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Liberal Education: Busting myths and misconceptions

| December 12, 2018
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The term ‘liberal education’ is commonly used in higher education in India. However, one still encounters many misunderstandings of what liberal education really means. Dr. Kudtarkar busts major myths.

The term ‘liberal education’ is now fairly commonly used in higher education in India. There are at least a handful of Universities dedicated to this concept. Even the better institutes of technical and professional education pay at least lip-service to it. However, one still encounters many misunderstandings of what ‘liberal education’ really means. Let us examine the major myths.

Myth No. 1: Liberal Education is only for arts students.

Perhaps this belief arises from a tendency to use the term ‘liberal education’ interchangeably with ‘liberal arts education.’ But what do ‘arts’ mean, in this context? Do they refer to only the humanities and social sciences subjects? Certainly not. This whittling down of the term ‘arts’ is itself a modern phenomenon, a symptom of over-specialization. Historically and actually, ‘the liberal arts’ encompass all areas of human seeking after knowledge, including mathematics, astronomy, and the natural sciences. In fact, ‘natural science’ is itself a modern name for a subject, which used to be identified as a branch of philosophy- i.e. natural philosophy. For this reason, Isaac Newton’s masterpiece was titled ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.’ This did not make him an arts student!

However, since the term ‘arts’ is now almost irrevocably redefined to be restricted to the humanities, it is probably better to use the term ‘liberal education’ alone, to fight this misconception.

So to reiterate: whether a student is deeply interested in sociology, or in physics, or in any other subject, he or she will be served by liberal education. Via a liberal education, such a student will learn to understand his or her chosen discipline in the context of all the other disciplines that make up the universe of human knowledge. This leads to a superior grasp of whatever subject is being pursued, because as a matter of fact all subjects of knowledge are inter-connected.

Myth No. 2: Liberal education is not rigorous, it makes you a jack of all trades and master of none.

This myth is based on a primitive and even destructive idea of ‘rigour’, and what mastery of a subject really means. A physicist who only understands physics, and believes he or she needs no understanding of political science or international relations, is likely to end up a tool for political or military manipulation- as the history of the Second World War shows. Similarly, a painter who only knows painting will start to treat human beings like props, and end up producing shallow and frivolous works. Not understanding psychology or economics, a sociologist will struggle to explain any group behavior- and vice versa. Bankers and financiers who believe that money-making tricks are sufficient knowledge, will ruin their own companies with their greed. In fact, the economic crash of 2008 underlines the fact that far from being more ‘rigorous’, super-specialized minds are actually bad at their jobs.

By contrast, a liberal education leads to a deep and contextual understanding of whatever discipline is being studied. This entails true mental rigour on the part of the student. It is much easier to be like the proverbial man with the hammer, for whom everything is a nail, than to humbly learn to handle the variety of reality.

Myth No. 3 Liberal education is ivory-tower learning, and does not produce market-friendly graduates.

To an extent this myth is self-perpetuating, in that a myopic marketplace may choose to reward myopic graduates. However, the difference between a deep, liberal education and shallow specialization soon becomes clear, and has become clear, the world over and also in India. Given the level of cross-cultural inter-connectivity that exists today, as well as the lessons of history (mentioned above), the market knows that well-rounded minds are also the most useful. In fact, it is the graduate who is only interested in one subject, who is living in an ivory tower. Such a person is only useful in a limited context, and not very useful even there. But a liberal education produces a humble, inquisitive mind, interested in adding value across disciplines and sectors, and adaptable to what other people really need.

Further, a liberal education is geared towards creativity and ‘big picture’ thinking. Only those who think creatively can go beyond what the market already sees, and become the creators of path-breaking businesses, products, art and ideas. Perhaps one reason Indian graduates, though highly trained, have remained in ‘back-end’ positions at companies, is that they have lacked a liberal way of thinking. Famous corporate leaders like Susan Wojcicki (CEO, Youtube), Jack Ma (Founder, Alibaba), Lloyd Blankfein (Chairman, Goldman Sachs) and many others have proved that not only does a liberal education produce the most immediately useful graduates; it also prepares headline-making innovators and ‘disruptors.’

Myth No. 4 Liberal education is a Western concept, and not suited for Indian culture.

Lastly, there is a false notion that liberal education is associated with Westernization, and is therefore a cultural misfit in India. This much is true: Universities in the West have been the leaders in liberal education, in recent history. This is what has helped them produce innovators and leaders in every discipline. During the same period, Indian higher education has focused on narrow specialization, to its detriment.

But it is untrue that Indian pedagogical culture is somehow opposed to liberal education. If that were the case, we would not have had historic Universities in Nalanda and Taxila. In any case, it must be understood that liberal education is fundamentally connected with the very idea of a University. The word ‘University’ itself denotes ‘universe’, i.e. ‘the whole.’ Whoever seriously pursues knowledge as it really is- i.e., as part of a whole- will automatically pursue a liberal education.

About the Author:

Dr. Santosh Kumar Kudtarkar is the Dean - FLAME School of Liberal Education. FLAME University is the pioneer of Liberal Education in India. Dr. Kudtarkar has been associated with FLAME since its inception.

He holds a Masters in Physics from IIT Madras and a PhD from The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (MATSCIENCE), Chennai. A Theoretical Physicist by training, his research interests are in applications of field theory in High Energy and Condensed Matter Physics, Dynamical Systems and Mathematical Modeling in the Social and Management Sciences. He is passionate about Quantitative Models and has successfully completed multiple industrial projects. His consulting domain of expertise lies in development, testing, validation and deployment of Mathematical, Statistical and Machine Learning models for Consumer Research, Demand Forecasting, and Optimization. 

(Source: https://www.shiksha.com/humanities-social-sciences/articles/liberal-education-busting-myths-and-misconceptions-blogId-19763)