Does India need a good liberal arts education ?

Let’s face it : there are very few good liberal arts schools in India. By few I mean, a handful – perhaps less than a dozen world-class institutions which produce scholars who make a dent globally and students who are “well-rounded”, and aware of the various disciplines that help one critique, analyze life in all its forms.

I am from Bangalore, the self-proclaimed IT capital of the country, a city where the joke goes that even cats and dogs have an engineering degree. As an Engineering graduate  ( I graduated with a bachelors in Industrial Engineering and management) quite by accident rather than  by design; I craved to learn issues related to political economy of India, foreign policy issues, Middle East and the like. My only hope, growing up was the newspaper Deccan herald, the 2nd most widely circulated newspaper in the city; to which I contributed as a freelance writer.

Apart from this, I struggled to find a place to take courses, or even quality events in the city which dealt with such issues. This for a city, which boasts of a rich intellectual tradition, and houses the Indian Institute of Science (among the top 100 research institutes in the world).

My only hope was to go to Delhi, which has some of the better known liberal arts schools : St Stephens, Delhi School of Economics among others. But again, these are clearly out of reach of “proper middle class” students – as I, was back in the day. I did squeeze in a few internships with The Hindu and Centre for Civil Society, a think-tank in New Delhi to quench my thirst for this sort of knowledge.

 

  Ideas shape the world, and we are lagging behind….

I have relatives and friends who are in the technology space, and if their facebooks and twitter updates are to be believed, they lack any enjoyment in their work. They seem to be going through the motions of working and creating material value; while not really “engaging” with their work. There seems to be a disconnect with their work and the world they are in. They are looking for something more “meaningful”.

I would say that the way the education system is structured, as well as the options that are before people, force them to make these narrow choices, which in turn make work drudgery, and life painfully monotonous. People learn to “make money”, but not how to contribute meaningfully to organizations or institution building.

Money making and accumulation of degrees is the norm in India – not reflective and critical thinking.

Here is a quote from rediff.com – a leading portal in India. Quoting a senior business executive, the journalist points out :” In a recent interview, Business Standard asked K V Kamath, CEO & MD, ICICI Bank, “Do you lack in any particular quality?”Kamath replied (after a long pause): “I am probably too technical a person. By training, I am an engineer and also did my MBA, but I never had any exposure to liberal arts. I wonder sometimes, that if I had, probably I could have been a better person, better leader and achieved a little more than I have[i].”

Even the hallowed halls of IITs, IIMs donot offer the range of  courses that a typical US college would. The perception of Arts being “inferior” to the Sciences is deeply entrenched in our minds.

This, coming from a culture which has produced The Taj Mahal, the finest and most intricate forms of performing arts and cultural splendors, which enthrall the world, is shameful.

I believe India must discover its greatest strength, that is its balanced intellectual tradition and a syncretic  mix of science and arts – and the depth of understanding which is hard to replicate.

Amartya Sen points out in his book “ The Argumentative Indian” that the Indian mind is highly evolved and complex – and my contention is that in today’s complex and multi-layered world; with global forces interacting like never before, India has several models to offer the world : in democracy, peaceful co-existence and also in science education which are admirable.

But this should not happen at the cost of India’s greatest strength: its soul. And this can be nourished only through a well-rounded education. Not just a narrow focus on producing number-crunching zealots who cant think beyond their quarterly earnings.

 

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