What makes a liberal arts education unique, and how does it help solve the problems currently faced by students pursuing conventional arts and humanities courses?
Sanchana Krishnan, Campus Diaries
Campus Diaries | June 04, 2016
The academic discipline we now call the Liberal Arts has its humble beginnings in Greece. Back in the ancient land of Olympus, three subjects met at the crossroads. Called the trivium, they were grammar, rhetoric and logic. They were soon accompanied by the quadrivium, composed of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and the theory of music. The trivium formed the core subjects, and the quadrivium, the ancillary. It is only this combination that made up a complete liberal arts education, though.
Do you know where the Liberal Arts got its name from?
The subjects that constituted the liberal arts made up the basic education that a free individual in ancient Greece should have, to take an active part in civic life. This included being a public participant in debates and conversations, defending oneself in court as well as being involved in the legal system of the time, and defending one's nation.
This was the knowledge that every free citizen of the nation would ideally have. And while the ideology of the liberal arts has evolved to include subjects from the world of science, management, arts, humanities and social sciences, the idea remains the same - that education is something that should prepare you to to lead a successful life (whatever measure of success you go by), not merely equip you with half the skills and knowledge required to find your place in some industry and survive paycheque to paycheque.
What is a Liberal Arts degree and what does it do?
A liberal arts education refers to college studies that provide general knowledge and develop intellectual ability. This type of education can prepare you for many fields in today's workplace. In today's context, a liberal arts education provides "holistic" education intended to foster creative and independent thought.
It is an education that can liberate people to pursue their passions, enabling them to do their best and expand their capacities in all fields. It gives students the opportunity to graduate in any discipline of the fine arts or humanities branch, with one or more courses in subjects like science or mathematics. So one can study mathematics along with drama or fine arts or explore a variety of disciplines and then choose a specialisation that is tailored to their unique interests.
One goal of such an education is to produce graduates who will approach the world with a more balanced perspective, and who can create new jobs and programs to help others with a sense of social responsibility.
In India, the concept of a dedicated liberal arts education is a fairly new one.
This country, always the melting pot bubbling with diversity, also melts in its crucible the boundary between distinct definitions. In India, term liberal arts has been a little loosely applied to define academic disciplines. This means that two separate ways of administering an education are referred to as studying 'liberal arts' -
1. Subjects that fall under the understanding of arts as well as humanities and social sciences have all come to be called 'liberal arts.' This applies to single honours degrees like a BA in English, Philosophy, Psychology, etc and also to triple major programmes (more common in South India). For example, a student completing their BA Honours in Psychology after having completed the initial years with a triple major of literature, sociology and psychology would not be lying if they said they were students of the liberal arts.
Degree earned - BA, BA (Hons)
2. A pure liberal arts degree that follows the multidisciplinary approach to study. It neatly blends a holistic, skill and thought based approach (focussed on more in the initial years) along with a focussed, domain-specific education that would serve specific needs (satisfied through the choosing of majors and minors).
Degree earned - BA in Liberal Arts, BSc in Liberal Arts, BA (Honours) in Liberal Arts
The institutions in India where you can complete your under graduation having pursued a liberal arts degree are :
Ashoka University, FLAME and SSLA, both in Pune, and the Jindal School of Humanities and Liberal Arts in Haryana.
A sneak peak of the liberal arts education in FLAME, Pune
Pursuing an education in liberal arts is beneficial for you in several ways. This includes being exposing to a series of educational and practical experiences that make you a well-rounded individual, not boxed in by the principles and praxis of a single discipline.
It does not result in students who graduate the proverbial jack of all trades and master of none, however - the course is designed in a way that grants you enough exposure at the early stage. This plays an integral role in helping you discover exactly where your strengths, weaknesses, inclinations and affinity lies.
A liberal arts education in India breaks away from the conventional way that regular humanities, arts and social sciences courses are taught. Subjects are divided into core or mandatory courses, majors and minors. While individual colleges and universities have different ways of packaging and structuring the course of your degree, here's what remains constant : foundation or core courses, majors and minors, electives and co-curricular courses (and are arranged in order of the space they take up on your schedule) -
Why all this fuss over a liberal arts education though, and what lack does it fulfil?
Let's face it - the Indian education system as a whole is currently a fabric riddled with bullet holes. In the sphere of higher education beyond the K-12 level alone, there are several gaping fundamental errors that result in India churning out a 'sea of mediocrity, with islands of genius spread few and far in-between.' There are several fundamental problems in the way that arts, humanities and social science subjects are taught. Here's what students, professors and industry professionals have collectively identified -
1. Critical thinking is not introduced as a concept or taught as a daily approach to solving problems
This emanates from a painful combination of bad time management, an outdated or incompetent syllabus and the importance given to numbers scored over amount of knowledge consumed.
2. Lack of research in curriculum, and not enough attention to in-depth research
Cultivating the idea of research also means that the student is aware of critical insights into the field and knows how much work has or hasn't been done in that area. Even papers that just do a review of literature can be useful, but they should offer some critical insights into what areas have been left out and possible reasons as to why so. The level of academics and writing in our universities still remains very low and a huge reason for that is lack of individuality and reasoned analysis in writing.
The structural problems associated with the research culture may be that it is too western (American) and does not take into account cultural differences in thought, which also leads to differences in writing styles. But, students are awarded despite their negligence of opinion, shallow mindedness and lack of critical thinking. This problem is very deep rooted. Unless students are taught to theorise (and not be made afraid to do so), they can't develop creative abilities which can and should happen while researching, too.
