Prof. Siby K George – Interview on Environmental Studies
InsIghT: The Supreme Court has given very good reasons for having an environmental course at the undergraduate level. What are your personal opinions regarding this – both in terms of the entire ES/HS course, and the philosophy module?
SKG: There is a widespread agreement today that the ecological crisis is primarily about the way we relate to nature. The Court has recognized this and has rightly ruled that we should target young India. If we want litter-free public spaces, we must begin ‘showing’ children bins where the litter must go; so too, if we want an environmentally conscious nation, we better begin with the young. The argument really is not about the Court order but about how it is put into practice by individual institutions.
The two half-semester environmental studies/science courses, which are integral to our B.Tech programme, introduce the student to the social, economic, philosophical and scientific aspects of the environmental crisis. To me, the range and the scope of the course look impressive, though the focus tends to get lost when several faculty handle the subject matter independently without any interaction among themselves.
The humanities language is used to speak to the engineering and science students about the environment because the ecological crisis is first and foremost a human and social crisis.
According to me, after completing the philosophy module of the Environmental Studies course, the student should have an understanding of (i) a brief history of ideas leading to the ecological crisis, (ii) the alternative philosophical frameworks that emerged in the twentieth century regarding the way humans relate to nature and their place within the ecosystem, (iii) the specifically Indian perspectives on the environmental question, and (iv) the important concerns regarding environmental ethics and justice.
InsIghT: Do you think the objectives of the course are being fulfilled?
SKG: I must say ‘yes’ with regard to the philosophy module, given the above objectives, and purely from the course planning perspective. If I have to speak for myself, the module is planned well. But this is a class of about 350 students from engineering and science background with little prior exposure to the humanities. I can imagine this course only as providing a kind of inadequate if necessary opening to the undergrads towards perspectives and currents of thought. The instructor could do little to reach out to the student.
InsIghT: What precisely goes into the structuring of this course, keeping in mind the objectives? Is it done in tandem with the other parts of the HS 200 course/ES 200 course?
What goes into the structuring of this course, unfortunately, is only the particular instructor’s expertise and concerns on the subject matter. Even course objectives could vary from instructor to instructor, though I don’t think any philosophy instructor would introduce contemporary environmental philosophy without referring to, say, deep ecology. I am yet to see coordinated efforts to plan the content of the whole course.
InsIghT: This was a humanities course being taught to engineering and science students. Was it designed from that perspective? How do students usually respond to it? In general, students tend to undermine the importance of such courses. Why is that so?
Personally I do keep the students in mind in the planning and delivery of the philosophy module. That doesn’t mean I teach something other than philosophy. It means I make the philosophy material accessible for a non-philosophy class. But we must remember that humanities material, unlike advanced science and engineering, has some sort of accessibility and immediate relevance for everyone, especially for the IITians groomed to take up leadership roles in technology and science.
You are right, most students take the course lightly, I think, because (a) the class size is really, really huge (in a crowded classroom many students tend to turn restless and even mischievous, taking advantage of their anonymity), (b) they do not get to interact with the instructor, (c) they come with preconceived notions of the irrelevance of the course, (d) some students might genuinely find it difficult to relate to the subject matter and make it interesting for themselves, and (d) they are put off by the inadequacies of particular instructors (many may not have it that easy with crowds).
But I hasten to add that there is a sizable minority of very interested students in each batch. They question you in class and engage you even after the class hour. There are some very environmentally conscious and concerned students in the Institute.
InsIghT: Was there a prescribed syllabus set by the institute/supreme court, or does the instructor have freedom in choosing the syllabus?
Frankly I have no idea if there is a prescribed syllabus for this Course. I set the objectives for my module and planned it accordingly. I have received some flattering student comments and some very nasty ones. But since Insight has prodded me into thinking about this important Course I want to underline that a more coordinated and serious effort is definitely called for from the part of the instructors and a more engaged participation from the part of students.
Professor Siby K. George is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.