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Liberal Education – A Game Changer

Liberal education has the dynamic potential to shape the next generation of leaders who are committed to the nation and who would work for the growth of the nation, without surrendering the freedom to hold their own point of view.

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For some time, a video message has been viral. 

It shows shoppers coming into an apparel store expecting wide range in latest designs but finding every dress in only black color and XL size. You can feel the palpable frustration in the cacophony of anger. Just then, we see young store managers come forward and calmly apologize and inform the store’s policy of ‘one color, one size’ only to the shoppers.

 ‘But how can you do that?’ asks the furious crowd. 

‘Why not? Just as you have been offering ‘one size fits all’ education to us?’ 

We are all witness to the mounting pressure on students from class 10 onwards - single minded devotion to preparing for entrance exam, long hours of extra coaching after school, a race for higher rank, and fervent prayers to the Almighty. Fast forward 15 years: most of them do not know why they got there in the first place. The result is disconnected employees. How would a class 10 student know what his or her interests are and how a choice will play out later?

We hear another, equally frustrating cacophony from industry: ‘the product of academia is not directly employable’. Industry needs creative problem solvers and socially sensitive individuals not unidimensional thinkers. 

The VUCA world has arrived. We remain immune because the old model still sells. We have made some cosmetic changes like introduction of soft skill courses, but they remain cosmetic.

The emphasis on multi-disciplinary education in the New Education Policy (NEP) announced on 29th July 2020, has an immediate appeal to many sections. But it is also leading to confusion in many others - one is not sure how disruptive the change would be and whether it will lead to jobs in future? How will it be implemented? And what happens to those who still wish to pursue hard core single disciplines? Why should professional institutions waste time on unrelated multi-disciplinary courses?

Well, we intend to unravel some of the ambiguity surrounding the multi-disciplinary education. And we speak from experience of founding such institutions.

The announcement of NEP at a time when academic institutions are fraught with pandemic challenges, is a prudent reminder of the VUCA world for which education must prepare students. The pandemic has also brought out the readiness level of institutions in handling change because the new policy would expect a greater preparedness for the transformational changes it proposes. COVID-19 notwithstanding, the systemic ‘volatility’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘complexity’ and ‘uncertainty’ noticed at the beginning of this century was an early alert. That future is upon us now and to ignore it is not an option. 

The growing research in Biotech (mainly brain research in decoding the complexity of human brain and its behavior pattern), Infotech, Artificial Intelligence, Data Analytics and Crypto currency are some advances that are going to disrupt the nature of jobs in near future and force us to reboot the way we live, work, or learn. It simply means that several jobs in conventional domains that we are sure of today, will disappear and many new opportunities in asynchronous fields that we cannot even imagine, will surface. 

The new jobs will require critical thinkers, social philosophers, and multi-disciplinary generalists who can decode complex problems and find innovative solutions. Therefore, the current product of academia, trained in a synchronous discipline, who might have found jobs in the past would be out of depth in the asynchronous world. Therefore, the goals of education must shift. The new context requires a robust system of education, competent to prepare the learner for agility, resilience, relevance, intelligence, and a survival instinct of a ‘migrant’.

Understanding the background of how and why education became unidimensional, will help in understanding the context of NEP. It goes back to India during 50s and residual effect of the Macaulay legacy. The Nehruvian era focused on massive nation-building activity which required technical skills. The response was greater emphasis on technical education and the birth of IITs. In 1990s came liberalization and the computers and, the creation of AICTE, in late 1980s, saw growth of engineering and management colleges. The opening up of professional education to private sector contributed to its exponential growth until lately when the employment market dynamics started changing given the pace of automation in the industry. The consequent effect was that education in Humanities & Social Sciences were relegated to the back seat because certitude of employment waned. That is how standalone institutions gained popularity. On the other hand, even if students desired variety, education system expected them to select a field of specialization quite early. Most students were confused. Instead of mapping their interest, ability and jobs, peer-pressure and social acceptance guided the choice. Education was reactive to the flow of history, not proactively guiding the events.

NEP 2020 is a self-reflecting policy churned out of India’s rich culture and restores pride in ancient wisdom that is relevant even today. It has shattered several myths and helped us discover our inherent strength. The architects of NEP 2020 have looked at the total value chain of education from primary to tertiary, including professional education and the mobius symbol aptly signifies the continuum. The emphasis on ‘multi-disciplinary’, credit bank and provision for entry and exit options are paradigm shifts and a game changer. It restores Humanities and Social Sciences to its due place of relevance.

Liberal Education: Philosophical Underpinnings, Content & Design

NEP refers to holistic and multi-disciplinary learning practiced in India at universities of Takshila and Nalanda and the study in 64 ‘kalas’ mentioned in Banabhatta’s work Kadambari. But we have no record of what happened between Nalanda era and the colonial period. Even in ancient Greece, the Philosopher King was trained in liberal arts, so were the sons of kings groomed at gurukul, except that these were both for elites. Current example of liberal arts can be seen US at the Ivy League universities and their renowned ‘seven sisters’. They have all been running successfully and have created time tested academic models for Liberal Arts with acknowledged outcomes. The concept of liberal arts is neither new, nor is its practice. It is simply a return to a system that flourished in India during the days of Nalanda and Takshila in a far more inclusive and updated version 4.0.  

