Liberal Arts in a Changing World

EducationWorld January 2022 | Spotlight Feature

Prof. Kathleen A. Modrowski Professor and Dean, Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University

The Covid 19 pandemic has changed the way we perceive and act in this world. Since March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, the world has ground to a halt several times affecting mental health, livelihoods, and delivery of services, including education. Social isolation and inadequate delivery of health services were among the most prominent consequences cited the world over. Efforts spearheaded by governments, pharmaceutical companies and international governmental and non-governmental organisations recognised the urgency of the situation and sought emergency measures to develop and distribute vaccines, stem the looming economic crises and prevent the spread of the virus. The success of these efforts in some regions has underscored global inequalities and the weaknesses of lines of transport and communication, willingness among nations to cooperate, and disparities in the belief in the research-based foundations of science.

Many problems mentioned above have had a direct bearing on the delivery of education, as academic institutions moved from in-person to virtual/hybrid classes. Expectedly, the transitions were smooth in some countries and communities, in others not so smooth. It’s noteworthy that several factors mark the successful transition from in-person to virtual mode. Important are the teacher’s ability to adapt to digital technologies, the quality of technology and technical support, students’ equipment and learning environment and the degree to which personalised instruction is available.

The question that looms large for everyone is when will we return to prepandemic normalcy? More than 3.9 billion people worldwide were given stay-at-home orders. The areas most affected include; transportation and travel, attendance at collective events (theatres, sporting events, concerts, religious and political rallies, etc.) retail shopping and business attendance. School attendance can be included in this last category. A recent study published in the December 2021 issue of The Economist, under the title of “The World Ahead in 2022”, offers a detailed survey of the multiple indicators that define “normal”. The findings indicate that a large percentage of employees will continue to work from home and by extension, technology will play a dominant role in education.

Transition to online education underscored some challenges that require creative solutions. Examining the way in which universities strive to maintain the acknowledged ethos of liberal arts and humanities will expose the challenges and the possibilities. The O.P. Jindal Global University (JGU) and the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities (JSLH) provide a valid case study. The JSLH benefitted from the tremendous effort made by the JGU community to maintain the highest learning standards in the virtual mode. JGU won the “Digital Innovation of the Year” award at the distinguished Times Higher Education (THE) Asia Awards 2021. One challenge was to maintain the holistic quality of liberal arts learning. Holistic learning engages all the senses, some of which can be best perceived through in-person or highly personal one-on-one encounters. Ideally, liberal arts education allows learners to develop critical and creative thinking skills. The space of learning is also the place where new knowledge is created in collaboration with teachers and learners. Innovation and creativity, core values of the liberal arts, were applied by teachers, education specialists and students as they found ways to create interactive and multidisciplinary spaces within the virtual classroom. Greater integration of visual materials such as digital art and digital humanities during individual and small group sessions provided the intimacy and collective creative response that led to vibrant exchanges. Instructors and students quickly adapted to leveraging technology in playful and multi-sensory ways that included skillful visual presentation and reading of information. Technology-enabled teachers and students to move beyond the printed and spoken word. These are some changes that are inevitable as universities move towards classes that are increasingly in hybrid form.

Traditionally, liberal arts and humanities construct content from diverse sources. The genius of studying the diverse domains of the liberal arts, including humanities, social sciences and visual and performing arts, is our ability to contemplate these disciplines in three dimensions: foundational knowledge of the past, and then locating these disciplines within our knowledge of the present and concurrently projecting the multiple facets into a vision of the future. Unlike some domains of knowledge, the multidisciplinary method fulfils the current need to interpret critical issues, issues that call for a broad search for meaning in time and space. Critical issues now impacting our lives such as income disparities, environmental crises, gender and ethnic inequalities and lack of distribution of basic needs are among the most urgent. A Liberal Arts education lives up to its promise to provide students with essential skills and the freedom to move beyond constraints of conventional ideas.

Also Read:OP Jindal Global University: Rising star of India’s most International University

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