Take a liberal view

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By BROAD OUTLOOK Employers are looking for job applicants who can think across many disciplines — and studies in liberal arts will increasingly gain currency in India, says Hemchhaya De
  • Published 7.03.13

The engineers and MBAs the Indian education system churns out are technically sound but tend to have a blinkered vision, experts say. So employers these days often look for plain graduates who have had a better-rounded or holistic education. Companies today look for employees who are socially aware, culturally sensitive and not focused on making money only.

While specialised education (engineering, medicine, management) is highly prized in India, ditching the arts or humanities in favour of highly technical curricula might not be a good idea. It might be a better idea to adopt ‘liberal arts’, an amalgamation of arts and basic sciences that seems to be gaining currency around the world. Make no mistake, liberal arts does not refer to only arts subjects.

What exactly are the liberal arts? The concept dates back to classical antiquity when artes liberales (Latin) meant the pursuit of those subjects which would make a person knowledgeable, a good communicator and an active participant in public life. In medieval times, the seven liberal arts included grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. In modern days, a typical liberal arts curriculum might consist of courses in literature, language, mathematics, scientific methods and principles, history, philosophy and perhaps public speaking.

“The humanities, social sciences and basic sciences that make up ‘liberal arts’ are fundamental to education itself,” says Supriya Chaudhuri, professor, Jadavpur University, Calcutta. “Just as mathematics is regarded as the queen of the sciences although pure mathematics has no utilitarian value, so too we must recognise that the liberal arts are the foundation of what we define as ‘knowledge’.”

The importance of a liberal arts education in today’s world cannot be overemphasised. “Such an education is important in a world that is experiencing a paradigm shift in global communications and information technology,” says Colette Mazzucelli, adjunct associate professor, Center for Global Affairs at New York University (NYU) and graduate faculty advisor, Fulbright Scholarship and White House Internship Programs, based in New York. “The study of history provides the context to understand how emerging powers experience globalisation in light of the internal challenges that exist, particularly in, say, mass poverty, public health, the HIV-AIDS pandemic as well as migration and internal displacement.”

She adds that the study of diverse languages is essential for students who aspire to careers in business, law and medicine as our world becomes more interconnected, leading to increased mutual vulnerability. “The global financial crisis of recent years is just one prominent case in point.”

While liberal arts has been around for some time in the US and Europe, it has never been offered in India. Indeed, in addition to dedicated liberal arts colleges in America, many US B-schools such as the Stanford Graduate School of Business are looking beyond just finance and accounting — and sprinkling their traditional MBA programmes with a liberal dose of arts subjects. In the UK too, liberal arts education has many advocates. “UK universities have always offered liberal arts degrees but recently there has been a trend to broaden the scope in their offerings,” says Rakesh Roshan, spokesperson, ISIS Innovation at the University of Oxford. “An individual with a degree in history working alongside an MBA student in leading consulting or financial businesses is not a rare sight these days.”

Oxford itself provides a very good example. A spinout company of the university, Oxford Multispectral Limited, is bringing to the market an invention by Dirk Obbink, a lecturer in papyrology and Greek literature. It’s a multispectral-imaging scanner developed in the university’s Faculty of Classics that can, among other things, expose forged artworks and highlight forensic evidence such as fingerprints and stains from body fluids. “Humanities could therefore play a significant role in innovation or entrepreneurship,” stresses Roshan.

To be sure, the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institutes of Management and Indian Statistical Institutes do offer a grounding in social sciences, in addition to their core courses. The liberal arts, however, are yet to find many takers in India. A handful of private colleges such as the Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts in Pune and the Apeejay Stya University in Delhi claim to offer degrees that have a mix of humanities and basic science subjects.

It is, however, the central government that is taking the most ambitious step to usher in liberal arts in its true form. The country’s first liberal arts university, the Tagore University for the Liberal Arts, will soon be set up in Pune under the Union human resource development ministry’s Universities for Innovation programme. “We have tried to imagine a ‘university of the future’ but without losing touch with the ground realities of Indian higher education,” says Chaudhuri of JU. She is the chairperson of the committee that has just submitted a 7,000-word “concept note” on the planned university. “We have been asked to continue advising the university through its inception and development, but we should remember that the university has not yet been set up. This can only be done under an Act of Parliament.”

The committee in question also has on board former home secretary and ecologist Madhav Gadgil, historian and author Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani, professor, King’s College, London, and other eminent professors.

“We have proposed a single-campus, non-affiliating unitary university admitting students from all over India and abroad, fulfilling Tagore’s internationalist vision in the composition both of its student body and faculty,” says Chaudhuri. “The university will be a secular, democratic, and open space, promoting artistic creativity, scientific discovery, innovation, and critical thinking.”

But first, experts point out, the mindset regarding liberal arts education needs to change. “In universities and colleges, it is not easy to miss the fact that college students and aspirants are made to believe that studying liberal arts could be a waste of time,” says Roshan. “In most cases, students end up studying liberal arts subjects only after exhausting all other options.”

It’s time too our Indian authorities stopped laying inordinate emphasis on technical education. “It’s true that the Nehruvian vision of scientific and technological advancement led to a privileging of engineering and other disciplines over the basic sciences and the arts,” says Chaudhuri. “Over time, and through changes in the global economy, there was also a demand for finance and management courses. I think it is time to reverse these priorities.”

“Humanities are crucial for development of critical and creative thinking and many employers now look for job applicants who can think across multiple disciplines,” says Prithijit Lahiri, zonal in charge, strategic relationship, Future Sharp Skills, which is setting up skill academies in association with the National Skill Development Corporation.

Lahiri adds numerous studies have shown that a vast number of Indian technology and B-school graduates are unemployable, thanks to an appalling lack of analytical thinking abilities. “Therefore, it’s imperative that Indian colleges and universities encourage or buffer up multi-disciplinary courses with a strong emphasis on humanities.”

In short, there’s more to life and society than numbercrunching.