A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one does not agree -- an ability all the more important in the world today.
Our Educational Legacy
Is it any surprise that even though India’s higher education system is the third largest in the world and expanding at jet speed, individual Indian universities do not figure anywhere in the top 150 universities of the world ?
The answer is fairly easy to arrive at. We owe our education "system" to British rule. Their educational needs from Indian students were quite straight-jacketed. The British primarily needed low-level clerks, and focussed professionals to do narrow specialised jobs. The British system was targeted at educating a narrow group of elites and so even as late as the 1950s only 400,000 students were enrolled in 500 colleges across the country.
Over the past years, the higher education system has grown almost a hundred times. Our gross enrolment ratio (GER) has almost reached 25 per cent; we should aspire to a GER of 60 per cent by 2040. But although the numbers have increased - the education system itself has not changed.
Bear in mind that the British did NOT intend the education system in India to produce top level leaders. For that, they relied on Oxford and Cambridge, and a primarily liberal education in Greek and Latin classics. Even the ICS officers were educated in England, on these "liberal arts" topics. Why ?
Perhaps because they wanted to suppress Thought Leadership and Intellectual advancement.
Meeting today's needs
Let us now turn to some more recent industrial facts. Many heads of organisations claim, and surveys indicate, that 75% of graduating students are "unemployable".
As one rises up the organisational hierarchy, one finds that specialized skills are less and less needed. The top echelons of most organisations are full of people who have social skills, people skills, generalised skills. Surely this is not due to shortage of skills. Rather, one must conclude that it is the nature of things. To run organisations, one does not need focused and specialised skills, quite the reverse. Remember, the British did NOT educate us for leadership. Neither does the educational system that we have adopted from them.
Yet India has had great leaders, even industrial leaders of recent past, whose profiles matched this leadership need. So why should 75% of our graduates be "unemployable" ?
Mr Russi Mody, once India's "best man manager" of India's largest private sector steel plant, had a liberal arts education from Oxford. There are many such trailblazers of industries, public governance.
From time immemorial
India always had a culture of liberal studies. King’s and noble men sent their children to “Gurukul” to have a rounded 360 degree learning. Besides lessons from scriptures, they were given life and people skills training to become thought leaders and critical thinkers.
Students from all over the world flocked to our ancient universities like Nalanda and Takshashila to study warfare, astronomy, commerce, grammar, philosophy, ayurveda, surgery, politics, performing arts and many other liberal arts subjects. Leading Indian scholars, who the world remembers, and those specially from China and Japan were graduates of Nalanda. Eminent Alumni of Takshashila included philosopher and economist Chanakya, the father of Sanskrit grammar--Panini and the famous emperor Chandragupta Maurya.
Today all those things have changed. The strongest traditional universities in India, like those in Great Britain and many European countries, encourage early specialization. So just after plus-II, a student has to make a choice of a lifetime. And, it is always STEM or Management education that gets priority. How can one be so sure that engineering or business or medicine is the right path without having had the opportunity to explore a variety of fields -- or to develop habits of inquiry and a work ethic to make that exploration productive?
Get those early jobs, and then ?
The result of "early specialization" is forgone. After a few years of "specialized work", there is a blind lane. In the Indian IT industry, considered the "most desirable outcome of education", after a few years of technical work, most people migrate to do an MBA. They neither remain technologists nor do they learn what a liberal arts grounding would have taught them right at the beginning.
All over the IT industry, especially American employers, complain that "what they really need at senior levels in IT, is the ability to marry technology with human needs, human behaviors, social aspects of technology". This crucial link is what the Indian IT industry is simply unable to supply such "bridging-profiles", and hence are only able to get low-end jobs.
And this is what made the American colleges and universities lead all the way for much of the last century. The U.S education system has focused on developing and sustaining institutions of tertiary education with a focus on liberal arts education and innovative research. Over the years this has helped them to emerge as global leaders 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. In his book, “In Defence of a Liberal Education”, Fareed Zakaria describes how he and his brother escaped the Indian system to attend elite American liberal arts universities, Yale and Harvard, respectively. Zakaria writes that America's success was built on liberal arts education - on multi-disciplinary study for the sake of learning rather than vocational study for the sake of a set career path.
