Several private universities across India have jumped on to the liberal arts bandwagon
Rote learning has and continues to plague the Indian education system unmindful of the relevance of logic, aesthetics and ethics. Moving on to liberal arts, which encourages research, innovation and originality, could help salvage the situation. Easier said than done. This July, all colleges affiliated to Delhi University were converted into the liberal arts format of education. The response has been mixed. The protests against the sudden change made headlines as teachers cried foul over not being consulted, but acceptance seems to have grown.
Several private universities across India have jumped on to the liberal arts bandwagon — Ashoka University (AU), New Delhi, Jindal School of Liberal Arts (JSLA), Haryana, Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts (SSLA), Pune, Foundation for Liberal and Management Education (FLAME), Pune, Mount Carmel College (MCC), Bangalore, and SSS Shasun Jain College for Woman, Chennai, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), Gujarat, Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh, which has a tie-up with Carnegie Mellon University, USA, and Apeejay Stya University, Gurgaon.
Need of the hour
Shashi Tharoor, Minister of HRD development, at the inauguration of JSLA, remarked that liberal arts should be made compulsory for engineering students. “Science without human values leads to destruction,” he opined. The school’s collaboration with Rollins College in Florida allows students to enter into a dual degree programme in the third and fourth year. Speaking on the relevance of the multi-disciplinary study, Bennett E McLellan, professor and vice-dean of Rollins College says, “This is the democratisation of the education process, enabling the power of intense questioning within and to the faculty. To nurture a lifelong curiosity towards learning and teaching students the true meaning to be human is the aim of the degree.”
Indira Parekh, dean, FLAME, concurs, “An inclusive education process where teachers continue to be passionate learners and not deities whose word is golden is the need of the hour. Like food is nutrition to the body, education is nourishment to the mind.”
The course provides a kaleidoscopic perspective of the world. “Liberal arts can be called the applied arts, which is a step away from the mono-dimensional method of education,” says dean, Nigam Duway, PDPU. Their degree of four years will cover approximately 20 subjects in the first two foundation years, compulsorily exposing students to a broad range of areas. The variety of subjects that will be studied are philosophy, art, maths, dance, drama economics, political affairs, psychology, anthropology, sociology, literature, physics, chemistry, biology and film studies. “We are thereby laying a solid foundation to think from every possible viewpoint. This system is about the holistic, dynamic, and an all encompassing perspective of life,” says Duway.
He takes pride in the fact that many of their students have made a mark overseas, including the Harvard Conclave, where leadership and ideas are inculcated, and Cambodia to do development projects in rural areas. Several international round table conferences have been hosted by the university, one of which facilitated interaction between government officials of Belgium and the students.
Liberal arts at SSLA was introduced in 2007 where students can choose to specialise in a major and minor subject in the last two years of the course. Jui Shankar, faculty at SSLA, explains, “For instance, a student taking journalism as a major, and political affairs as a minor will be better equipped to be a political journalist. The major and minor subjects don’t necessarily have to be correlated. A student can major in philosophy and minor in math. There are no restrictions in the choices.”
Depending on the subject majored in, the students will have to produce a thesis as part of the liberal arts system. “If a student has taken up a humanities subject, they will be asked to write a thesis in the fourth year. Suppose dance is the chosen area they will have to make an elaborate choreographic demonstration using original thinking and likewise if business management is chosen, they will have an extensive project according to the subject requirement,” says Shankar.
Academicians like Leela Gandhi who teaches English at University of Chicago and Gayatri Spivak who teaches comparative literature theory are known for their literary publications. “Indians are making a mark abroad. The academicians contributing to the humanities are not as well known in India,” says Madhavi Menon, former Professor of English at American University, Washington, USA, who will be joining AU as a faculty.
Research methodologies are an integral part of the third and fourth year. “At the undergraduate level, research was not seen as a necessity. If research is made compulsory, it will improve their reasoning, analysing skills and prepare for them more extensive research at the master’s level,” says R Mutharayappa, Professor at Institute of Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Self analysis, introspection and honestly documenting one’s growth through the semester has to be presented in a 5,000-word document at Shasun College and students at FLAME are already practising this method of self evaluation. All components of a research paper such as thinking originally, writing extensively and analysing are solidified through this project,” says Shyamla Muthusubramian, dean of Shasun College.
Several studies analysing college graduates have found them unprepared for immediate employment. Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) addressed this problem by restructuring all the courses in 2006 to accommodate foundation studies in socio-economic and political issues. The subjects are taught over 90 hrs of 45 lectures during the first semester. P Vijayakumar, chairperson, Center for Social and Organisational Leadership at TISS in Mumbai, believes the students now have a better grounding in problem solving abilities, giving them an edge over other graduates at the workplace. “Movements for equality and the historical development of Indian society in depth are some of the topics explored to provide them a holistic perspective of the world. Individual change and focus are the main goals of the foundation courses to enable students to flower into people who can be better leaders who handle complexity with ease,” he says.
