines. Just as mathematics is seen as the discipline most important to study science, philosophy is the discipline which is at the foundation of almost all the disciplines of social science. In fact, almost all these fields (including those in the natural sciences) not only have their origins in philosophy but are also strongly influenced by philosophical ideas.

There is little doubt among teachers and educationists about the importance of philosophy in the curriculum but ironically this recognition has not translated into action. In particular, Karnataka state has the dubious distinction of very few programmes in philosophy. Not only have new programmes not been started but even existing ones have been consistently closed down.

The general problems associated with arts teaching are present in the case of philosophy teaching in Karnataka. In fact, there are more problems. One has to do with the perception of philosophy: philosophy is often confused with religion and since religious studies are generally not seen to be part of secular education, philosophy is also ignored.

Secondly, colleges and universities close philosophy programmes because of lack of students. But this is a vicious circle: often there are very few students because there are very few teachers. The lack of students means that there are not enough postgraduate and doctoral students in philosophy. This means that there are lesser number of teachers who can teach philosophy. Many of the other problems mentioned above are applicable to philosophy also.

V The Way Forward

Many of these problems afflicting the social science and humanities disciplines taught in BA can be rectified.

The problem about information about these courses can be addressed quite effectively. There is a great demand for disciplines like philosophy, literature, arts and history. But there is not enough of a public discourse on the importance of these disciplines. For example, philosophy is so integral to so many professional activities and yet it is not promoted as such. It is of great surprise that even prestigious law programmes in the country do not have a core course in philosophy or logic especially considering the close relation between philosophy and law. Similarly for various other professional and non-professional courses.

What is true for philosophy is also true for the social sciences. One cannot be a part of the Indian society as a scientist, engineer, doctor or administrator without having basic knowledge about Indian society. Social science disciplines inculcate this social awareness which is so essential for good citizenship. The very meaning of development is not one restricted to material development but to development of values also. These are part of a broader arts education. In fact, arts education must be made mandatory for all students, including science and engineering students.

To take care of the problem of lack of teachers, some new programmes can be initiated including some on teacher training in different disciplines.

It is extremely important to increase access to books and other library resources in these fields. Karnataka, particularly Bangalore, has world class libraries in the natural sciences and almost no quality library in social sciences and humanities. This imbalance also contributes to the low quality of BA degree. Karnataka is the capital of the natural sciences in the country and some of the best research institutes in natural sciences are in this state. However, we do not have such research institutes or programmes in social sciences and humanities with one or two exceptions. Unless this problem is tackled, the state of BA education will continue to remain pathetic.

As part of enriching resources, there is also an urgent need to commission books in Kannada in these fields.

VI Specific strategies for action

Strategies for the Government

General recommendations

  1. The first two years must have some common core courses on writing and reasoning. (Suggested courses are given below.)

  2. The BA must be made into a four-year programme to follow global norms as well make it on par with professional courses like engineering.

  3. Public dissemination on the importance of humanities should be undertaken by the various government agencies with the help of universities. For example, humanities fairs much like the science fairs can be organized periodically and on a large scale by the government. Students, parents and the general public should be educated about the importance of a degree in humanities.

  4. The government should take leadership in facilitating the publication and availability of humanities books in Kannada, which are either originally written in Kannada or translated works of important texts in the humanities.

  5. One way for the Government to do this is to revive the publication cells in universities. These cells should make seminal books available at cheaper rates as well as translate many of these books into Kannada.

  6. Change in the nomenclature could also be considered. Instead of or along with Bachelor of Arts, other possible titles could be considered.

  7. Library grants must be given to all universities for buying books in humanities.

  8. Students must be allowed to choose universities of their choice instead of being forced to study in universities in their own localities.

  9. Universities must become student-centric and be alert to the needs of the students.

Policy Action

  1. Specificcore courses to be introduced are as follows: Expository Writing Course (first year), Intensive Writing Course (second year), Moral Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, Subject specialties in third and fourth years, Focus on interdisciplinary courses, Languages, Cultures (and diversity), Indian Heritage, Gender. For the Arts students, it is important to have general courses in physical and life sciences, one common course on philosophy, one on methodology of the sciences and so on.

  2. Create State funding agencies to specifically support teaching and research in humanities and social sciences.

  3. Insist on continuing education for teachers such as high quality teacher training programmes for teachers in BA in partnership with research institutions.

