The Need for Liberal Education in India

by Diksha Sanyal

200px-Delhi_University's_official_logoEducation reforms have been at the heart of much of the controversy in colleges today. Delhi University’s novel initiative of introducing the FYUP or the Five Year Undergraduate Programme course stirred much debate about the viability of such a system and its likely consequences.

At the core of such reform is the idea of increasing student’s employability. This they intend to do by providing the students with wholesome all round liberal education (as this document explains, classic liberal education is generally accepted as a “broad curriculum that develops and stimulates the intellectual capabilities of an individual, teaches how to think and communicate clearly, inculcates a critical appreciation of history and society.”) by facilitating the creation of a curriculum consisting of compulsory foundational courses. All students irrespective of the stream they come from and the subject they want to graduate in are required to take these foundational courses. It is argued that the successful completion of the courses will “strengthen the educational base of the students in relation to the grand challenges facing India” and ensure that they “acquire both key knowledge and ability” thereby increasing employability of the students. While this blog is not a revisit of the Delhi University initiative, it does draw its inspiration from there and aims to explore the rationale behind liberal education, the challenges it faces and the methodology of its incorporation within India’s educational framework.

Are we Missing out?

In the words of Martha Nussbaum, liberal education is one that “liberates students’ minds from bondage of mere habit and tradition, so that students can increasingly take responsibility for their own thought and speech… it is only this sort of education that will develop each person’s capacity to be fully human.” It focusses mainly on the study of humanities, preparing students for broad based thinking rather than giving them a particular skill set as most professional courses do.

Traditionally liberal education has been looked down upon owing to its poor returns in the job market with a majority of arts humanities graduates grappling with unemployment or underemployment. Moreover, students pursuing such courses are perceived as underachievers in comparison to those pursuing courses like Engineering, Chartered Accountancy and Law.

The insistence on liberal education as initiated by Delhi University is thus confounding.

While the majority would agree with the proposition that college education is only for the purpose of getting employment, others would argue about the role college plays in developing individuals, their perceptions, biases and idealism.  If seen from the lens of the latter view, liberal education is the best tool to not only further the ends of employment but also “cultivate humanity” (see Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A classical defence of reform in liberal education, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, Harvard University Press, 1997). Liberal education bestows on its learners capabilities and powers ranging from critical self-examination, narrative imagination, empathy and the ability of conceiving oneself in relation to other individuals around the world.

It equips students to analyse, argue, reason and think, thus forming the bedrock of theirblooms lives. The students are able to cope with the stress and strains of the constantly changing world as their ability to reason is not restricted to a particular disciplinarian way of thinking.

Though, there are varied means of developing and honing critical reasoning skills, liberal education is most equipped to do so. This is chiefly because, liberal education, unlike traditional professional courses does not have the rigours of any definite syllabus and can therefore draw from multiple sources and devote more time to the building of specific, thus making learning more dynamic and enjoyable.

Those who believe that liberal education can be pursued at home by reading the texts prescribed at one’s own pleasure, tend to underestimate the dynamism of classroom learning. What one makes of a text is infinitely more important than just reading it. Often the way we read is coloured by our own perceptions and subjectivity, which is hard to realize until we are exposed to the biases of others as well. Only rigorous training in debunking can help realize that, and liberal education, if taught well, is precisely aimed to do that. While most courses prepare one for a particular job description, the humanities prepares one for a variety of circumstances in life not restricted to any particular field.

The College Scenario

In my opinion, the present college structure does little to help a student to prepare for his life and for the larger world, even though this forms the crux of all learning in a student’s life. Our universities, in their aim to make us ‘market ready’, have been washed by the neo liberal ethics which tend to reduce everything to a mere cost benefit analysis, which in most cases disincentivizes liberal learning.

Law schools are themselves guilty of this. The humanities and the law subjects are treated as separate categories and the intersections between them are seldom explored.  This despite the fact that law as a subject has tremendous social implications, and there is more scope for interdisciplinary studies here than anywhere else. The same applied to most other colleges offering professional courses, barring a few elite institutions.

But are colleges themselves to blame for such a lapse or are they too constrained by the lack of educated, qualified teachers? Does the problem only lie with the students who ignore the requirement of a liberal arts education in their quest for professional degrees? Are colleges themselves not constrained by the logic of the market as they have the sole responsibility of ensuring that most of their students are employable. In a recent orientation seminar conducted by JILS for the first years, interesting issues were discussed. Chief among them was the inequality between the professional courses and the humanities. As one student pointed out in tandem with the general opinion, the ‘arts’ are a clear luxury for those in a country where thousands were competing for a job. The more professional courses like engineering and law enabled one to tap that niche job market but courses on humanities were so generic that they barely lead to any assurance of a job, or a well- paying one at least. Most agreed that it was only after a society acquired a certain economic and social level that a possibility of a greater number of students pursuing the arts and humanities could be envisioned.

