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Thursday, February 25, 2016

We need a liberal arts revolution

I am pleased to share another good piece about what is going on in India.

As Indians we are going thru a phase of facing ourselves and our shortcomings, the ugly side of us is surfacing baldly in the last six months. If we do not take a stand and restore our pluralistic ethos, we will be facing turmoil that will be difficult to handle.

 The events and JNU, the intolerance towards dissent, and reject of $6 Million grants by a university are all worth thinking and not reacting. 

Mike Ghouse

Courtesy - The Hindu  Sabith Khan
India ought to show the world how to conduct its affairs — by managing dissent and giving it scope to thrive. Without it, we will slide into an authoritarian morass

A recent report by the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) pointed out that of the millions of engineers that India produces, 75 per cent are unemployable because they lack practical, work-related skills and soft skills though they may be theoretically sound. As has been pointed out by several policymakers and thinkers, technical education has been privileged over liberal arts education in India. In the recent debate on the role of higher education in nation-building, liberal arts education has come under attack.

The latest episode at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the ongoing fracas is an example of this debate. Observing the daily chatter on social media and the noise generated by television anchors, one can only be surprised at how this occurred. We don’t need more engineers and doctors; we need more lawyers and poets. We need more artists and thinkers who will critically challenge the status quo and those in power. All of these arguments are relevant in the face of the political attack on JNU and the recent wave of ‘patriotism’ that has swept India. The discourse around patriotism, nationalism and education seems to be defined very narrowly and without any consideration for different points of view and the need to accommodate diversity of thought, a hallmark of Indian society.

As Vishakha Desai’s piece in this newspaper (“The case for liberal arts education”, May 11, 2015) argued, we need more than just technical skills in the globalised world we live in. We need skills that help us relate to those who are not like us. We need soft skills, more exposure to global languages as well as critical thinking. These are the outcomes of a good liberal arts education. She further argues that liberal arts education is seen as a privilege of the elite few, while technical skills are privileged and are seen as part of the process of nation-building. While there is no doubt that there is a need to focus on development and offer a good standard of living for everyone, it should not come at the cost of building a free society where debate, discussion and disagreement are luxuries as well.

The current turmoil in Indian society is a mix of factors: slowing economic growth, restlessness among the youth, and a political environment dominated by exclusivity and hypernationalism. While it is true that India is a democracy where every political party has the right to espouse its view, it seems as though a dominant and majoritarian strand of political discourse seems to have taken root unfortunately — one that refuses to give any scope for dissent or questioning of its politics.

Model of education

It is true that we need to create more jobs for those who need them. To address this and have a more inclusive system where the country produces technically competent staff, we could potentially develop a more robust apprenticeship model, such as the one in Germany. But over and above the merely ‘technocratic’ model of education, the model that India needs is the one envisioned by Rabindranath Tagore. With the world becoming a proverbial village, the citizens of this village need a new vision. As Tagore wrote: “I try to assert in my words and works that education has its only meaning and object in freedom — freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communication with the human world.” We need to discover what it means to be free in today’s India. Have we somehow become so enamoured of our past glories and imagined conquests that we forget how we got to be a great civilisation? As he argued, “the spirit of commonality with others and hospitality” is what makes civilisation possible and it is this fact that made India’s civilisation as vibrant as it is today. We need to develop the kind of adventurous spirit that Tagore spoke of — one that explores, connects with the surrounding world and is open to possibilities, not one that is closed, parochial or conceited.

If Mahatma Gandhi had been trained as an engineer, perhaps we would all be riding better trains run by the British. There is a reason for most political leaders being trained in law or being educated in the liberal arts. The leaders who earned freedom from the British were critical thinkers and those who chose to challenge people in power. They examined the facts before forming their opinions. These are skills that are acquired through a good liberal arts education, which remains a need in contemporary India.

We need more liberal arts colleges, not fewer. JNU is a great institution that needs nurturing, not shaming. And as the largest democracy in the world, India ought to show the world how to conduct its affairs — by managing dissent and giving it scope to thrive. Without it, we will slide into an authoritarian morass. That would be a great tragedy for the entire world.

(Sabith Khan is a visiting researcher at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Views expressed are his own.)

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