The Project of 'Liberal Education'

The project of liberal education, as Professor Michael Roth of Wesleyan University memorably puts it, is to - Liberate, Animate, Cooperate and Agitate. 

Liberate, as Frederick Douglas put it - education made him 'unfit to be a slave'. This is the first object of a liberal education perhaps, to make a person free, so that he can never be a slave again. Animate, as Emerson and later Whitman will argue, is about discovering beauty by engaging with the world: With Education, suddenly, things that did not mean anything before, a painting, music, a building or a public square, may suddenly appear laden with meaning, full of history or promise for future. Cooperate, as Jane Addams described, because Education should allow one to see different points of views, and see, beyond the petty rivalries of everyday existence and make us see the commonalities of existence and form social bonds. And, finally, agitate, because liberal education, at its core, is a big Utopian project, predicated on making a world a better place, bringing forth change: It is the discontent with status quo, the unease with conventional wisdom and hand-me-downs, igniting the search of a better, fairer, way of doing things that define an educated mind.

Indeed, as noble as this may sound, this idea of liberal education has now been comprehensively discarded. The idea of employability, an agenda that governments in different countries have now passed onto colleges and universities, is centred around 'education for a job', the object of education solely being that of making the students fit to serve. Indeed, one may argue that 'to serve' does not equate enslavement and sure it is not the same: However, the lofty aims of being 'unfit to be a slave' are no longer important. At the same time, discovering beauty by engaging with the world seem to be an esoteric goal, reserved, it seems, for only the well-endowed. The consumer ethic essentially precludes such a search, but rather concentrated on accepting and, indeed, consuming what has been handed down. One does not have to search for beauty beyond one's drawing room and watching soap operas at an appointed time of the day should be enough to satisfy any aesthetic longing that one might have had, goes the formulation. Cooperation is also a feminine value, and has little space in the world of masculine competitiveness: A woman being a CEO, not a man connecting with others, is the story we want to tell. And, finally, a technical education, of the variety that is popular, is not about change but based on a certain unchanging view of the world. Despite the change the world rhetoric, of the kind one now sees in the business and engineering schools, the underlying motto of these proclamations is domination: It is either about finance eating the world or the software. We have had domination of one or another thing for far too long: It is freedom, variety and individuality that may represent a true change rather than domineering everything with one tool or the other.

So, liberal education, despite its lofty and beautiful rhetoric, is somewhat out of favour: In the nations with a colonial past, the term 'liberal' in Liberal Education evokes domination, and reminds one of the doctrine and methods of imperial education (which did just the opposite of the ideals enumerated above). It is seen by the conservatives as a libertine confusion and by the revolutionaries, a worldwide conspiracy to keep enslaved people enslaved. And, indeed, the whole liberal education project seems like a luxury thing meant for rich kids, who can afford not to think about a job and pursue beauty and the like instead.

However, in liberal education, I shall argue, lies our great hope - that education can help create better societies. Over the last two decades, the technical education provision there was expanded rapidly, with most people studying business or engineering because that was deemed to be needed by a rapidly industrialising society. But, as it transpires, this has left the society impoverished, lacking not just responsible citizens, but also impaired the students from anticipating the rapidly changing job market and be able to lead and participate in the opportunities as they appear. Indeed, this is not an argument to reverse provision of vocational education: That would be problematic. However, the point is that even the vocational education itself should be informed by the project of liberal education: Rather than being a preserve of the rich, creativity and imagination must now be democratised.

The idea will be to create good undergraduate vocationally focused programmes, on business, technology and the like, which is grounded in liberal education thinking and training. One can draw its inspiration from the Carnegie Foundation's work on Undergraduate Business curriculum, which argues that this shouldn't be seen as a Mini-MBA, but should be thought of and constructed with a liberal education base, preparing the students to prepare for a changing world with diverse constituents and demands. The right education for our age should marry competency based education alongside a liberal education core, demolishing the artificially constructed differences between vocational and 'Higher' education: To be successful in our societies, one must be able to do things as well as imagine, unlike in earlier ages.

So, the project of liberal education must be liberalised. It is time to shed the label, liberal, and make it the core of all education projects: Indeed, we can't afford an illiberal education anymore.


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