The case for liberal arts universities in India
Rahul Sharma was extremely unsure of whether he wanted to pursue physics or psychology. On one hand, he knew that the future of neuroscience lay in Physics. On the other, he knew that psychology would fulfil his immediate goal of studying the mind . Giving to parental pressure, he opted for Physics, abandoning his dream to pursue Psychology.
This, the problem of choice, is perhaps one of the biggest problems plaguing higher education in India. While there are definitely bigger problems related to access to education, increasing tuition fees and outdated syllabi, this is the one that will make the biggest impact in the next few decades.One might argue that parental pressure and problems of choice are factors about which nothing can be done by the government and universities. Fortunately, the argument does not hold good, because the solution to this problem lies in one phrase: ‘Liberal Arts’.
For decades, the term ‘liberal arts’ has be used in India to describe the social sciences such as History, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, etc. While a liberal arts education might include the study of these subjects, to restrict the ambit of the term to just these subject is an act of unfortunate misinformation. The history of the term dates back to the Greek and Roman empires. Liberal arts or ‘artes liberales’ in Latin were those subjects or skills a person needed to know or possess in order to actively take part in civic life. These originally included logic, rhetoric and grammar. As time progressed, learning came under the purview of the church and the liberal arts were expanded to include music, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic. The former set of subject, called the ‘trivium’ and the latter, called the ‘quadrivium’, constituted the core of medieval university curriculum.
In modern times, the term has come to denote an education that focuses on the learner and gives him/her the freedom to choose from a huge set of courses, ones that match his/her interest and combine these to form a holistic learning experience. In the united states, most undergraduate college, even if part of bigger universities, are liberal arts college. These colleges give learners the freedom to study a number of subjects as ‘minors’ and one subject as a ‘major.’ The selection of ‘majors’ and ‘minors’ can be done over a period of time as a student begins discovering his/her interests. For example, a student might specialise in economics but also study physics, music and art history at the same time. The biggest advantage of this model of learning is that at the end of the four years of study, well-rounded, broad-minded individuals are formed.
These colleges are mainly found in the USA, but can also be seen in other parts of the world. While the concept still has not many takers back home, it is catching on. There exist a few liberal arts colleges in India that have come up in the past decade. Notable among these include the Foundation for Liberal And Management Education(FLAME), Pune, Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts, also in Pune, School of Liberal Studies at Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gandhinagar.
The most promising, however, looks the proposed ‘Ashoka University’ in Haryana. The university is expected to start functioning in 2014. The core members of the founding team successfully set up the Indian School of Business(ISB) in Hyderabad a decade ago. If the reputation and quality of ISB is anything to go by(It was ranked 20th worldwide in the latest ‘Global MBA Rankings’ by The Financial Times), Ashoka University will be able to deliver on its promises. The union HRD ministry has proposed the creation of the ‘Tagore University for Liberal Arts’ in Pune. While the future looks bright for liberal education, there is a need for more such universities.