Dr. Sunder Ramaswamy
There has been a fair amount of interest in the “Liberal Arts” and Liberal Arts colleges in India in recent months. It is a term that originated in Europe, migrated to the U.S. and now broadened in its use to many other parts of the world. I have often been asked whether these institutions offer any “science” courses at all or whether these Colleges have a particular left-leaning (liberal) political slant on how life and issues are approached.
It is important to first clarify that the word “liberal” here comes from the same root word in Latin, “liberalis” associated with the meaning of freedom. Quite simply, the ‘freedom’ to pursue a course of study or the preparation for citizens in a free society. Likewise, the “arts” in “Liberal Arts” comes from the Latin, ars, art – which meant something made by human skill/art as can be seen from the word ‘artefact’, and does not refer to the more commonly used word “Art” which usually means the fine arts and performing arts. In fact, the word, “Arts” in “Liberal Arts” here typically encompasses the study of humanities, social sciences, the physical and life sciences, including mathematics. So, such a curriculum would shy away from the traditional professional courses like engineering, medicine and related streams.
In a nutshell, a Liberal Arts, or Liberal Arts and Sciences, or a Liberal curriculum broadly refers to a program of study that is designed to provide young college students with the knowledge and abilities to become lifelong learners, successful, and productive members of a free and open society, not set for a pre-determined path out of high school.
Why should young people in India study Liberal Arts?
So, against this backdrop, let us see if liberal arts is a viable option for the Indian youth of today. If the first Industrial Revolution brought about momentous changes in society as a result of steam induced mechanical power, and the discovery of electricity ushered in the Second Industrial Revolution, the current industrial revolution’s hallmark is “all things digital”.
The challenges and opportunities of this century are substantially different in scale, scope, and pace. The impact of increasingly intelligent and networked machines will put pressure on what jobs are out there for the average school or college graduate. Climate change and vagaries of nature will call for greater resourcefulness on how we cope with Mother Earth. The sheer number of people on the planet living longer lives, and also being more mobile both in the physical and virtual sense (think the creation of online communities) will put a premium on how we interact with people similar and different than ‘us’ for over a longer life span.
In such a rapidly evolving world, I would argue that the Liberal Arts and Sciences equips the youth of today with the tools and perspectives to continually adapt. The competencies that Liberal Arts and Sciences majors emphasise – curiosity (about various disciplines), creativity, critical thinking, comprehension, collaboration, and communication (oral and written) – are all talents and skills that are in ever increasing demand in today’s market place.
Students ought to learn ‘how to learn’ rather than simply ‘what to learn’ – as information is increasingly available to anyone with a smart phone and an internet connection; students should learn how to ‘think through’ complex problems by looking for solutions from different perspectives; students ought to learn how to interact with different individuals regardless of their gender, caste, race, religion, or class; Such students who possess and develop these talents and skills become valuable employees, citizens, and ultimately ‘adapatively versatile’ human beings.
In this increasingly connected and digital world, STEM skills will remain vital but as noted by many, we also need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social in additional to the computation aspects of living. The study of the ‘human condition’ in a sense becomes ever more crucial as machines become cognitively connected to humans. It is important to understand ‘what it means to be ‘human’; how to communicate with and interact with ‘other’ humans’ and how to develop a sense of empathy. And for all of this, courses in the traditional humanities, literature, social sciences provide those foundations.
Liberal Arts and Sciences prepares students to work in a variety of sectors as it helps them achieve a strong foundation in different subjects and skills. Acting as a stepping stone to different careers, it also helps student manoeuvre out of one career to another. After all a student’s first job is rarely their last—at such critical turning points in one’s career, a person ought to be able to rely and reflect back on the foundational education and grounding received in College on how to cope with such changes. So, a true liberal arts and sciences education prepares you for life!
Dr. Sunder Ramaswamy is the founding Vice-Chancellor of Krea University, an upcoming liberal arts and science university in Sricity, Andhra Pradesh.
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