What a Liberal Education is not


India's new National Education Policy argues for a new Higher Education system, which will have a Liberal Education undergraduate curriculum at its heart.

This is great news. Globalisation since the 1990s shaped the Indian economy and particularly its service sector, which, in turn, shaped the priorities of the Indian Higher Education system. But, of late, populist politics in the Western nations and automation of work have started changing the shape of the global value chain. India, which banks its future on 'demographic dividend', must adjust to this emerging economic reality - and must construct a new model of Higher Education alongside. 

But, while we should welcome the commitment to reimagine the undergraduate education, and free the Indian student from the Engineering fetish which has stunted a generation, it's important that we don't just mimic some American formula of Liberal Education. We must keep in mind that in the United States, Liberal Education colleges are failing and there is an ongoing debate what Liberal Education means and how it should be imparted. Assuming that a Liberal Education undergraduate programme can be bought off-the-shelf (or, in Desi style, cut-and-paste) would be a huge mistake.

Hence, what a 'Liberal Education' isn't would be a good place to start this conversation.

First, a Liberal Education isn't a passage to America. In India, several new universities have been created to service the nouveau rich, which offer American style liberal arts curriculum alongside a luxury campus experience. These are designed as an appropriate preparation for young Indians wanting to flee their poor homeland. These copy the ivy-league style and often work with the admission departments of top universities. However, they offer an education that Americans themselves are increasingly questioning. In fact, Benjamin Franklin mocked this kind of education, 250 years ago, as one limited to dining table etiquettes. Whatever these universities are offering, they are no models of Liberal Education to follow. 

Second, Liberal Education isn't a traditional education. Nehru is a bad guy in today's India and quoting him isn't likely to be popular: But he did question why we have eyes in the front of our head if we all we have to do is to look back for every answer. The NEP makes a big deal about the traditional Indian 64 kalas (and 14 vidyas) though it did not really spell out why a modern undergraduate student may need to learn jugglery (indrajal), preparation of wreaths (Malya grantha vikalpa), reciting verse for verse as a memory skill (Pratimala) and the like in the curriculum. Even if we concede that a cultural education is an integral part of a liberal education (without doubt, it is), it is not about accepting whatever has come before in their face value. If anything, the idea of questioning would be central to any type of liberal education - that's exactly what makes it liberal - and hence, if the framers of the NEP have been looking to create graduates who would obediently memorise and follow instructions, they have used the wrong label.

Third, Liberal Education is not a literary education. Of course, modern liberal education may have its roots in philology and instructions in language and literature play a major role in it. But liberal education - built around the model of European classical scholarship - was always meant to be the opposite of a scholastic education, of the model where students and professors spent days in disputations about the scripture and other received ideas. Liberal Education's starting point is 'daring to know' - a search for new knowledge! Literacy plays a big role and rhetorical competence is indeed the marker of a good liberal education, but if we can't go beyond that, we may have a nation of sophists ('persons with clever but false arguments').  Last time I checked, India doesn't need any more of that.

Finally, in the absence of a clear definition, Liberal Education is conceived as a bit of everything. A superficial mimicry of American model may certainly make one believe so - a sort of a multicuisine buffet! But the point of liberal education is to explore human existence and transcend disciplinary boundaries. The fragmented view - a bit of everything - is the opposite of the search for unity of knowledge. In fact, a bit of everything - the content-led view - defies the central premise of liberal education - to start with a question. It is about understanding one's nourishment needs than eating whatever is on the buffet, if we want to extend the analogy further.

India does indeed need liberal education. It has to not only escape its predefined position in the global value chain - provider of service labour - to claim its rightful, and once-great, position as a intellectual nerve centre, a society that contributed enormously in advancing the human civilisation. The intellectual abilities of the Indian graduates have to be unshackled not just from the structures of liberal globalisation, but also from the imperial heritage that lives on. But this will not be achieved simply by banishing English or replacing the Euro-American texts with traditional Indian ones. One disabling legacy of colonial education is how we educate: Colonial educators, as they put the then revolutionary texts of Burke, Bentham and Mill on the curriculum, were very careful in cultivating a reverential engagement with the texts. For their students, they made words printed in English language equivalent to scriptures. This needs to be swept away with a culture of empowerment, questioning, debate and intellectual creativity. This would be the primary task of a new Indian Liberal Education.

 

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