Overdue recognition of liberal arts & humanities

EducationWorld June 2022 | Expert Comment

NEP 2020 acknowledges that liberal arts education is necessary foundation for applying a humanistic (moral and ethical) lens to all science, commerce and professional education, writes Kathleen Modrowski

Somewhat belatedly liberal arts education has experienced a renaissance during the past decade through promotion of several well-funded private universities in India. According to the latest Union education ministry report, a third (32.7 percent) of all undergraduate students are enrolled in liberal arts/humanities and social sciences study programmes.

The plain truth is that for over half a century, liberal arts education has been the fall-back option of school leavers who didn’t do sufficiently well in their higher secondary exams to qualify for entry into the country’s top-ranked engineering colleges, especially the globally renowned IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and the limited number of medical colleges. However, following rising awareness in society that professional education without a foundation of expansive liberal arts learning was churning out engineers and doctors who knew precious little about society, law, history and the Constitution, cutting-edge liberal arts syllabuses and curriculums inspired by the UK’s Oxbridge and America’s Ivy league colleges started to be designed in private and several public universities.

Also Recommended:India’s top private liberal arts & humanities universities

The most recent All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE 2019-2020) lists 407 universities as privately funded. A substantial and growing number of them have designed strong humanities programmes. This is an overdue and welcome development because the Indian subcontinent has an ancient tradition of holistic and multidisciplinary learning. India’s ancient Nalanda and Taxila universities, founded in the 5th century CE and 7th century BCE, were globally respected and attracted thousands of scholars from around the world. But for various historical and sociological reasons, by the 13th century, Nalanda had disappeared and Taxila became a distant memory.
Throughout history education and society have been shaped by the social, economic and political realities of a particular era. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, fast evolving new technologies have altered the purpose of education. Increasingly education — especially higher education — became specialised and vocational. Ancient wisdom that institutions of higher learning should not only respond to the immediate material needs of the people, but also teach the social sciences, history, culture, good citizenry, literature and the arts, fell out of fashion.

Moreover, education became increasingly influenced by government policy. And governments are usually eager to prioritise economic growth to meet the material needs of citizens, whereas the goal of education is — or should be — to teach moral and ethical values and nurture learned graduates steeped in knowledge of history and culture. Educated individuals must be able to practise the highest values of their societies while addressing the material needs of the majority struggling at the base of their social pyramids.

However, providing balanced education is not the role of government. It requires foresight of the administration, faculty and students in academic institutions of higher learning. If higher education institutions focus solely on economics, science, commerce and new technologies, there is a danger that the moral and ethical essentials of higher learning will be overlooked. Therefore government interference is not in the larger social and public interest. By definition, governments accord the highest importance to meeting the material rather than moral and ethical needs of the general populace. They tend to discourage critical examination of official policies and freedom of expression which is the essence of higher education.

Against this backdrop, the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 accords overdue recognition to liberal arts and humanities. It mandates a four-year undergraduate degree programme with all students obliged to study a foundational liberal arts course in the first year. NEP 2020 acknowledges that liberal arts education, which covers the social sciences, humanities, science and law is necessary foundation for applying a humanistic (moral and ethical) lens to all science, commerce and professional learning in collegiate and higher education. This is necessary in a world where algorithms provide vast quantities of information that leave little room for questioning, and data accumulation and application becomes the end goal of higher learning.

On the other hand, liberal arts studies equip scholars with higher order and critical thinking skills required to conduct in-depth research and analyses on issues that affect the lives of people in all strata of society. American philosopher Martha Nussbaum and Indian economist Amartya Sen posited that human progress has two dimensions: one, provision for people’s material needs through economic growth, and secondly ensuring that people are capable of attaining physical and mental well-being. In other words, education must also ensure that people find a substantial measure of happiness and satisfaction in their lives.

A great virtue of NEP 2020 is that it restores the balance between liberal arts and science and technology education. It provides a clear roadmap towards attaining a just and inclusive society.

Kathleen Modrowski is the dean of the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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