What to make of the popularity of Liberal Arts in India?


On the surface, it's a paradox: As the fortunes of political liberalism decline in India, the popularity of liberal arts at the Indian universities increase. 

Indeed, one may see no paradox here at all: Indians, after all, are richer than they ever were since the independence. Also important is the professions of those sending their children to these university courses: More often than not, they have earned their money in business or employment in the private sector, unlike the government-sector parents that paid for most students only a generation ago. It's also true that some shiny new sector now offers employment prospects that were not there a generation ago: Private sector education, media and internet, international travel and tourism have all grown in size and stature. All these together may offer an explanation of why Liberal Arts are all the rage.

Except that it doesn't. The preference of Indian employers have not changed significantly and even if an engineering or business degrees are not strictly necessary for a job, they still tend to look for one as, mistakenly as it might be, they consider these proxies for focus, intelligence and hard work. Since admission in Engineering and Business courses are done through some kind of entrance tests, it is assumed that those who pass these tests have an extra edge over those who have not come through such a route. Indeed, with the unconstrained expansion of capacity, these tests now mean very little: The question papers are indeed fiendishly difficult, but as long as one manages not to get a significant negative score, s/he should be able to get through these examinations. But the myths around these examinations are a useful one, not least for the billion-dollar test prep industry that thrives on this, and the employers have not yet bitten the liberal arts apple in any significant way.

The gravity-defying popularity of Liberal Arts in Indian universities, therefore, depends on the two most unlikely factors. The first is easy to foresee: The increasing participation of women in Higher Education in India, particularly in the metropolitan areas. The rate of this increase is faster than the growth in male student population and liberal arts courses often have a disproportionate number of women. The same parent who would be quite upset if his son was to choose a degree in humanities is often very proud when his daughter gets an offer of a place at one of the liberal arts colleges. 

The second is related to the aspirations of Indian middle-class families to send their children away. For those families who foresee that they can afford to pay for an education abroad - and such searches often start with the United States - a Liberal Arts undergraduate degree looks like the right preparation to have. Just when the lavish lifestyles at US Liberal Arts colleges were being derided at playgrounds of the rich, the new Indian universities are keen on emulating exactly the same and offer their students a 'luxury' experience. 

There are other supply-side factors too. Private education entrepreneurs set up colleges and universities to feed India's IT services industries with a ready supply of manpower. Since the IT services industry has stopped growing in terms of headcount, the Engineering courses stopped being the straightforward thing that they used to be. Stuck with excess capacity, some of the private universities have moved on to capture the new niche of liberal arts, and Say's Law, that supply creates its own demand, has so far held. 

However, because of these factors, Liberal Arts in India can not be explained in terms of the current global conversation about Liberal Arts. That professions are changing and increasing automation is highlighting the need for human skills in the employee: But no such imperative is driving the liberal arts education. It also has nothing to do with a growing sense of identity and commitment: If anything, it's the opposite - a desire to leave the country - that drives the liberal arts education. And, finally, it's not an educational vision that drives most universities to offer Liberal Arts programmes; it's much more mundane - empty rooms to start with - that really drives the conversation.

It is important to see these developments in the context of India's educational history, where higher education had really grown as a colonial overlay and as an instrument to get government jobs and there was a clear home-school dichotomy where education on morality, values or social engagement was really left in the home's domain. The new surge of liberal arts education does not - mostly - challenge this division: Instead, an instrumentalist model of Liberal Arts, with all intended ironies, have sprung up in India. That this is happening in parallel with an increasingly assertive search of Indian identity and all sorts of traditionalist innovation in campus and curricula makes it even more interesting to study. That the students should be free to choose, when the state, the society and the school are increasingly prescriptive and authoritarian, is being reconciled by not settling for one or the other, but rather in a paternalistic accommodation of superficial choices and objectives without fundamental structural change. 

The point to ponder, however, if a fundamental structural change is possible. A liberal education, as it has been defined in Europe and the United States, is rooted in culture and institutions of the communities or countries involved. In other words, its historically defined. It's not really a clever ploy someone can 'instructionally design' overnight. I am, of course, confronted with such a task, and trying to recover myself from the despair of 'every country gets the education it deserves'. But then losing faith in human agency is not exactly befitting if one has to remain engaged in education, even though this task is, as it seems to me at this point, mammoth and perhaps without rewards.







  

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