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The case for liberal arts education

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Illustration: Satwik Gade.

The party tents are up and bleacher stands are in place on the Columbia University’s beautifully apportioned Commons (public yard) that will bring together some 45,000 people — undergraduates, graduates, Doctorates, their families, the faculty, and the university administration—to celebrate the value of higher education at one of the great universities of the world where I teach. The undergraduates, trained in the famous Columbia Core program that incorporates western and Asian Philosophical systems, great literature of the world, as well as introduction to natural sciences and maths, will proudly get their Columbia degree, confident in their knowledge that the degree from one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education will prepare them to become leaders, not just for the first job out of college.

For much of the last century, the U.S has led the way in developing and sustaining institutions of tertiary education with a focus on liberal arts education and innovative research that has allowed the country to be a global leader in developing new technologies and finding solutions to intractable problems. It is no surprise that in most international rankings of major universities, American universities take the largest number of top spots. It is equally disappointing that in none of the 150 such rankings, Indian universities figure anywhere near the top one hundred spots. There are many reasons for this glaring absence. One could argue that for a country that needs to create jobs for 14 million new entrants to the market every year, the priority has to be given to vocational training for the large masses of people who are equipped to take on the low to mid-level jobs. Some would also make the case that after all, with the establishment of the highly competitive Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the country has taken care of the highly talented students who become industry leaders. But this does not take into account the stark reality of the Indian higher education system that some have described as “a sea of mediocrity with a few islands of excellence.”

Indian education

What is lost in the debates over meritocracy and access, or excellence and equity is the fact that in India, ever since the time of the country’s Independence, we have privileged technical knowledge and applied sciences over a well-rounded liberal arts education. We all have heard stories of the pressures put on talented students, boys in particular, to pursue engineering, medical fields, or now, business administration, as they graduate from high school. There is an unspoken but well understood assumption that you pursue liberal arts or the humanities in college only if you could not get into the desired fields of science and commerce. I had a personal experience with this phenomenon when I graduated from high school almost five decades ago. I was a pretty good student, and I did extremely well in the State Board exams, with the highest marks in general science and advanced arithmetic. I had taken these subjects, not only because I was good at it, but more importantly, because I knew I could get the kind of marks that would propel me toward the top ten in the Board exams. I was pretty clear that I would not pursue these subjects in college as I was more interested in the liberal arts courses such as psychology, Sanskrit, and political science. My parents, true Gandhians, were happy with whatever choice I made, but my school teachers were so upset that they came to our home to convince me and my parents that I must pursue science and not “waste’’ my intelligence and academic talent! This narrow attitude has not only persisted but hardened (with a few notable exceptions of relatively new universities, such as the Ashoka, Azim Premji, and Shiv Nadir Universities), as the discussion has centered around job skills and career opportunities. There is a feeling that learning about philosophical systems or great literary classics, political theory or imaginative poetry is an intellectual luxury at best and waste of time at worst.

These are the very things that the best and the brightest of students learn in the most selective of American universities. As the President of Williams College, no. 1 ranked liberal arts college in the U.S., Adam Falk said to the 2014 graduating class, we learn these things because they give us insight into what it means to be human, and they prepare us for leading a meaningful life, not just the next job. They teach us what it means to have a moral compass and how to think critically about life’s choices.

Interactive learning

In India, there is an urgent need to overhaul the higher education system, not only because there has been a systematic erosion of any serious emphasis on the study of the humanities, but more importantly, it has resulted in a lack of deep understanding of our own cultural history and our own classics. Some well-respected industry leaders in India have also pointed out that the lack of any sense of value-based leadership and moral judgment has resulted in the wide spread acceptance of corruption at all levels that we witness in India today.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about a nostalgic reverence for the past, nor am I talking about simplistic ideas about teaching Sanskrit in all government schools. I am also not advocating the cause of liberal arts education at the expense of vocational training that is required for preparing the young work force to take on the 21st century jobs. But this century, described by some very thoughtful scholars as a post-industrialised society, will need people who are capable of navigating cultural differences, have a sense of grounded-ness without being nationalistic, and to lead in an ever more interdependent, border-collapsing world. Without liberal arts education, it will be next to impossible to gain these qualities. A critical study of the humanities and of our own literary and cultural past will require a more interactive form of learning, greater financial support for scholars and teachers who have dedicated their lives to these studies without politicising the knowledge base, and making a convincing case for the importance of the liberal arts education for a more just and reflective society, confident in its millennial roots but ready to engage with the world. Let us hope that the trend of a few liberal arts universities, recently established, will lead to a bigger force, providing the sense of prestige to the liberal arts education that India so desperately needs.


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