In these “pragmatic” times, it is not easy to plead for liberal education. Yet, as a teacher, I want the new generation who have just cleared the board examinations and are willing to enter the domain of higher learning, to realise that education is not merely “skill learning” or a means to inculcate the market-driven technocratic rationality. Education is also about deep awareness of culture and politics, art and history, and literature and philosophy. In fact, a society that discourages its young minds to reflect on the interplay of the “self” and the “world”, and restricts their horizon in the name of job-oriented technical education, begins to decay. Such a society eventually prepares the ground for a potentially one-dimensional/consumerist culture that negates critical thinking and emancipatory quest.
Before I put forward my arguments for liberal education, I need to raise three concerns. First, as the economic doctrine of neo-liberalism has become triumphant, a mix of “positivistic objectivity”, scientism and technocratic rationality seems to have become the dominant ideology of education. Knowledge becomes instrumental and technical; “professionalism” demands dissociation of “skills” from the politico-ethical; and moral questions and the contents of the curriculum are required to be evaluated in terms of measurable “outcomes”. No wonder, such a discourse refuses to see much meaning in, say, a serious enquiry into T S Eliot’s The Hollow Men, or a reflection on “soul force” as articulated by M K Gandhi in his Hind Swaraj, or a Freudian interpretation of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Monalisa. Neither the techno-managers nor the market find any value in these “subjective”/“non-productive” pursuits. When they do speak of literature or sociology, they kill its spirit, and reduce it into a set of modules with concrete “outcomes” — measured in terms of “life skills”, “communication skills” and “personality development” skills. It is like destroying the soul of education through the fancy management discourse.
Second, school education continues to reproduce this hierarchy in knowledge traditions. Whereas science or commerce is projected as “high status” knowledge, not much cognitive prestige is attached to humanities and liberal arts. In a way, this is like demotivating young minds and discouraging them from taking an active interest in history, literature, philosophy and political studies. Possibly, the standardised “ambition” that schools and anxiety-ridden parents cultivate among the teenagers makes it difficult for them to accept that it is possible to imagine yet another world beyond the “secure” career options in medical science, engineering and commerce. Certainly, it is not the sign of a healthy society if what is popularly known as PCM (physics-chemistry-mathematics), or IIT JEE, becomes the national obsession, and all youngsters flock to a town like Kota in Rajasthan, known for the notorious chain of coaching centres selling the dreams of “success”, and simultaneously causing mental agony, psychic disorder and chronic fear of failure.
Third, the state of liberal education in an average college/university in India, I must admit, is pathetic. With demotivated students, teachers who do not have any passion, empty classrooms, routine examinations and the widespread circulation of “notes” and “guide books”, everything loses its meaning. History is a set of facts to be memorised, sociology is just common sense or a bit of jargon for describing the dynamics of family/marriage/caste/kinship, literature is time pass and political science is television news. Even though the state of science education is not very good, the trivialisation of liberal arts is truly shocking.
The challenges and obstacles are enormous. Yet, I would insist on the need for liberal education — good, meaningful and life-affirming education. As teachers, we have to play our roles. Unless we feel confident in our mission, give our best, and invite the youngsters to the fascinating world of poetry, philosophy, anthropology or art history, there is not much hope. We must tell them that there is yet another domain of knowledge, beyond “objectivity”, “measurement” and “technical control”. This domain is about the interpretative art of understanding the symbolic domain of culture, it is about reflexivity and imagination and it is about the critical faculty for debunking the “official” worldview — the way Marx and Freud did it in their times, or the way feminists and critical theorists are doing it in our times. No, unlike management or engineering, it does not enhance “economic growth”, or the “productivity” of industry but it does enrich us — culturally, politically and spiritually.
Furthermore, I would argue that even our doctors and techno-managers need a fair degree of liberal/humanistic education. A doctor, I believe, ought to converse with a philosopher who speaks of the Tibetan Buddhist book on living and dying and a techno-manager ought to engage with a cultural anthropologist in order to know what “development” means to local people and appreciate their understanding of the ecosystem and livelihoods. In the absence of adequate liberal education, we have begun to produce technically-skilled but culturally-impoverished professionals. Techniques have triumphed and wisdom has disappeared. We seem to be producing well-fed, well-paid and well-clothed slaves. This is dangerous.
I have, therefore, no hesitation in becoming somewhat “impractical”, and inviting fresh/young minds — somehow perplexed and thrilled by their “successes” in board examinations — to the domain of liberal education.
This article first appeared in the print on June 6, 2019 under the heading “An invitation to the liberal arts”. The writer is professor of sociology at JNU.