Liberal arts and multi-disciplinary education are used interchangeably. Multi-disciplinary education is a part of the umbrella concept of Liberal Arts education. 

It is necessary to understand what do we exactly mean by this education and what does it entail? The term implies a ‘broad-based education that inculcates intellectual ability to understand ideas and beliefs; develops understanding of life and society; and creates holistic personality capable of ‘free’ (libre) thinking for oneself and the society at large’. Here the key word ‘libre’ means ‘freedom through understanding’, not unbridled thought. 

J. Krishnamurti, in his famous letters to schools, captures the idea as  “a concern with the cultivation of the total human being….(to) help the student and the educator to flower naturally…otherwise education becomes merely a mechanical process oriented to a career, to some kind of profession….but if we lay all our emphasis on that, then the freedom to flower will gradually wither.” 

Krishnamurti makes two points here. First, he puts student at the center of the learning (not teaching) process. The implication for the faculty is to first find out what do the students know about a topic; what do they want to know; how do they learn; and then providing a safe environment for interaction in the class. This will allow natural flowering of talent. The second point is the distinction between vocational education leading to a fixed profession versus liberal education with many options. NEP has suggested an integrated strategy - professional education will also have a component of relevant liberal arts courses; the operative word here is ‘relevant’, not randomly imposing unrelated subjects like Literature, theatre, music etc. Interest in them remain a hobby. Another positive move of NEP is to reinforce the importance of skill-based polytechnics by integrating them with main-stream undergraduate program in a symbiotic relationship – the academic program will learn application through practice and the polytechnics, thus enriched by the academics, will get opportunities for higher education. 

The parable of the ‘Elephant and the Blind-Men’ explains the perils of a single discipline thinking and the virtue of multi-disciplinary education. liberal education. As the story goes, the six blind men of a village, curious to discover what an elephant is, grab the part closest to them and declare that the elephant is a wall, a fan, a rope, a pillar and so forth – irreconcilable observations yet each is so convinced of his own version of reality that he fails to understand how others can think so differently!  

If the elephant signifies the complex world rife with equally complicated problems, trying to solve them through the monochromatic lens of a single discipline is akin to being a ‘blind man’. This is the logic behind introduction of holistic thinking of different disciplines. We live in a social system, not in an excel sheet or an algorithm and life demands holistic solutions e.g. demonetization without understanding the economics of informal sector workers or sudden lockdown without anticipating the sustenance issues of migrant workers are instances of unidimensional thinking. 

The true purpose of liberal education is to prepare the next generation for a life anchored in values and the intellectual ability to know the difference between truth and untruth; right and wrong, and to make choices based on truth and righteousness. In our observation, Liberal education is neither teacher-centric nor purely learner-centric, it is ‘learning- centric’. This can be achieved by embedding learning processes in the design that focus on the purpose of education rather than the objectives of education i.e. create a design that is responsive to following five learning processes: 

  1. To make visible what is invisible
  2. Articulate the unarticulated
  3. Own the disowned
  4. Act on the withheld action and
  5. Constantly replenish the self, others, and the system 

Essentially, the above processes ensure an environment of learning within which a learner can discover his/her calling, acknowledges the rich heritage and collective wisdom of centuries and, not succumb to aggression and divisive thinking in the guise of diversity and differentiation. These processes incorporate elements of self-discipline and civic discipline, and self-defense (also protecting others), and respect for cultural heritage.

This can be achieved through following multi-disciplinary buckets:

Knowledge based (60%) courses in Humanities (Literature, Philosophy, languages, Anthropology, Law, Politics & Fine Arts); Social Sciences (Sociology, cultural anthropology, History, Education, Psychology & Economics); and Sciences (all Formal & Applied Sciences)

Skill based (20%) courses in creative writing, film making, music, public speaking, writing, and argument building etc. The rationale behind the relative emphasis is the possibility of making up the skills, as required in future. 

Experience based (20%) courses in Life skills, exploratory field visits and, research projects etc. 

Each discipline, mentioned above, becomes a referent lens of inquiry because it follows one kind of logic or argument. Understanding each lens is important e.g. History is the study of change; Literature teaches ethical reading of text; Social Anthropology explains comparative perspective of cultures by living amid those cultures and gaining an insider’s perspective, Philosophy provides the moral and ethical lens of righteousness and, performing arts integrate several lenses to manifest the unstated.

After getting an exposure to wide array of subjects, a student is better prepared to make choice about specialization and deeper study. The proposed 4-year period for under-graduation in NEP offers ample scope for broad foundation and specialization. 

Integrating  Multiple Disciplines

Simply introducing a bunch of multiple disciplines and assuming it to be multi-disciplinary education is missing the point. Multiple lenses need to be complemented by integrative thinking i.e. critical thinking skills. It is a process of moving from perceptual learning; to conceptual learning; to application in real life; prescribing solutions; and synthesizing the learning in abstract concepts.

