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The Indian liberal arts renaissance

Higher Education


The Times of India

In the decade to come, the Liberal Arts will undergo a renaissance in India. Why? “Liberal Arts” has meant different things at different times and in different places. In classical Rome, it was a set of elite skills (or “artes”) considered indispensable for all elite free male citizens (or “liberales” ) who — in contrast to women and slaves — were expected to engage in debates on matters of public importance. Over time, the core skills of grammar, rhetoric and logic were supplemented by geometry , arithmetic, music, astronomy, history, poetry, ethics and classical Greek. Until the middle of the 20th century, t h i s remained the d o m i n a n t model of Liberal Arts in the West: social elites were expected to have a broad-based training in many subjects.

In post-Independence India, however, the elitist model of the Liberal Arts has been largely superseded by another vision of education. This vision has its roots in the supposedly more inclusive school system introduced in Britain at the end of World War II, which offered free education to all. A version of this British model was imported to India, where training in a single prestigious vocation — engineering, law, business — became the raison d’etre of most top universities.

In the US, the Liberal Arts model has had a longer life. After World War II the G. I. Bill made education much more widely available to the public at large. A Liberal Arts education was no longer a privilege of the social elite but a universal right.

But how quickly things change! In the US, the sharply escalating cost of education has coincided with demands to make undergraduate programmes more vocationally-oriented. The traditional Liberal Arts curriculum is under pressure as students, often having to pay more than $250,000 for an undergraduate degree, opt early for professional courses of study that, promising to lead to well-paying careers, supposedly justifies such exorbitant fees. By contrast, several new Indian universities, and one or two old ones, have started to offer multi-disciplinary curricula at a fraction of the price charged by their US counterparts. And we can expect many more to follow suit in the years to come.

No matter how high the scores of graduates from supposedly top-notch IITs and IIMs, they often lack the requisite skills of communication and intellectual versatility — the ability to approach a problem from several angles — that employers value. And when job security is no longer a lifetime right and people often have to change fields and adapt their skills many times in their careers, a course of study that offers training for a single vocation seems myopic at best and dangerous at worst.

The old Liberal Arts model of education, with its multi-disciplinary emphasis, suddenly looks relevant again — especially if it is no longer just a privilege of the elites but rather an option for all Indians. Whether this new embrace of Liberal Arts will lead to a democratic flowering of Indian education or yield to the dominant model of single vocational training, only time will tell.

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