No other age had witnessed such rampant transformations and contradictions that define the neoliberal age. It won’t be a far-fetched claim to make that we live in an age of updates – both technological and material – short-term innovations, unstable surroundings, fluctuating economies, and hence the subsequent need for a constant supply of creativity to stabilise things around us. Faced with the ongoing radical changes, how can education be left unaffected? A successful education model would be one that prepares learners for life while also inculcating and advancing critical thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and innovative practices amongst them. Put together these skills can be termed as ‘life skills’, a term also used by the NEP. Here, it needs to be emphasised that life cannot exist in isolation, it requires interaction and engagement with others, including society. All our modes of production, even the use of our knowledge is related to our surroundings.
The rise and proliferation of these extreme conditions have necessitated a turn to liberal arts education across India. From gaining knowledge and wisdom, we have arrived at the juncture where the need to cultivate and nourish life skills is prioritised by all prospective employers. A liberal arts education is tailor-made to cater to such pressing demands. Through an inclusive, multidisciplinary curriculum, it trains learners to look at life and existential crisis through multiple lenses and different perspectives. No wonder then, that Chip Manning, director of the Babson Center for Global Commerce, avers, “many of today’s leaders in commerce attribute their success to the critical thinking skills, effective writing and speaking skills, and study of the human experience that are the core of the liberal arts tradition.”
Education cannot be divorced from societal needs. It must be liberating, empowering, and address the (in)visible gaps and silences in our social structures. Hence, it is time that we turn from a reified idea of entrepreneurship to a more inclusive framework of social entrepreneurship. The immediate question that pops up is how do we think of social entrepreneurship at a time when we live in a “risk society”, a term that I borrow from the German sociologist, Ulrich Beck. The pedagogical framework of liberal arts and its wide-ranging yet integrated curriculum open up new vistas to the nuances of practical learning while also keeping learners updated to realign their skills keeping in view the changing contours of society. Although I agree that ‘practical learning’ is well-nigh impossible if our idea of education continues to be limited within the classroom boundary, the emphasis of liberal arts (provided one knows what liberal arts education is) on ‘experiential learning’ can be seen as a step towards bringing them somewhat close to the practical training.
Given the dire need for innovation in almost every walk of human life, the skill of ‘social entrepreneurship’ has certainly established itself as the much sought-after, making us cognizant of our social responsibility, commitment to mitigate climate catastrophe, and fulfillment of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Even the Human Skills Matrix by the MIT (US) identifies ‘social entrepreneurship’ as one of the ‘durable’ skills. When the future remains so uncertain and the changes rampant, it becomes increasingly important to hold society together. Liberal arts learners can innovate and come up with new business models that are not predatory but beneficial to society and the individual. The nub of the fact is that no matter even if the roles of our jobs change in the future, these life skills rendered by liberal arts, would not become obsolete. Societies, nations, and business models would continue their transactions through these skills. In fact, a few years ago, Google launched Project Oxygen and its findings concluded that, among the eight most vital qualities of its top-ranked employees, the expertise of STEM occupies the last rank. Therefore, it makes sense to sharpen our social entrepreneur skills in our liberal arts education journey if one aspires to become an innovative practitioner and visionary leader. Technology needs to be wedded to human skills to make innovation more inclusive.
For the opponents of liberal arts education who always question its viability and job prospects, it is advisable to look up what the figures have to say. A data released by the Niti Ayog Vice-Chairman, Rajiv Kumar mentions that “48% of engineering students in the country are unemployed.” (2021). Likewise, Juliet Bourke (Deloitte Australia), reinforces the vitality of skills such as empathy, creativity, teamwork, negotiation, and communication which would be more in demand in the future that is expected to be driven by a boom in machines and technology. A point can be made that we have arrived at that epochal moment where training in a single discipline or compartmentalised knowledge system has become obsolete. The recent massive layoff of software engineers by leading companies is just another example to quantify the arising vulnerability of engineering education.
This takes me to the major challenges that underpin liberal arts education in India. Having established two schools of liberal arts in India, and from my experiences of interactions and collaborations with colleagues from other Indian universities, I can convincingly underline that not many leaders/teachers in the Indian higher education set-up possess even rudimentary ideas of what liberal arts education stands for. The term has become so fashionable that almost everything and anything is being offered under the name of liberal arts education thus compromising and negating its potentiality. It is an irony that this rich education model that can be highly beneficial to our future generations has become a pedestal to sell vague, even distorted ideas of liberal arts. This dilemma reminds me of the inherent paradoxes of our modern age in which we have become both masters and slaves. As the famous South Korean philosopher, Byung Chul-Han maintains, “Instead of forbidding and depriving it [the present moment] works through pleasing and fulfilling. Instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.” Some of these institutions in India perform the same task, thus mocking the knowledge transfer skills that the Universities usually stand for, almost mistaking circus tricks as job skills and marketing gimmicks as rhetorics of a world-class institution. Only a handful of Indian institutions have been able to convincingly demonstrate the importance of liberal arts education for future learners/leaders. Also, leaving aside some exceptional moments, our much-eulogised Institutions of eminence are nowhere close to laying down a concrete pathway for liberal arts education. Is the Indian higher education system yet ready to cater the demands of the future? The confused state of affairs combined with our mediocre leaders in academia suggest otherwise. To redefine liberal arts education in India we need to turn towards social entrepreneurship and push for critical thinkers.
About the author: Om Prakash Dwivedi is presently a Visiting Researcher at Linnaeus University, Sweden. He teaches at the Bennett University, Greater Noida, India.