Studying liberal arts and humanities stimulates critical thinking
Since Indian Independence, it was assumed that those who were fortunate enough to study at the university level would enter fields such as science, technology, medicine, and perhaps law and business. Study of the liberal arts and humanities, comprising those subjects that fostered personal and intellectual development over the acquisition of particular skills and professional training, was generally seen as the domain of an affluent minority or those who were not career minded, that is, women.
Even as recently as 20 years ago, the notion of a liberal arts college or a liberal arts curriculum was scarcely recognised by teachers, parents, and students. They were unaware of the concept liberal arts and humanities as a course of study as practised in abroad.
But, turn to the 21st century for a vastly different picture. Today, there are six liberal arts colleges in India and in contrast to the situation in the U.S., Europe and the U.K., India’s interest in the liberal arts and humanities is flourishing.
Rise in popularity
There are several reasons for this growth. Internationalisation of education and the job market abroad have brought Indians into contact with the aura of excellence associated with small liberal arts college. These models embody the very notion of a liberal arts education. Schools like Yale, Harvard and Brown are the manifestation of the liberal arts college associated with small classes — dedicated teachers and an excellent and diverse education.
In 2017, according to the Institute of International Education Open Door Report, there are 1,65,998 Indians studying abroad in the U.S.; the majority in graduate school. The educational travellers combined with the considerable number of Indians who are part of the diaspora in the U.S. and Canada provide Indians at home with exposure to the system of education abroad and also to the value placed on liberal arts and humanities.
Some of the most prominent individuals in diverse fields, such as design, technology, medicine, communications and diplomacy have studied liberal arts and humanities. A growing interest in liberal arts and humanities is also reflected in the number of mostly private secondary schools that have adopted a liberal arts model. These schools, like the liberal arts tertiary programmes, promote values, such as, critical thinking, active learning, and creativity that appear to be the antithesis of rote learning and assessment through testing, the latter defining the dominant pedagogical methods of traditional education.
India is poised to become a leading player in the emerging markets. A McKinsey report in 2016 identified key factors that would allow potential growth as long as critical challenges were met in areas effecting eight basic needs — food, energy, housing, drinking water, sanitation, health care, education, and social security. Actions that must be taken to include, job creation, increasing farm productivity, increasing public spending in basic services and making services effective. Moving from grand government schemes to implementation will require problem-solving skills and communication among actors in diverse areas of expertise. Creative problem solving, communication and ethical understanding are essential attributes of the liberal arts and humanities. More than any other discipline, a liberal arts education fosters civic engagement through the study of humanity across literature, history, the arts, languages, and philosophy. These subjects emphasise human potential and cultivate empathy within the individual.
Presently, the majority of Indian students studying at liberal arts schools in India and abroad are reasonably affluent. This should not be the case because the knowledge and skills gained through a liberal arts education offer the best response to meeting the present and future needs of India. Young women and men from all economic and social sectors need the liberal arts and humanities in order to participate in designing India’s future. Solutions for critical global issues must be confronted at global and local levels. A liberal education provides the vision for recognising complexity and acting with humility and assurance.
The writer is Dean and Professor of Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Jindal Global University, Haryana.
Some of the most prominent individuals in diverse fields, such as design, technology, medicine, communications and diplomacy have studied liberal arts and humanities.