Challenges Facing Academia — Restoring Understanding and Harmony

Dr. Ravi P Bhatia – TRANSCEND Media Service

20 Nov 2017 – After schooling, students have to decide what stream or subjects they should pursue in higher education. There are broadly four streams of studies for College students in many countries including India: Liberal Arts comprising Languages—English, Hindi and world languages such as German, French, Russian etc., Philosophy, Psychology etc.

Mathematics and Science subjects such as Physics, Chemistry, Biology etc. Commerce and Economics comprising these subjects in addition to Business Economics or Management. Social sciences consisting of Political Science, History, Sociology, Geography

The classification is not fixed – there may be variation in some of these areas but generally science and Mathematics also comprise engineering subjects, Statistics, Computer Science; related fields in Biology include bio-physics and environmental biology among others.

Again, Mathematics is generally excluded for students of liberal arts as also from social science subjects. The rationale is that first these subjects do not really require its knowledge except a very perfunctory one and secondly if students started devoting time to study of Mathematics, they would not be able to devote concentrated time to the main subjects of their study. Some people also argue that study of these liberal arts subjects require skills that are not compatible with Mathematics skills and the reverse is also true.

These arguments or rationale have some validity but as educational knowledge and academic competencies spread, one has to come out of the box thinking and make appropriate changes.

Take the example of economics – while its knowledge requires that students study formal courses in micro, macroeconomics, international trade relations and so on, the contemporary situation is that everybody is affected by the economic policies of the government — issues of wages or salary, price rise (inflation), taxes and interest rates and so on. In other words, willingly or otherwise, we must have a basic knowledge of the subject so that we may be able to adjust to the prevailing economic situation and live comfortably in our wages or salary or earnings failing which we could go into debt or be unable to meet our basic requirements. Of course, this basic knowledge also demands a minimal idea of mathematics in order to understand the concept of savings or of inflation, and so on.

Thus, basic knowledge of mathematics – beyond counting and percentages is also required by College or University students in order to better appreciate the situation that we see around us. To take another example, in today’s world, elections are a regular feature of our lives. We would like to know what various parties are promising in their manifestos and how their vote share is increasing or decreasing in the elections. Many graphical and quantitative techniques – pie charts, bar diagrams and similar devices are being increasingly used by commentators in newspapers or television programs to inform the public about the chances of victory of any political party or of the various candidates in the elections – local, state or national that occur frequently. Again a general idea of quantitative techniques and a broad understanding of numbers and percentages and graphics helps to understand the electoral scene better.

On a lighter side, a senior professor of Political Science whom I know, always gets confused between the numbers million or billion and the corresponding numbers used in India – lakh (one hundred thousand) one crore (ten million) etc. When one explains the relationship between these numbers he begins to understand but after a few days is again confused about the relationship. To continue in the lighter vein, familiarity with numbers and basic mathematics also helps in the solution of the Sudoku puzzles.

Similarly, other subjects – sociology or even history are increasingly utilizing quantitative techniques for explaining the situation at hand. For example, the outstanding French sociologist Emile Durkheim took the help of tables and charts to explain the problems of suicides being committed by people belonging to different religions and different regions – urban or rural in Europe. Texts apart, these charts and figures have helped students as well as lay persons to understand the concepts related to suicides that Emile was trying to discuss and explain. Again, the subject of geography, especially agricultural, also has to take recourse to simple mathematical concepts for better understanding of the issues involved.

Environmental pollution that includes pollution of air, rivers or seas and soil has become a very serious issue that is resulting in global warming, climate change as well as in adverse effects on the health of people especially children. In many countries of Asia especially India and China, the air quality today is extremely poor leading to aggravating asthma and lung problems as well as in advancing the risk of cancer and other diseases. Many species of plants birds or animals are also facing extinction as a result of these factors. Social media informs us that this (pollution) is due to excess CO — Carbon Monoxide in the air and particulate matter of certain thickness (PM 2.5 or PM 10). Understanding these statements – about gases or numbers in mm or microns again necessitates a certain amount of knowledge of Chemistry and mathematics respectively.

Simple ideas of Science and Technology (S and T) have also penetrated our lives although these subjects are abstract and technical. We are flooded with technical devices in our lives – home appliances, cars or bikes or smart phones based on advanced technologies resulting in our unconsciously acquiring some ideas of these subjects. Then there is the question of atomic energy and atomic bombs that are talked of in our newspapers and social media. Any person who is mildly curious tries to understand why atomic bombs are dangerous – acquiring in the process an idea of minerals such as uranium and plutonium and radioactivity. Pakistan, India and China in Asia all have atomic or nuclear bombs that this makes the region particularly dangerous and unstable politically. Whether we are students of science or of politics, the issue of nuclear weapons and how to curb their proliferation have become crucial.

Thus a clear cut demarcation of various subjects and the topics to be studied is no longer desirable or possible in today’s educational scene. An idea of mathematics, simple economics, science or S and T etc. helps us to better face the challenges we encounter in everyday life.

The foregoing situation is interesting as well as poses academic challenges as to how to modify or adjust the curricula and syllabi of different subjects in order to give a more grounded and balanced idea of the changes in local situations in diverse fields occurring in the contemporary world. These challenges are new but similar problems have occurred earlier also that scholars and academics have successfully overcome. An idea of our earlier efforts at adapting our academic curricula to the changing social scenario will help us to meet the new challenges we are facing academically. This may require a study of mathematics or science for liberal arts students or basic economics or S and T  for students of other disciplines in order to  promote better understanding and harmony and more fruitful lives.

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