The Logic of the Market

Therefore, the next question to be analysed is whether the worth of humanities is somehow tied to the skewed logic of the markets? It seems to be and the fact can hardly be argued against. Ethical, idealistic arguments in favour of pursuing liberal education are unlikely to gain much momentum unless we find a firm logic for the course in the market. Martha Nussbaum criticises such an approach and proclaims that the entire purpose is lost when one tries to look for the logic of liberal arts only in the modern economy. I however disagree. For humanities and liberal arts to find a greater relevance in today’s world, they need to be attuned to the logic of the market.

There is a general assumption that every society, depending on the level of socio economic development attained, can prioritise its resources accordingly and find the right threshold level. For example, Martha Nussbaum in Women and Human Development: The capabilities approach (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2000) argues that the level of capabilities a society should promote is dependent on every society, however, a certain minimum level should be constitutionally guaranteed. This is her idea of ‘minimum threshold’. Many feel that the issue of access to basic education deserves far more attention than the means to improve the quality of those who are already educated. However, in deeply unequal societies like India, incentivising one section of people at the cost of the others may not be the best solution, as both are intricately connected. Over allocation of resources to increase basic educational facilities at the cost of promotion of higher education could lead to unintended consequences like that of brain drain, lowering the prospects of growth and the means of funding basic education.

Humanities_graphicFurther the assumption that in economically advanced societies, students feel free to pursue humanities as they have guaranteed employment, is not factually correct. Even advanced societies believe in cutting funding from the humanities departments during recession, showing their preference to the professional courses. Enrolment rates into traditional humanities courses too has dropped.

Liberal education is, in general, therefore facing a crisis wherein it seems to be losing out to other market friendly courses. While it may teach us to be analytical and critical in our way of reasoning, it does not guarantee equal benefits to all those pursuing it. There is always a difference depending on what we make of our own education and employers recognise that. While having a broad base of the liberal arts may suggest that a person is well read, it is in no way a guarantee of determining who is more ‘meritorious’ and ‘distinguished’ than the others in handling practical day to day problems.

The Way Forward

Liberal education has received little attention due to the lack of promotional initiative at every stage of education. At the school level, teaching has failed to inspire a respect for the humanities due to the strict, pedantic ways of its treatment. Instead of fostering an environment where students can argue, question and debate, the ISC-CBSE and state board levels of education have focused more on rote learning than on application of knowledge. This misplaced teaching methodology is carried forward in colleges as well.

Law schools and other seats of higher and professional education have been the most damaging to the scope of humanities as they have created strict separations between vocationalism and liberal education, rather than finding points of intersection between the two. The markets have their own skewed logic whereby they prioritise a certain kind of skill set over others.  The point is not to argue that we do not need technical, professional skills, rather to point out that both streams of education are constrained by what they leave out.

We need to recognise the worth of liberal education and the instrumental role it can play in making us better leaders, managers, workers. In fact, here, it has been argued liberal arts is required to bolster management course curriculum.  Ideas such as this alone can defeat the skewed logic of the market. However, we need to recognise that the cause for liberal education will remain unaddressed until we find a justification for it in the market and remove the stereotypes associated with the traditional division of the arts and professional courses.

Arguing that those who pursue professional courses don’t need the humanities andeducation_definition_highlight conversely those who pursue broad based education like the liberal arts don’t need the specificity of a professional skill set is refusing to address the problem. Both are intrinsically connected and it is necessary to find and cater to an education system that recognises the same and offers the chance to explore a intermingling of the two at every stage of one’s life. This will undoubtedly require us to challenge the traditional disciplinary boundaries of everything we learn and consequently bring about an overhaul of our education system.

Delhi University’s recent attempt may be a reflection of the growing perception of the deficiencies in our current education system, and in this light, their idea to introduce foundational courses, seems to be a positive step towards bridging the divide between the professional and liberal arts courses. However, the implementation and outcomes of such a programme remain to be seen.

Though the instrumental value of education today continues to influence people’s lives, its intrinsic value has been long forgotten due to the structure of the basic education system. Our education system propounds a strictly utilitarian approach which by implication makes the humanities appear as frivolous distractions. This has unfortunately resulted in more damage than good and prevented instilling in students the appreciation of a diversity in views and the acknowledgment of the power of thinking, thereby resulting in a limited increase in the quality of human resources.

The worth of a liberal education, thus ultimately goes beyond its instrumental role. Its true merit can be found in the tools it equips us with in order to lead an examined life and discover the profound richness the development of reason and empathy can bring to the quality of human life. But unless the market recognizes this, there seems to be little hope for the liberal arts.

Image courtesy: here, here, here and here.

(Diksha Sanyal is a third year student at NUJS, Kolkata and an Associate Editor at JILS)

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