Rethinking Liberal Education for a New India
But it's also a difficult enterprise. The Victorian empire was a pedagogic one and Indian education is steeped in the colonial tradition. Besides, it is also - in good imperial fashion - designed to be a fortress of the Babus, a safe haven of vested interests that brook no wayward commentary. It retained, despite all the great changes in the last seventy years, the tradition of imitating the West - as it took on itself the lofty goal of producing the worker-bees for the global economy. The interlocking traditions of subordination and imitation left no space for conversation. No one ever said - 'now that we made India, let's make Indians' - and the education just carried on as business as usual.
This, then, is my ambition - to construct a model of 'liberal' education with the aims of fostering civic imagination and economic leadership. However, I am trying hard to escape the terminology trap; leadership is often understood in a narrow commercial sense and liberal education is usually a mindless mimicry of what happens in America. A starting point of my enterprise is, therefore, to define what Indian Liberal Education shouldn't be.
First, a Liberal Education shouldn't be construed as a way of escaping India. This is exactly how liberal education is packaged and presented in India - a short-cut to America! This is why fancy schools that offer luxury housing and foreign professors for upper-crust students are propping up everywhere in India. It mimics the American experience by offering the opposite of what American Liberal Arts education is supposed to mean. It's a way-out rather than a way-in. An Indian Liberal Education should be one premised on engaging with India, not escaping it.
Second, on the other hand, a Liberal Education should not be an unthinking acceptance of tradition. Indian civilisation is thousands of years' old and an Indian must be comfortable in her skin. However, uncritical acceptance of tradition - when many of those traditions were really invented in the nineteenth century by the colonial administrators - is falling into the colonial trap all over again. Besides, there is nothing 'liberal' about falling into a 'not invented here' trap. There is nothing better to appreciate one's own culture is to be able to see it from the outside. Besides, and I keep quoting Kishore Mahbubani's observation of India being an open society with a closed mind (as opposed to China's closed society with an open mind) all the time, the point of liberal education should be first and foremost to open the Indian mind.
Third, a Liberal Education should not be Literary. This is the classic Macaulay tradition in Indian education, which made the mastery of literary English the crowning achievement. It was the English Liberal Education model minus the physical activities, sports and travel that came with it. That educational model produced Babus who 'talked like newspapers', a caricature much derided by Colonial Administrators themselves: To this day, one can see what this means in the language of PG Wodehouse loving Indians. Not verbal gymnastics but engagement with real people, understanding their lives and a commitment to the practice should drive the agenda of liberal education.
Fourth, a Liberal Education shouldn't be fragmented. It is not about throwing a bit of psychology, history, maths and management together. It's the opposite - freedom of enquiry and unity of knowledge! Besides, disciplinary commitments are important, as this is not about making a 'Jack'. Instead, the quest here is of a T-shaped individual, who has a wide perspective but also deep understanding and abilities in one or two areas of knowledge.
We must remember that the Liberal Education as it's practised in the West is an enlightenment project. Like any enlightenment project, it's informed by the assumption of a universal man, a common culture-free rational humanity. For far too long, this assumption went hand in hand with imperialism - and after decolonisation, this became the development mantra, that all countries will follow similar paths and go through similar stages to development. So, what's implicit is that the goal of every nation is to become like America (or Britain or France) and the liberal education is a tool for the elites of different nations to achieve just that. This is the challenge of an 'Indian' liberal education: How to accommodate the 'Indianness', culturally informed sensibilities often at odds with the project of the universal man, with that sense of progress? Because without such an aspiration, there is no leadership, no upturning of the global order and the prison at the bottom of the global value chain. The question we have to grapple with is whether one can have a model of liberal education without the homogenizing effect of universal culture.
Besides, there is the question of time. Globalisation and Automation have changed the world as we knew it and changed the assumptions about culture, identity and civilisation. There is no point in creating a new education that does not adequately deal with the real challenges and issues that confront us and indulge in some sort of search for truth. And, yet, one does not want to create an education imprisoned in the present: After all, we are drowning in false claims and unfulfilled promises and a liberal education should not be about latest models and fads. This, then, is the second challenge: How does one address the concerns specific to the present day without losing the sense of continuity and the big questions?
But these challenges are what makes the project interesting and worth my while. My initial approach, based around three pillars of practical, global and technological, has only had a restricted view of the challenges involved. However, these challenges have only broadened my perspective. What's better than this to keep my mind active and engaged at a time of lock-down, I am tending to lose the sense of the days and seasons.