  4. Have one academic staff college in each university.

  5. Make teacher training compulsory before teachers can begin teaching.

  6. Require that all university teachers must have a PhD degree.

  7. Have government scholarships for those who want to study BA. Incidentally, science students get a variety of scholarship to study sciences. These scholarships are given both by the centre as well as state agencies. Good students are encouraged to take up science. Ironically, the scholarship to science students to do BSc is sometimes more than the PhD scholarship for social sciences and humanities! This imbalance should be rectified.

Strategies for the Administration

General recommendations
  1. Public dissemination of information about social sciences and humanities is the first requisite. The students and the larger society should be made to realize the importance of these disciplines in creating not only a just society but also an ethically rounded individual who is educated in the broadest sense of the term. This means that we should create avenues where there is information on what these disciplines are about and why they are exciting in their own right. Scientists have done this job of taking science to the public and school students very well but social scientists haven’t done this job. Administrators can take a lead in making sure that the information on the BA course is well presented and argued for.

  2. There must be a strategic attempt to do some of these activities in Kannada – both in public talks as well as in books.

  3. Courses in Arts – such as in music, theatre, visual arts, performance arts – must be part of BA courses and not taught only in separate arts colleges.

  4. Support the starting of programmes in philosophy in different colleges and universities. Philosophy should be introduced as the subject that is at the foundation of all other subjects, whether in the natural or social sciences. For example, foundations of science, history of ideas, logic could be core courses in BA.

  5. Enable a culture of respect towards teachers and students.

Policy action

  1. Teacher amenities should be independent of the courses they teach – whether it is a costly course or not should not be the criterion for teacher amenities.

  2. Have a teacher to student ratio on par with other courses like management.

  3. Review the contract system for teachers. There have been strong complaints from the teachers about this system.

  4. To enable research, generate mechanisms for better support for research projects.

  5. To have better teaching methods, create an audio visual research centre (AVRC) in each university. This will also create new education technologies.

  6. As part of a thorough exam reform, remove emphasis on essay questions; have continuous evaluation; make project work mandatory.

  7. All colleges should uniformly offer a major and minor combination.

  8. Course structures should be revamped. A degree could be in specific themes such as discussed in section III above.

  9. Have a concentrated effort at integrating intellectual traditions from India as part of these disciplines.

  10. Soft skills to be made mandatory for all BA students.

  11. Create avenues that will associate teachers in colleges with a research programme in institutions around the state. This will inculcate a research culture along with teaching in colleges.

  12. Initiate intern programmes for bright students to spend summers at research institutes in social sciences and humanities.

  13. Establish formal networks with such research organizations from around the country to facilitate the exchange of students and faculty.

  14. Have programmes which will take well known social scientists and philosophers to give lectures and spend time in various colleges in Karnataka. Choose one or two respected institutions and support them to administer these programmes.

Strategies related to the teaching community

  1. The science community has started a variety of outreach programmes such as the ones run by the Science Academy and BASE. Similar advanced programmes for social science and humanities disciplines, in order to encourage and support motivated students, should also be started. Teachers should take a lead in establishing such initiatives.

  2. Not only books on the relevance and importance of these disciplines but also public lectures and talksin schools by social scientists, writers and philosophers should be encouraged.

  3. Disciplines have changed the world over. New curriculum and new methods have been introduced in the teaching of these disciplines. Multidisciplinarity is the trend all around the world. These changes must be introduced into the curriculum of BA.

Policy Action
  1. Take a lead in establishing interdisciplinary courses such as Religion and Ethics, Gender studies, Folk Arts, Social Justice, Culture and Diversity, Science and Development, Globalization and so on.

  2. Develop a formal research programme in the colleges for teachers. Networks with other institutions to facilitate this must be established with the help of the administration.

  3. Arrange for visits by speakers, organizing seminars on their own research interests and other such academic extracurricular activities.

  4. Incorporate public service into the curriculum so as to inculcate spirit of citizenship among the youth in a secular environment.


This note was initially written as a member of the working group on humanities commissioned by the Karnataka Knowledge Commission. I thank M. K. Sridhar, Madhav Menon, K. R. S. Murthy and Mohandas Pai for discussions and the group of research associates for supplying the needed data.