A Liberal Education for the 21st Century

In the conference circuit, the most common complaint against Higher Education institutions is that they do not understand employer requirements. Thereafter comes the slide that cites either the World Bank or the World Economic Forum, or some neoliberal think-tank, and maintains that employers are, most crucially, looking for 'soft skills': Ability to communicate, collaborate, think critically and empathise with others. 

Languages hide as much as they reveal. In another day and age, one would call those very attributes human skills and recognised the problem as one of narrow education. And, this alternative perspective is exactly what we need: The problem is not that the education is not specific enough, but it is too specific. The Higher Education institutions, since everyone, students, their parents, regulators and governments have become outcome obsessed, are endlessly chasing 'employer requirements', in a world where the recruiters are always focused on the current quarter and technologies changing every 90 days, only to find out that the requirements are already obsolete before they have understood any of it. But the obsession is costing them the time and the energy to spend on what really matters - the human abilities and character of the student - only to find out that employers are complaining specifically about those attributes.

Indeed, the 'soft skills' is meant to be misleading. The label redefine big and fuzzy concepts, such as integrity or critical thinking, as 'skills', something that it could be easily, succinctly and immediately trained on. One educator boasted to me that they have added 12 new papers, one for each new 'soft skill' that one was required to have, into their curriculum: Students are required to mug up communication skills and write essays about collaboration and be certified for critical thinking, so on and so forth. And, never mind the word 'soft', there is a whole cottage industry of consultants and methods which are designed to define the indefinable and measure the immeasurable: Better still, since none of these measures are accurate and meant to work, one could even endlessly upgrade them to create upsell opportunities, providing a wonderful mechanism to create useless demand!

It is not at all surprising, therefore, that Liberal Education is back in the conversation. Particularly in the developing economies, where vocational relevance was the rage for last several decades, there is a sudden realisation that Higher Education needs a new format. In China, Liberal Education, despite its political awkwardness, is back on the university agenda. In India, where almost every male child (and many girls too) prepared for Engineering entrance examinations as they entered Secondary School and spent their whole student life thereafter mastering a technical discipline in the hope of an IT Services job, business leaders and expatriate academicians are collaborating now to create brand new Liberal Arts Universities. This is triggered by the structural changes of the world market, and the breakdown of the straight-line linkage between Engineering School and Backoffice jobs: Suddenly, the ability to speak to people is more important than testing lines of code.

Yet, most of this new conversation is really like the old conversation. What Liberal Education stands for is carefully shrouded in mystic. It remains an imported concept, boxed with the magic brand of one American university or another, there is little opportunity to critically think what critical thinking might mean. By design and execution, this is meant for an elite intending to engage in polite conversations: But the Third World elite never lacked Liberal Educational options: They went to best colleges in Europe and North America. The new conversation was meant to be really about making education liberal, and bring it up to speed for a twentyfirst century workforce in a country trying to find its bearings in the ever accelerating 21st century. The demand for Liberal Education is triggered by the need to take control of life, making technology work for the country rather than merely latching on the coat-tail of global consumption; but the models of Liberal Education, so far, have so far been much like the Luxury handbag market, repackaging Western labels at an outrageous premium. And, its effects are expected to be similar: Just like a person wearing a Jimmy Choo wouldn't want to walk on the streets of Mumbai, a person with the Liberal Arts degree from one of the fancy new colleges wouldn't want to engage in a conversation with uncultured countrymen, and would rather find her future in more polite societies.

Hence, there is a gap: A strong case for Liberal Education, an excited conversation about the same and a completely misdirected solution, at least so far. What's needed is a model of Liberal Education that corresponds to the social realities of the developing countries. Surely, a Liberal Education is meant to connect, rather than disengage, the learner with their societies. It is not an escape route to greener pastures but a mandate to stay and change. A liberal education, as opposed to a technocratic one, should enable them to look at what isn't there and ask 'why not' - a model not provided by the much-lauded Liberal Education Universities. 

This is what I wish to get engaged in, and I am looking for collaborators and colleagues to build a Liberal Education programme for India. The question I am asking now is what would a Liberal Education programme for 21st century India look like? Would the key propositions of a Liberal Education - that it would liberate the mind, animate the world, encourage cooperation and agitation for change - be valid for India? How should the relationship with technology be viewed, and how can one educate someone to shape the usage of technology rather than being shaped by it? A project close to my heart, I wish to initially create this as a Continuing Education programme, one that people can engage with along with their work activities, and then, at some point in the future, build a full-fledged college curriculum and campus in India.


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