A Liberal Education For The 21st Century: A Practical Education?

In earlier posts, I wrote about my current exploration of possibilities of a Liberal Education for the 21st Century (See A Liberal Education For The 21st Century and A Liberal Education for India). For last several years, I have been looking closely at the Education-to-Employment (as well as Education-to-Enterprise) transitions, a territory far removed from Liberal Education ethos and conversations, but the main lesson I took away from this work is that what we offer now is too narrow an education, and the solution of the talent problem - the challenge employers are facing in finding the right talent as technologies disrupt industrial business models - lies in broadening the scope of education. The other part of my life, study of the history of the education systems, emphasised the point further: A narrow education at a time of great technological change can turn a 'demographic dividend' into an unmitigated disaster (See An Education for Decline). This is the background of my efforts to 'liberalise' education, particularly in India but also more generally across the developing world. This requires, at the outset, a deeper understanding of the nature and purpose of Liberal Education, which I intend to continue here.

While the case for Liberal Education is perhaps pretty clear at a time of great technical and social change, what's not so clear is if one could have a Liberal Education which is practical as well. In fact, 'Liberal' and 'Practical' are oppositional words in Higher Education. As Sheldon Rothblatt explained, since the 18th Century, Liberal Education was conceived as the opposite of 'Servile' Education, a preparation for mechanical trades and handicrafts, an education meant for the mind rather than the body. And, this idea is entrenched in Liberal Education, an enlightenment project. The scholastic curriculum in Cambridge, in Stuart England, would include practical arts such as agriculture and painting, alongside intellectual enterprises such as logic and rhetoric (Source: Rothblatt, Costello), but the Enlightenment changed all that, separating the two. Therefore, that a Liberal Education shouldn't be for a practical purpose is a foundational belief of Liberal Education, not to be changed at will. 

This also means that Liberal Education can not be for everyone. That was also very much the Eighteenth Century idea. A Liberal Education meant a longer period of study, demanding greater financial resources. It also meant late entry into the workforce, which few people could afford. So, like 'Practical Liberal Education', a 'democratic Liberal Education' is also an oxymoron.

This creates a puzzle. We are at a point in history where it's easy to see why one needs Liberal Education for practical work: Technology today has the power to replace humans from many trades and it is crucial for a great number of us to subordinate technology to our own creative will rather than being subordinated by it. A Liberal Education is ideally suited to enable us to do so. It is the same with democracy: We need a broad education, and the values that it gives us - critical thinking, openness, compassion - to maintain and strengthen our democracies. However, it seems that the models of Liberal Education are inherently opposed to becoming practical and democratic, the very purposes that we intend to employ it for.

However, while it was so, it doesn't need to be any longer. The eighteenth century world of free men and slaves is not the world we live in now; besides, technologies and regulations have changed the nature of mechanical work, demanding a far greater level of sophistication even from the humblest of workers. And, now, it is coming for those who do intellectual work. And, indeed, our ideas of privilege are different too: Most of us don't necessarily live in countries ruled by Kings and Queens (though I do in one), and there is no longer any divine right to rule for anyone or any group of people. Democracy is still imperfect, but it is an established fact, and that everyone, regardless of Gender, Religion, Race or Property Ownership should have a vote has been established. The ideas of Liberal Education may not have changed with time - there is a die-hard elitism somewhere ingrained - but the climate of opinion and technological environment have both changed.

And, indeed, there lies the opportunity to liberalise and create a new kind of education. The Nineteenth Century had changed Liberal Education ideals significantly - subjecting intellectual enquiries to examinations and measurements, developing wide ranging professions and rapidly establishing universities and expanding student numbers - a project that has been completed with grand success, and complete undermining of the original claim of freedom, by the beginning of the twenty-first. The old claims do not suit the new realities anymore, though many people still cling to the old claims for everything else lacks authenticity. But there is absolutely nothing common with the Liberal Education of the 18th Century and what's on offer in the shiny new campuses in Asia today, except the claims: This now needs to change.

There are plenty of ideas to help construct the new ideal. A Liberal Education may be open-ended, but this does not mean disconnection from life: Rather, one would need engagement with nature and other people to really understand the world. It does not have to be expensive and long-winded: Rather, this is the big space for education innovation, and creative funding arrangements. Yes, Liberal Education must be grounded to culture, but that doesn't make it parochial. And, it necessarily have to be global, but that does not necessarily have to be rootless. Finally, it should not mean an oppositional relationship with technology, but rather this should be quest to explore technology for human purposes. 

Useful Reading

Costello, William T, Scholastic Curriculum at Early Seventeenth Century Cambridge, (1958), Harvard University Press, Boston, Mas. 

Rothblatt, Sheldon, Tradition and Change in English Liberal Education (1976), Faber and Faber, London


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