The need for educating oneself in an all-round knowledge system, fusing elements of science, arts, logic and lived life lessons, has never emerged as a more relevant alternative to our jobs-oriented focus in higher education as it has now. In a fast-growing culture of shortcuts to knowledge assimilation through forwards and flavoured opinions, critical thinking has become a universal casualty. Irrespective of the employability skills imparted, future education models have to cultivate an ability in the citizen to ask whether the information appearing before them is true or not, and whether any data presented as fact has gone through necessary scrutiny.
Such a logical, scientific temper around the process of learning is neither new nor borrowed to our civilisation’s traditional learning system, with ample practiced references in the gurukul model of ancient India. Beneath the popular impressions of chanting hymns to natural elements, undertaking meditation and yogic exercises, collecting alms and participating in community cooking, lessons were imparted to all students in themes that eventually evolved into the nyaya, samkhya, vaisesika, mimansa (critical investigation), yoga and Vedanta schools of Astika Indian philosophy. Learning would be a combination of multiple enquiry modes: pratyaksa (perception); anumana (inference); upamana (comparison and analogy); arthapati (postulation and derivation from circumstances); sabda (verbal testimonies of reliable past or present experts) and anupalabdhi (non-perception).
As the students graduated to a career-honing level, specialisations based on individual abilities could range from training in weaponry to conducting rituals, administering cures, etc. Education then, as it ideally should be, was preparatory for life and its opportunities based on a student’s ability and choice.
Moving from the Puranic to post-Vedic India, the pedagogy evolved from being taught by a know-all seer to teaching by specialists, as in Gandhara’s Taxila University (600 BCE-500 CE). Nearly 70 electives were offered in knowledge streams like the Vedas, grammar, philosophy, medicine, surgery, accounts, commerce, documentation, archery, politics, warfare, astrology, astronomy, occult, music, dance, language, etc., by practitioner-teachers like Panini (the codifier of Sanskrit grammar), Jivaka (medicine) and eminent alumnus-turned-faculty like Vishnu Sharma (author/compiler of the Panchtantra) and Chanakya (the author of the Arthashastra).
Taxila was a world-class university attracting full-time students from Greece to China, where teaching was on principles of faculty autonomy and student choice. Eminent teachers would attract more students, with Chanakya commanding enough numbers to architect a successful revolution through his students to establish a pan-India empire under Chandragupta Maurya (321-298 BCE), with his other students in significant roles in the new state.
The alumni of such a diverse education system could fit and address every societal need, because they studied most subjects categorised today as humanities, performing arts, engineering, life and social sciences. Four of the above disciplines, (except engineering), make for what is known as the Liberal Studies curriculum today.
Liberal Studies refers to a knowledge system of degree- level competence where students can choose a combination of subjects from literature and philosophy to mathematics, social, physical and environmental sciences. The idea is to acquire a well-rounded education through exposure to a broad range of disciplines that allow students an opportunity to discover new professions, while pursuing existing passions.
Eminent Indians who have experienced a similar education introduction include Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Indira Gandhi, Satyajit Ray and Anand Mahindra. Tagore had famously dropped out of most of his institutionalised education experiments to pioneer the Santiniketan model, which comes closest to a modern Indian equivalent of a liberal education institute.
The popular technical courses in India, which prioritise a job-provider mindset as the purpose of higher education, have only recently started warming to the virtues of this education model for the future with a strong recall from the past in its possibilities for pioneering entrepreneurship and opening employment opportunities.
Until the end of the medieval period and the beginning of industrial revolution, logic, philosophy, ethics and theology defined the core of most institutionalised education. That need for the arts in addition to the sciences has never felt more imperative. As changing through a diversity of careers becomes integral to the millennials’ job-life trajectories, educational models that train us only for the first job, call for serious rethinking.
A Liberal Studies’ student gets the opportunity to learn traditional wisdom and the histories shaping his/her context and bring that wisdom to bear upon a range of contemporary economic, religious, political, social, scientific and policy questions. These, along with the eternal existential questions like: Who am I?; What is a good life?; Why be ethical?; Why do we exist?; What are the values to strive for?, etc. have been generating scholarship for thousands of years. They will continue to be asked and interpreted into benefits from future technologies, as they are fundamental to humanity.
Critic, Author and Associate Professor in Liberal Studies, Jain University, Bengaluru