Unless the learner is guided and taught about how to validate facts by asking right questions, data/information does not lead to knowledge; and unless knowledge is applied in practice, it does not produce wisdom. The inductive process of ‘how to think’ is more important than providing ‘what to think’ i.e. learning how to learn. Every subject must internally follow this critical thinking process within and without in a trans-disciplinary integration. It teaches respect for ‘otherness’, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, in short preparedness for the VUCA world. That is why Liberal Arts is the education for future.

NEP 2020 also lays emphasis on research that is scientific, relevant, meaningful, and home grown. Multi-disciplinarity automatically encourages research because inquiry happens at the intersection of various subjects. This will not only encourage trans-disciplinary projects by students but also build an eco-system of curiosity, inquiry, and knowledge creation. 

In the last 5-6 years, we have seen the rise of Liberal Arts programs in India. The experience of the educators and the response of the students has been quite encouraging. Shwet Sampath, a student from Mumbai states: “I picked Liberal arts to develop my critical thinking…they can only be developed in an environment where one is exposed to multiple perspectives on the same topic. Liberal arts is not about skill-based learning, it is about learning the skills which can be used to learn. Liberal arts set the base for me to be a student of knowledge for my entire life”. 

 It is obvious that there is a demand in the market - the students are looking for avenues in education that are engaging, exploratory, and help them navigate life better. Generation Z would heartily welcome the provisions of the NEP. Chakshu Sang who graduated last year, states:  “I chose liberal arts because I wanted the freedom to explore multiple subjects simultaneously…I did not want to be restricted in the scope of my knowledge by only studying contents mentioned in a strict syllabus …..I chose liberal arts for my personal development. It helped me mature as a person and become aware of myself and society and how they interface with each other…. It also helped me understand my passion and gave me a direction to pursue it.” 

Graduates so trained in holistic thinking will attract employers across industry not only in services-sector, but also in FMCG, management, media, marketing communication, performing arts, and films/documentaries. Contrary to the popular belief, creative business ideas are more likely to come from liberal arts students than hardcore techies. Scott Hartley in The Fuzzy and the Techies writes: ‘it is they who question the bias in big data and, bring context to code and ethics to algorithms. It is they who humanize technology …. (and) bring forth…. soft skills that are so vital to spurring growth”. Multidisciplinary education has a double benefit: in terms of employment opportunities, it imparts an ‘intrinsic value’ for the students of Humanities and Social Science by itself as also in various technical fields; it also enriches students of professional education as an ‘instrumental value’ by virtue of the skills that study of Humanities entails. It is duly recognized by the architects of NEP in their emphasis on multi-disciplinary education to professional colleges across the spectrum.

Challenges

A policy is as good as its implementation. Enforcing the ambitious plan of NEP on a diverse conglomeration of over 1,000 universities and 50,000+ colleges, about 20 lakh faculty and 1 crore 10 lakh students, each entrenched in old habits, is a formidable task for management experts, let alone for academic leadership. 

Prof. Philip Selznick, in Leadership in Administration speaks about the resistance to change in organizations with deeply entrenched cultures. The older the culture, the greater is the need for self-preservation in the members of the organization and fear of expendability. Selznick suggests strategies for affecting change. The problem is academic leaders, normally appointed from senior teaching faculty, are not trained for administrative leadership of this kind. 

Liberal arts education needs a systemic change in the environment of the university culture. It cannot flourish in the existing gridlocked administrative system. Management experts would suggest inviting design teams to reimagine the systems and processes and a bottom-up approach to align and coopt all stakeholders for operational solutions, but it is easier said than done. Other challenges include finding and retaining high-quality faculty for liberal arts, regular training, and mentoring of faculty, bringing in technology, investment in strategic areas, encouraging quality research and, managing internationalization (beyond signing MoUs). The ground reality is that an academic leader spends more time in firefighting than focusing on strategic issues.

The architects of the policy have suggested the credit bank system, use of digital platform, exit policy and the trimming of regulatory body. These are all desirable interventions but at the end, they are all as good as the people who eventually man them. Despite everything, it can be done selectively with some institutions in the first phase. Creation of MERU (Multi-disciplinary Education & Research Universities), is an idea worth following whole heartedly. Excellence is always a creative minority; effort should be to make it a critical mass. 

Liberal education has the dynamic potential to shape the next generation of leaders who are committed to the nation and who would work for the growth of the nation, without surrendering the freedom to hold their own point of view. From the point of view of various stakeholders, Liberal Arts education seems a good change: the students desire it, the market demands it, the society loves such individuals for being sensitive individuals and the nation needs them as significant players in democracy and as leadership pipeline for future.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Liberal Education

Dr Rajan Saxena

The author is Vice-chancellor & Distinguished Professor of Marketing, NMIMS

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Dr Indira Parikh

The author is Former Founding President FLAME University, Pune

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Dr Uma Narain

The author is Former Founding Dean NMIMS, School of Liberal Arts

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