A liberal education for India

The surprising popularity of Liberal Education

Just as Liberal Arts colleges are closing in the United States, in Asia, Liberal Education is the new hot thing. 

Most surprisingly, in India, a country where university education was created as a gateway to government jobs and where students, especially male students, pursue formal education for the sole purpose of employment, Liberal Education is suddenly very popular. Private universities, whose fortunes are closely tied to their students' earning potential, are surprisingly keen on liberal education, as they seek to follow the example set up by Ashoka (and a few others), an US-style High-End liberal arts college set up at great expense by a group of Indian entrepreneurs.

One could say that this is not surprising and India is following a path China has followed for some time. Or, for that, even Japan. It may be a common trend that (as in Japan), Engineering and other disciplines draw most high calibre students in a poor country with limited opportunity, but as the economy matures, capabilities grow and consumers demand more, liberal and aesthetic education become more popular with the students. 

But, India is not rich - at least not yet - and its economy is neither mature nor have vaulted up the global value chain. Its middle class still earns very little - its GDP per capita is one-fifth of that of China - and the labour market value proposition of a liberal and aesthetic education is still unclear. And, besides, India, after China's example, value economic prosperity over democratic capability building, and more engineers, rather than liberal arts graduates, it should need. 

So, the surprising popularity of Liberal Education needs to be traced back to a few peculiar Indian predicaments. 

First, the country is somewhat stuck in the global value chain: It is trapped in a middle-income trap without being a middle-income country! Its strange development trajectory, of fast prosperity of an English speaking, technically qualified urban middle class, has created a two-speed country: 'Islands of Silicon Valley type prosperity in the middle of vast landscapes of sub-Saharan poverty'. It is this middle class, which is desperate to differentiate themselves and if possible, get out of the country, is driving the demand for Liberal Education. This 'upper-upper' middle class wants to get out of the country and fast: Therefore, a brand of liberal education, the sort that focuses on polite conversation and how to hold knife and fork (as Benjamin Franklin saw liberal education), has become popular.

Second, but it did not stop there. The imitation effect, which always drives private education institution (because they are unconcerned with long term externalities and public considerations), has now developed a theory of liberal education for the masses. It is predicated on the technological disruption of the workplace and the rise of 'relationship workers' instead of 'knowledge workers'. In this version, liberal education is not one without 'the end in mind'; rather, it is marketed as a surer way to career nirvana, a formula for success in the robot-dominated economy.  

Unfortunately, whatever the truth of both the propositions, limiting the scope of a liberal education to the art of polite speech or to drive it for the purpose of an as-yet-undefined employment prospect changes the nature of education provided. Hence, most (though not all) liberal education courses on offer in Indian universities are shapeless jumbles, a series of unrelated courses put together without any plan or purpose. 

Liberal education in search of a purpose 

One could argue that liberal education is education is for the purpose of itself and attempts to put a justification, that this would make one economically active, for example, would impose an instrumental character on even the most well-intended enterprises. However, this is argument whose time has really passed: It's not the educator who imposes a purpose of education but rather the society and the learners themselves. Within an aquisitive, instrumentalist society, not defining the purpose of an educational engagement is a recipe for chaos; as I argued, this is what one sees in liberal education schools across India, the lack of a clearly defined purpose means students studying merely to pass exams and get the degree and enhance their individual prices in the marriage market. 

However, it doesn't have to be this way. There are at least three reasons why Liberal education is desperately needed in India.

The first of these is historical. At the time of Indian independence, there was this assumption that India as a nation goes back many thousand years. However, the current landmass of the Republic of India was never a united political community, despite various cultural and economic linkages. So, the assumption of an Indian citizen, who was given the vote in the new Republic, was ahistorical, an ideal more than a reality. It's not unlike Italy, which shared a history and culture, but even after half century of unification, one had to say, "now that we have made Italy, we must make Italians." That 'making Indians' in the ideal of the Republic was a task left unattended. This should have been the first task of an universal liberal education.

The second is economic. The last two decades of integration with the global economy let the Indian policy-makers see its true nature: The 'global economy' is a post-imperial institution designed to keep every political entity - nation states - in their respective places in the global value chain. Indeed, it was very profitable for a few people in India for a limited period of time, but it has pushed the Indian economy and mindset in a psychological corner of permanent dependence. Being the 'global backoffice' is no longer a badge of honour when structures of work are changing and rewards are getting even more skewed in favour of a few winners. And, there is no escape: Any inversion of the value chain is enormously costly and beyond the wiles and resources of any private entity. The Hayekian world, where producers have no freedom but to conform to the structures of global value chain but consumers ecclectically enjoy the fruits of seamlessly integrated supply chains, has truly come to pass. Moving up this chain, as Indian producers now want the opportunity, is hard to achieve without first breaking the cognitive barriers imposed by the colonial experience. And, this Liberal Education could help do.

The third angle is cognitive and this is a well-rehearsed argument. There is nothing Indian about lack of originality in work, absence of sympathy, the inability to demonstrate basic ethical judgement or in conformity. And, yet, Indian institutions and enterprises are often plagued by all of the above. That Indian students do very well when given the opportunity, usually in universities abroad, to question, to create, to carry out exceptional professional work, should point to the soul-crushing instrumentality and conformity in Indian education. India has, ever since the creation of first English universities as agencies for government employment, been afflicted by illiberal education.

This last point, however, should also raise an important point: Liberal education is not defined by its content, but by its method. Throwing a few odd courses in philosophy and history in the mix would not make a liberal curriculum; it is how one teaches, assesses and sustains the communities makes liberal or illiberal education. Most Indian liberal education institutions miss this point: They throw in a few American-style courses in the mix and believe that they have offered a great liberal education curriculum.

Liberal education as a forward-looking enterprise

This confusion between content and method also makes the other great fallacy about liberal education: That liberal education is all about discovering India's past and should concern itself with disciplines such as philosophy, religion, history and the like.

It is worth clarifying therefore that liberal education, an education informed by the spirit of critical inquiry, emerged as a forward-looking enterprise, as an antithesis of scholastic education. Closely arguing textual interpretation is a method in liberal education toolkit, but this is to be done in the spirit of enquiry and criticism and not in deference to handed-down past and received wisdom. There are no, and nor should be, any sacred cows in liberal education. 

This again brings us back to the question of method. One needs to construct a curriculum of thought, history and culture to ground an education for citizenship building, but the point of liberal education is to translate this knowledge into everyday manners of engagement and wisdom through critical engagement. Why should I study this is a perfectly legitimate question in Liberal education - in fact, perhaps the most important question - and misty-eyed nostalgia about the mythological and the bygone isn't part of its rules of engagement.

Making sense with liberal education

The tasks of a liberal education is various (liberate, animate, cooperate and agitate - as I described in an earlier post) but I see liberal education as a sense-making tool in contemporary India. 

The liberal education that I am arguing about is not an antithesis of professional education, but rather its preparation. It's a method rather than a curriculum of study and hence, a strong case for liberal education doesn't mean banishing business schools but rather reimagining its method and purpose. If anything deserves tearing apart, it's the mindless imitation of American liberal arts that has taken over Indian education, producing the opposite of liberally educated individuals.

Modern life is complex. Often, living feels like living inside the Matrix, without control of our own realities. Contemporary India, as I often say, gives me the feeling of living inside a bad bollywood movie, which goes on and on, and the symbols and charades meaninglessly take over the field of meaning. Continuously making sense, as propaganda pervades everything and reality is bent to serve purposes of powers that be, is the only way to remain sane and remain human in the middle of this cacophony. This is what I see as the great project of a liberal education for India.












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