Muthusubramanian wants her students to develop transferable skills of quick adapters at the end of four years. “By encouraging extensive writing and oratory expressions, the degree is designed to improve the communication and intellect processes of the mind. This will translate into a professional setting, making them valuable candidates for the job market,” she explains.
A six-week internship is dedicated to NGO work in FLAME. The teachers make a visit to the NGO and guide the students’ approach. Unable to accept the subtle discrimination faced by a peer, Tamasha Ghandhok, student of FLAME, decided to spend one month at the LGBT rights non-profit organisation, Hamsafar Trust located in Mumbai. Every Friday people from all strata’s of life participate in a round table discussion. Experiences pertaining to stigma and “coming out” are shared.
Ghandhok remembers a touching encounter, “I met a person who has been living with the secret for a long time. His parents keep pestering him to marry. His difficult situation taught me how much more accepting people need to be.” In terms of work, she worked in the research department and learned to conduct herself at the workplace.
When Karan Kumar heard about FLAME, he realised he did not have to shift continents to get an all rounded education. His favourite subject is critical writing and he is considering interning with an NGO that helps rape victims. FLAME has a Discover India project at the end of the second year, where students travel to different parts of India to learn about our culture. Veena makers of Hyderabad, churches of Goa and several heritage sites have been visited so far. This is usually followed by analysing and writing a report deconstructing the plurality of the Indian culture.
Ashoka University’s young India fellowship
Sanjeev Bikchandini, founder of Naukri dot com, Arjun Bhagat, founder of Calibrated Group, Puneet Dalmia, MD of Dalmia Cements, and five other accomplished businessmen started the Young India Fellowship (YIF) at AU. This one-year postgraduate diploma aims to bring in the kind of quality education they received abroad and in IITs. Their hope is to try and solve the problems of higher education.
While completing YIF, students have to establish a commitment to society, by working closely with an NGO of their choice. Garima Rana choose to work with a non-profit micro finance organisation called Basic. She worked with a team of four to develop an innovative financial inclusion index, which includes the low income households. The frequency of the transactions of low income households were increased in order for them to be visible on the national index. “By doing a dynamic course, I was able to look at it from the lens of sociologist, anthropologist, economist and a philosopher,” she says.
For the art appreciation class in SSLA, the students were taken on a visit to Jehangir art gallery. Prof Swetha Despande taught them about the idea of art and aesthetics by letting them experience it firsthand. Students from PDPU interned at the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation. They were able to stop blaming the corporation and view the civic issues from the administrative point of view. Interaction with the lowest member of the hierarchy, the sweepers and economically backward sections taught them humility. The process made them socially conscious and aware.
Benefitting from PDPU’s leaning towards liberal arts is Hetansh Desai, who started a website called Karwaan Express. It gives people a platform to express themselves through the art of storytelling. He is currently majoring in business studies and minoring in economics. During his foundation years, he learnt Spanish, international affairs, critical writing, art, philosophy and other subjects. “My business sense and problem solving abilities have multiplied since I finished the foundation years. I is writing a semi-autobiographical book about a boy who studied liberal arts. I hope my expanded worldview will assist me in running the family business,” he says.
Gender studies is a branch of social sciences which analyses complicated and taboo aspects of gender. The subject is yet to be taught in its fully complexity in Indian institutes. A professor (on condition of anonymity) from MCC integrates questions on representation and class while dealing with topics of law, democracy and constitutionality. The source says, “Everything we deal with is looked at from various lenses and gender happens to be one of them.”
Prof Menon taught queer studies along with literature at American University. “In India, it is very crucial to study this subject because all the forms we fill have ‘other’ as an option.” She is a published author of Shakesqueer; A queer companion to the complete works of Shakespeare. “In my classes, I analyse the identities, eccentricities and ambiguous elements of Shakespeare,” she informs.
The introduction of the interdisciplinary style of education could be perceived as a liberating reform from the old shackles of convention and rigidity. It is for the reason Mcllellan jokes, “The liberal arts should be redefined as the liberating arts.”
By expressing oneself through writing, drama and dance, the liberal arts provides channels to liberate you from emotional turmoil. “Playing a sport which is a mandatory part of degree also liberates you on a physical level,” says Hetansh Desai, student of PDPU. Prof Menon thinks it is treading on dangerous territory to call it the liberating arts. She explains, “It means to oppose conservatism and challenge the status-quo. Introspecting and asking ourselves what do we want to be liberated from would be the way to grasp the definition of the phrase.”