The Telegraph
Tuesday , January 21 , 2014
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Certain to be repeated in years to come, the Future of Liberal Arts and Science in India Conference — the first ever forum of its kind in India for open dialogue about the possibilities and challenges facing liberal arts education in India — adjourned in early January. Speakers and attendees addressed many issues, some of which related to teaching methodology, others to how educators can approach the severest social and environmental problems facing India today: “How can Indian higher education better reflect the full richness of India’s culture?” and “What does it mean to be a teacher/ scholar at a liberal arts college?”

Rarely, however, were the questions that framed the conference theme confronted directly. The reason for the open-endedness of issues was quite clear: among the 60-odd attendees were researchers and professors in the humanities disciplines: history, literature, sociology, business, anthropology, philosophy, amongst others. Certain presenters came from more unexpected backgrounds, considering the conference theme: astrophysics, electrical engineering, medicine. Less, but still in considerable attendance, were CEOs, business sector leaders, entrepreneurs, NGO founders and chairpersons, university deans and department heads, finance consultants and business strategists, journalists, and a few curious visitors without nametags. The conference was a hodgepodge of honorifics and credentials, activists for social causes and advocates for scholarly research. And it began and adjourned on two very different notes, maybe most easily understood at the crossroads of two major topics: education and social justice.

The history of both terms is too distant and too complex to define in broad strokes. But the depth of these words can be examined in respect of one another in the narrower context of the future of liberal arts in India and, even more specifically, by looking closely at two ends of a spectrum: first, social justice as promotable by a liberal arts institution of higher education; and second, social action based on liberal arts education and research.

Many higher education institutions have departments and centres devoted explicitly to social justice causes. In the United States of America, for instance, universities such as University of Massachusetts, Brandeis University, Arizona State University, University of Colorado, Loyola University Chicago and University of Texas are all committed to a particular strain of social activism which allows students to take courses or obtain degrees in fields that directly respond to pressing human rights and environmental problems. Such universities, by offering degrees in these specific subjects, take a risk: when news of one major injustice or other comes about, which runs counter to the social justice-based mission promoted by the institution, the place and the people in it may be shunned for their direct participation in highly sensitive political subjects. A very recent case of this problem — indeed a highly troubling one — involves the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israeli universities and institutions.

When organizations like the ASA, an academic association of approximately 3,800 members, declare an academic boycott as a strategy for taking a stance on a social injustice — in this case the Israeli occupation of Palestinians — then the liberal arts has failed to be all it can be. Scholars who understand that there are infinite complexities at the core of every society and problem, and that their task is to unearth new ways of approaching highly complex issues — such as those plaguing Israel — are being told that their work is valueless, lest they leave the country in which they were born and moreover actively condemn its policies. Even if their research specialization is the far removed subject of medieval English poetry, even if they teach courses on the history of Islam, the openness of their research and the solutions they propose are now considered disposable. On a positive note, several academic representatives — primarily university presidents, but also a number of associations of scholars — have in essence boycotted the boycott. This seems a futile endeavour but perhaps a necessary one, at least for keeping up support for Israeli and Palestinian scholars who have made serious contributions to all disciplines in the liberal arts.

And there’s more: because liberal arts academics are determined to find meaning in the darkest corners of thought, experience, communication, and texts, they devote themselves to this task for decades, sometimes far beyond the point of retirement from teaching posts. Organization theorist, consultant, and professor of management science Russell L. Ackoff published until his death at 86. Literary critic Geoffrey Hartman published into his late seventies. He is still travelling across continents to give guest lectures at 85. At 83, the German literature scholar and memoirist, Ruth Klüger, travels between Europe and the US, presenting her recent publications and giving lectures. And it seems that these liberal arts scholars do what they do because they can’t imagine doing anything else as stimulating, challenging, and transformational.

One university advancing the cause of liberal arts education is Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California. As part of a consortium of colleges collectively named Claremont Colleges, Claremont McKenna represented itself at the Future of Liberal Arts and Science in India Conference. Similar to several liberal arts universities in India, Claremont McKenna’s mission, stated on its website, is “to educate its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions, and to support faculty and student scholarship that contribute to intellectual vitality and the understanding of public policy issues”. In the context of India, one might add to this mission the importance of choice for its students. The new interest in liberal education in India is as much about giving young citizens in India the power to determine their life’s course as it is about sending energized, intellectual, critically-thinking minds into the country’s broader job sector. Encouraging the freedom of choice in the lives of all high school graduates is vital to the success of liberal arts education. With the ability to make decisions carefully and constructively, regardless of their majors, university graduates will be even further equipped to tackle issues related to social justice and activism.

After all has been said, what we might consider is this: social justice holds a critical place in the liberal arts, for it is those researching and working towards understanding and explaining the very concept of social justice in complex societies who will create the most effective frameworks for active participants on the mission for a more just world, whatever that may mean to specific individuals. The scholars who work tirelessly to put issues into historical, economic and social contexts — from illiteracy of women in Bangalore to the dire state of children in foster care systems around the world — are indeed participating in their own way in every branch of social activism. Those opposed to the so-called elitism of serious academics working in fields that relate directly to human experience might consider the possibility that by asking questions, endlessly and exhaustively, the liberal arts will come to play a solid, if not central, role in making change.

Roger Smith, CEO of General Motors from 1980-1991, made an important claim about liberal arts in higher education. He wrote that people trained in the liberal arts “learn to tolerate ambiguity and to bring order out of apparent confusion. They have the kind of sideways thinking and cross-classifying habit of mind that comes from learning, among other things, the many different ways of looking at literary works, social systems, chemical processes or languages.” Those with liberal arts backgrounds, Smith is suggesting, are also skilled at finding common points of understanding, and even, perhaps, redefining the very concept of “social justice”. What is required for this, then, is trust from both ends: trust in scholars to construct methods of thinking and analysis that is useful for the goals of social justice, and trust in social activists to accept scholarship openly, and to utilize it to do the honourable and admirable work that they do.