Rethinking Liberal Education for a New India


It's not often that I get to do things I like, but, as it happens, the lockdown came with a little gift. I was asked to develop, by an Indian entrepreneur with a strong commitment to education, a framework for a Liberal Education for one of his schools. And, as a part of this exercise, I was asked to develop a critique of Indian Education, if only to set the context of the proposal I am to make. 

I claim to have some unusual - therefore unique - qualification to do this job. I am, after all, an outsider in all senses. I have lived outside India for a long time, but never went too far away, making it my field of work for most of the period. I have also been outside the academe but never too far away: Just outside the bureaucracy but intimately into the conversations. I worked in the 'disruptive' end of education without the intention to disrupt and in For-profit without the desire for profit. Along the way, the only thing I consistently did is study education and education systems, eventually finding my niche as a historian of education. It remained my stated goal and sincerest desire to find my way back to an ever-closer engagement in India and therefore, this engagement was right in that sweet spot.
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.

However, that is exactly the enterprise India is embarking on right now. Seven decades into Independence, the question is being asked about its meaning. The Republic of India was a great utopian experiment, an unparalleled leap of faith into a democracy of the poor; yet it was a conservative venture and without the aspiration to build a new nation. It was based on the assumption that India was always there and the submission of its citizens to a paternalistic state. Its citizens were never invited to do more than turn up to polling stations when they were asked, pay their taxes and dutifully maintain the social roles defined during the colonial era. But this happy enterprise is coming to an end - there were troubles in the paradise ever since the 80s but it has really come to a head now - and all sorts of different imaginations about what the society and the polity should be are in play. In the absence of debates and conversations, this has become a time of breaking. 

It's condemned to remain that way without a corresponding educational imagination. There is no republic without an educated, interested and engaged public - and India, a democracy where everyone has a vote, has to mount an enterprise many times the scale of the American Republic in the mid-nineteenth century. Also, India's political redefinition will eventually, require an economic redefinition: To match the aspirations of its people, once they have been reengaged in nation-building, it has to reappraise its role in the global economy and seek to escape the prison at the bottom of the value chain. Like Japan and China before it, it has to imagine beyond the 'make in India' and bring about 'made in India'.

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.
Five traps to avoid

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. 

Fifth, a Liberal Education shouldn't be about Soft Skills. It is perhaps important to find economic justifications for everything and education for its own sake when it costs quite a bit of money isn't very appealing. But the narrow argument that Liberal Education is all about getting soft skills the employers need makes both the mistake of taking the argument too far and not being ambitious enough. Liberal Education, so far as it makes one comfortable with one's own self, should allow the individual to lead, confidently yet humbly; that's not about fitting into one competency framework or another, but rather being able to define the future and to imagine one's own trajectory. Besides, the temptation to justify Liberal Education in terms of skills often leads to making it too literary.

An invitation to imagine

However, creating a model for Liberal Education is not just about the mistakes or shortcomings currently prevalent in what goes on as Liberal Education (or Liberal Arts) in Indian universities. The new model must also go beyond the Anglo-American 'classical' liberal education model and redefine this for the Indian context and our time.

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. 


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