Liberal Arts Education in India: The Past, Present and the Future

By Mimi Roy, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities

A solid well-grounded Liberal Arts education system in India is the need of the hour and is central to a twenty first century global imagination. From the last century, the United States education system has pioneered and sustained institutions with a focus on Liberal Arts education to create global leaders capable of solving intricate problems through rational and critical thinking. This has quite obviously resulted in American institutions on the top spots of World University listing while Indian institutions fail to grab a spot even in the top one hundred. The Indian higher education system has often been described as a “sea of mediocrity with a few islands of excellence”.

However the Liberal Education did have a presence in ancient Indian Universities including the Takshashila and Nalanda University. It was with the introduction of the fixed curriculum model of the British education system and the profound aspirations for professional degrees that the Liberal Education in India started to fade out from mainstream academia. As a result of this, Indian Universities have seen increasing number of students each year with technical degrees with a very unidirectional and focused mindset. A strictly vocational training is nonetheless not the need of the hour and some very thoughtful scholars have indicated that in this globalized post-industrial society a totally different skillset and mindset is needed for people to survive and succeed. These are the people with a deep sense of imagination and with a mind like a parachute that functions best when it is open. An exposure to a Liberal Arts education will help to reach this goal much easily.

What is Liberal Arts education? According to John Henry Newman, “The purpose of a Liberal Arts education is to open the mind, correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give its power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, and eloquent expression”. A Liberal Arts education allows us to extend our imagination, read widely, broaden our minds and understand a situation from multiple perspectives rather than being a conservative. The Liberal Education model is just not a model of survival and innovation, but also a model of institutional diversity. A Liberal Arts education promotes intellectual curiosity, helps in the process of creating knowledge in a range of subjects ranging from arts and humanities, social sciences to the natural and applied sciences. Thus, essentially a student in Liberal Arts study philosophy, anthropology, history, political science, literature, science, mathematics, business along with music, creative and performing arts. The Liberal education is a holistic education fostered to encourage creativity and independent thinking. A Liberal education contributes to personal happiness and also makes better and informed citizens with a sense of social responsibility.

Various surveys have revealed that in recent times, the corporate sectors find that only about one fourth of the graduates are truly ready to join a global work force. Looking deep into this problem it was only obvious that the pedagogy at most techno-institutions are not thought provoking and relies mostly on rote learning and exam based lock step methods. It has been pointed out at numerous occasions by our honorable President, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee that research should be at the core of any academic institution to succeed in its mission of empowering its students. But, unfortunately research is not encouraged or promoted in most of our colleges and universities particularly in humanities and social sciences. This has also resulted in a massive brain drain from our country to the western institutions. Without giving sufficient emphasis on the Liberal Education, we not only challenge the practical needs of the 21st century, but we also run the risk of our current and future generations not being able to understand the freedom of knowledge and the art of living happy.

Recently, Liberal Arts education has started gaining recognition in various parts of our continent. Various Liberal Arts colleges have opened up in Singapore, Japan, China, Hong Kong, and India. Most Liberal Arts education has an academic research based on strong pedagogy. The Liberal Arts curriculum incorporates the best of content, course and knowledge in terms of interdisciplinary and experiential learning, use of technology, and mentorship. All of this is inspired to attract young minds towards the best educational experience and to prepare them to be global citizens.

(The article was originally published in Higher Education Review)

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