A Liberal Education for India

 The conversation in India has now turned to liberal education. About time, one would say, to recognise a major problem - that the education became too vocational, too narrow and too focused on jobs that don't exist anymore - and do something about it. As the great Indian engineering machine that produced millions of graduates with an overtly theoretical training and pushed them into various IT services companies doing process jobs stuttered, the desperate search for alternatives led to the discovery of liberal education. Like all Indian 'education thought', this idea of Liberal Education came from the vocational angle, imported from North America in style and content, and without much thinking about its purpose and context. Only now, when the graduates of the new Liberal Arts colleges reaching the job market, and endorsements from leading corporations and celebrity intellectuals making it an attractive proposition for private investment, which is driving the expansion of the offerings.

Before we explore the form and content of this Liberal Education phenomenon, however, it is worthwhile to clarify that the noise does not indicate action. The news stories about new Liberal Arts colleges opening indicates not that it has become a trend, but rather they are still relatively rare and an opening of one still makes the news. Some stricken engineering colleges and failing new private universities are indeed embracing Liberal Arts as the mantra of salvation, but it is yet to become any movement. And, besides, the liberal arts they embrace is anything but liberal, being a strange hotchpotch of American label put on a colonial curry, and without aspiration to anything but to get some students who have lost faith on the Engineering-as-salvation.

Equally, it will be a mistake to write off the conversation about liberal education merely as a fad. Even if the approach is too simplistic, there is a conversation about the supposed shortcomings of Indian education for once. It may seem rather strange to outside observers, who may think that the shortcomings of Indian education are self-evident, but it is an acutely sensitive topic in India. Being self-critical isn't one of India's strengths, and a defensiveness about the education system predated the recent swell of national chauvinism: Any conversation about how India could improve its education system was met with derision, followed by claims of India's ancient, and by extension, perpetual, greatness and suspicion that such criticism is a pretext of outside interference.

Indeed, if anything, the failure of great Indian back-office project has made such defensiveness more entrenched. But the apparent failure to produce middle-class jobs, as the expansion of IT services jobs are halted and some Indian jobs start going abroad, has allowed outside perspectives to be taken slightly more seriously. The Indian tendency of hating outside advice but loving McKinsey (and any other Consultancy with a Western name) has allowed the discussion to open, if only in the limited context of placement opportunities. Yet, there was the usual protest that education shouldn't be about jobs - notwithstanding the apparent absurdity of business schools and engineering institutions making the point - and the dismissive classification of all such discussions as 'future trends', a good conference topic but not an action agenda.

Outside the vocational argument of making education less vocational, there are two other trends reinforcing the search for a liberal education. The first is the social breakdown, set off by rising unemployment but manifested differently - in rising crime, vigilante politics, an explosion of crimes against women, so on and so forth - which is posing an urgent question about the nature and purpose of education. This linkage, it is true, is rather intellectual and limited to chattering classes, but the trend has shaken them up from their usual indifference about education for the masses and put the issue squarely in the eye of the storm, on their teacups! The other is a general crisis of identity, not limited to intellectuals and not manifested in neatly turned out reports, but as real - emanating from the breakdown of families, increased migration, a breakdown of the employee-employer contracts etc: This is creating a new, welcome, conversation about the nature and purpose of education. Together with the call-to-arms for the vocational imperative and the upper-class disgust at the breakdown of social norms, this general crisis of identity, prevalent among the young and the old alike, has created a somewhat irreversible case for a turn to liberal education.

That it doesn't have a shape yet is fine: There is no ready-made formula to shape the educational ideal of a country like India! In fact, in this regard at least, predetermination is a bigger problem than the usual Indian chaos. The North American models have been embraced in some cases, but this was done all too readily and without the necessary debates and validation. Throwing in an Indian Civilisation 101 isn't the only contextualisation needed for a populous country at the crossroad of chaos and greatness. Notwithstanding the claims of American education thinkers, American Liberal Arts is a very American heritage, shaped by the country's own historical experience and the cultural experiences of the settlers and its leading men. Silicon Valley may have laid a claim on universalism, but the American Higher Education is not culture-free; and India, equally, can't get its model without first discovering its own philosophy of education.

To this, the discussion about liberal education for India must turn. For me, the necessary ideas may not be created ex-nihilio, but to be found in the history of Indian Education, and particularly in the foundational narrative of the current, British inspired, Indian education system. There is much to be gained in studying how the Indian indigenous system of education was replaced, and how the ideas about a new education system were shaped. There was much debate, between those convinced of primacy of a British model, those who sought to shape a system purely for vocational reasons and those who wanted to preserve the Indian tradition and heritage - and particularly, those in the middle, who argued for a 'liberal' model, one shaped by openness to ideas but grounded in the context of Indian history and culture. These were foundational debates, that explains why we have what we have, and my attention is therefore focused on the debates of the Nineteenth century (and, as a separate project, those of the early Twentieth century, when a National Education movement confronted the Nineteenth-century ideas). This is very much a work in progress, but I would continue to write about this work as my research progresses.




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