3. Strictly dividing the sciences, arts and management
The science vs arts battle is an all-too familiar one in India, with engineers breaking away to declare war on their discipline, arts students not knowing the basics of physics and chemistry, and NONE of them knowing how to file their taxes. This results in thousands of students who wage misguided wars over the superiority of one discipline over the other without realising the imminent importance of being well-versed in them all, and THEN becoming an expert in a few.
4. The gap between ability, learning, and employability
Students are not exposed to skills that can make them marketable. If it is done so, it is usually in a hurried manner, through extra classes and certificate courses that are made mandatory, not through subjects inculcated into the syllabus. The education system refuses to acknowledge soft skills and intellectual processes as subjects that need to be taught, instead choosing to ignore it completely or relying on certificate programs and other 'extra' courses. When crammed into a student's already stuffed schedule, such classes are not taken seriously and are attended half-heartedly by students who care for not much more than attendance.
5. Giving importance to obedience and discipline over intellectual explorations and self expression
Too many Indian universities value discipline and obedience over independence of thought and action or a curious mind, in a student. While there are exceptions, the collective young conscious of India has a million true stories of being put in their place who expressing curiosity or even confusion (mostly with the best intention, if not always the best manner), of students being picked on for disciplinary actions and of students having their behaviour and dressing and attitude and everything except the abysmal failure of the education system, for their lack of performance.
These are precisely the problems that a Liberal Arts education is at least attempting to solve, through an inclusive curriculum design, flexible course structure and well-educated and experienced professors who have their priorities set straight - critical thought and experimental learning over mugging up and vomiting the contents of a book.
While this is situated in the US, what Fareed Zakaria has to say about the value of a Liberal Arts education is super relevant to us today!
The real benefits of studying a liberal arts degree:
Here are all the loud and subtle ways in which it will trigger positive shifts in your personality, creativity and work ethic -
Highly evolved intelligence is what separates human beings from other life forms. An education system is ideally designed to tap into the intellectual capacities of young human beings and allow their thought processes and productivity to evolve. However, too many colleges have become rote-learning, paper-churching factories of mediocre performance.
This is where the liberal arts degree comes to the rescue. Students are made an active part of their learning, which unfortunately does not happen in too many colleges (and not just arts and humanities ones!) across the country. Independent critical and analytical thought is greatly encouraged. Assignments are not handed out en masse but are personally selected by the combined efforts of the student and the teacher.
Strong student teacher relationships are built and encouraged.
Teachers are available to help students diversify their thought processes and look at things differently. They help students figure out the nuances of particular assignments and take the students beyond the boundaries of the syllabus and course structure. The teachers are also usually individuals who are graduates from excellent educational institutions themselves, and come with prior relevant industry or teaching experience.
Sneha Kumar, from FLAME, who majors in Literature and Culture studies and minors in Journalism says,
"My professors are very good! Most of them have PhDs or are in the process of writing their dissertations. They're all quite patient, as a class we can get easily distracted so they need to be. The classes are very structured, the syllabus is finished on time and you always learn something new."
An interdisciplinary culture
This forms the very core of these institutions and is the biggest benefit of a liberal arts study. To an uninformed mind, this might sound like the chaotic amalgamation of seemingly disparate subjects, but such is not the case. Says Saranya Subraniam from Ashoka University,
"The variety of subjects that we have to study is brilliant because just helps you think better, overall. I really appreciate how we have subjects like critical thinking as a part of the syllabus, and are made to take science courses and management courses along with the regular 'arts' subjects. I never thought science had a place in international relations, but it does, and it helped me expand my way of thought so much!"
"The Future of Liberal Arts and Science Education" - SLSA Conference, May 2016
The professional benefits of a liberal arts degree :
Most of the universities that have launched such dedicated liberal arts programmes in India are very young universities that are still to have a graduating batch of students. Ashoka's first final year batch will graduate in 2017 and Azim Premji's in 2018. The colleges do have a great system to help students into their professional lives, though. Ashoka comes with a placement cell that prepares students for leadership roles in media, communication, public sector and NGO jobs. SSLA also has a placement cell which helps student reach out to the right organisations and land the jobs they have spent four years preparing and learning for.
One thing is clear - a liberal arts degree is not a messiah. It is not this askance society's saving grace. The success of the programme depends a lot on the individual, and the way they choose to approach and experiment within this system. It can get challenging. While big words beginning with 'inter' and 'multi' sound very appealing, it also means that much to cope up with and excel at. It comes at a high price, too - quite literally. The fees are at an average of 25 Lakhs for a three / four-year undergraduate programme. Ashoka University, FLAME and JSLH have fully residential programmes where your stay is covered as part of the fees, too.
This new system seems to be working, though it is too soon to tell. There are a lot more happy students who are recognising the shackles of a constrained education system and are doing all it takes to use these new and much-needed resources to their advantage. They are breaking out of their chrysalis to taste the sweet independence of critical thought and the ability to question any ideology, regardless of where it comes from. Here is a system that emphasises on your intellectual development and shows you where and how it meets creativity. It does not pitch tents against science and arts, business and creativity and ensures a multidimensional level of thought and action.
What remains to be seen is just how well students are able to use these sources, and go beyond the constraints of time and other resources to truly bring about a revolution in the fields they choose to permanently inhabit.