The fallacies of our education
In India, we have always stressed technical knowledge and applied sciences over a well-rounded liberal arts education. Even to this day students come under huge parental pressure, desperately struggle to get a seat in a scarce college admissions landscape and then an even tougher job market. In these high-stress settings, students want to study whatever will land them a job, creating a college experience much more like “technical training” rather than intellectual exploration. A look at the curricula and pedagogy at most institutions reveals no real revolution of ideas - the basic system of teaching and assessment still relies on rote learning and an exam-based, lock-step method.
Can we ever think of becoming a global superpower if our education system is in such shape?
Our learners end up like the age-old story of three blind men feeling an elephant. While one concluded it was flat like a wall, another thought it to be sharp like a spear and the last was sure an elephant was thin like a snake. All were correct in their own way—only incomplete.
Winds of change
Vocational education enables you to get jobs —but the system lacks the inherent ability to create global leaders in developing new technologies and finding solutions to intractable problems As noted Political scientist Devesh Kapur of University of Pennsylvania says “over the last few years several new Indian colleges or universities have opened their doors every single day. Most of those institutions are narrowly and professionally focused: engineering, technology, pharmacy and the like. Similar to for-profit universities in the United States, they attract students with the promise of specialized training in specific skills. Yet such for-profits all too often wind up graduating men and women who have a terribly difficult time finding jobs where they can apply what they have learned. Also, when things change, those graduates can find that their skills have become obsolete. And today, things are changing very fast.”
The essence of liberal education
To reform the set pattern-- let us first understand what is Liberal Arts? The essence of liberal education, the Yale Report of 1928 states, is to develop the freedom to think critically and independently, to cultivate one's mind to the fullest potential and to liberate oneself from prejudice, dogma and superstition. In modern times, liberal arts universities encompass the arts and humanities, social sciences and natural and applied sciences. Inquiry, collaboration across differences and courageous experimentation, freedom of thought and speech besides free circulation of ideas are the basics.
A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one does not agree -- an ability all the more important in the world today. As Pankaj Mishra in his new book “Age of Anger” points out that “the populist politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitute demonization for curiosity. New provincialisms and nationalisms are gaining force through fear-based politics. Such orchestrated parochialism is antithetical to liberal learning, and liberal learning is the only way to counteract it”.
In today’s world dominated by knowledge workers, besides vocational competence, the ability to communicate effectively and work well in a team is compulsory. But besides raw technical or managerial ability learnt in narrow specialisation-oriented colleges, how does a student develop these skills needed to distinguish and excel in the job or inspire colleagues to achieve targets and get desired results.
Hence, the answer is a good liberal arts education which joins the finer dots and makes education rounded and complete. It imparts the qualities, so very essential in the changing world. Besides the chosen specialisation and technical knowhow – for public speaking and collaborative working,the students are exposed to oratory classes and made to read speeches given by paradigm-changing leaders. For learning brevity, precision and charisma needed to write good and effective content —the students learn creative writing. To incorporate different perspectives-- the students take classes in psychology and philosophy.
The real world is not a textbook
Nothing could be more practical than this model in today’s world. The ability to synthesize different perspectives into the big picture is far more powerful than narrow expertise in any single field. The liberal studies offer perspectives from vantage points separated by time, place and society. Drawing and painting offer perspectives on what perspective even means. Critical thinking is the logical result of being able to simultaneously synthesize multiple ideas in one’s mind.
For, real world problems rarely ever have textbook solutions. More than anything, the purpose of a college education is to learn how to think critically and ask the pertinent questions. Liberal arts education aims to mould their students into well-rounded, well-informed global citizens with a wide skill set to cope up with the demands of the changing economy.
There is however, a glimmer of hope as India realises that a rejuvenated model of liberal education is imperative for being relevant in the 21st century and that our brilliant scholars are capable of delivering a high-quality and affordable model at a large scale. The six-year-old Ashoka University along with few more institutions are imparting quality liberal arts education in India and its South Asian neighbours.
It's time that India again embraces and carries forward its rich legacy by redefining and shaping liberal education for the 21st century, not just for India but for the world. It is only relevant to remember Albert Einstein’s words -- “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited, imagination encircles the world.”
The writer is Dean, School of Liberal Arts & Culture Studies, Adamas University, Kolkata.
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