FYUP: Why Liberal Arts Matter And What The Delhi University Has Got Wrong

Posted on August 28, 2013 in Education

By Tanvi Bikhchandani:

Delhi University’s Four Year Undergraduate Program (FYUP) has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Even before it was rolled out, teachers and students were questioning it. Once the academic year started, reports of crucial papers being cut from the syllabus, colleges not receiving course packets, and teachers being under excessive pressure have only added to the complaints.

It cannot be denied that the University’s implementation of the FYUP has been subpar. Yet, in the midst of this controversy, we have neglected to acknowledge that the move from a specialized “one-subject” education toward liberal arts is much needed. A holistic college education in which students study interdisciplinary courses along with their specialization is crucial in developing not just critical, but also lateral thinking skills, giving them a wider perspective about the issues and challenges faced by our society. This eventually contributes to making the students more informed, active citizens. At the risk of sounding clichéd, a specialized education prepares you for a job, whereas a liberal arts education prepares you for life.

FYUP

Even so, many students still have reservations. For instance, a student once told me, “I am very clear that I want to study Chemistry, and pursue a career in the field. Why do I need to take compulsory courses in history, politics and other subjects that are not relevant to me?”

The truth is that we are not living in a vacuum. Scientific research is commonly undertaken with a practical application in mind– finding a cure for cancer, finding an eco-friendly fuel, providing sanitation in developing countries, and more. Even if one wants to conduct research purely for interest, grants are given on the basis of application and utility. In this light, it is clear that some knowledge of the complexities of our society is immensely beneficial for conducting effective research.

And this knowledge can be gained through any number of courses– history, sociology, ethics, politics, and even literary analysis. An ethics class can lead one to explore of the ramifications of misuse of information/research, a history class can make one aware of the way technology changed wars, literary works can be analyzed for the effect of scientific inventions in daily life–these are just a few examples off the top of my head.

Given this background, it is fair to ask: what has Delhi University done wrong? Eventually, it boils down to one word–choice, or rather, the lack of it in DU.

Almost all other institutions providing liberal arts education provide their students with a choice right from the outset. Rather than taking admission into a college for a particular course, students enter with the freedom to study any subject they want to, and then make an informed choice after 1-2 semesters of exploration. This helps students find a subject they are passionate about, rather than having to choose between course and college, or study a subject they end up not liking. While such a reform is extremely ambitious and may be a long way from realization, till then it is important to be mindful of the fact that a liberal arts education is most beneficial with this element of choice.

Another area where DU should have provided choice is in the foundation courses. The University stipulates a set of 7 issues that its 11 Foundation courses cover–ranging from Education & Literacy to Rural & Urban Linkages. These categories are broad, and a number of courses from different disciplines cover these themes. Thus, it is not necessary for each Foundation course to be mandatory. While 4-5 courses (such as writing etc.), can be compulsory, students should be able to choose the remainder of courses from a set of electives, thus factoring in their interest and aptitude.

In an education system that was until recently using college syllabi from the 1980s, the desire to change and evolve is a good sign. But rolling out liberal arts program that has not been thought through is nothing less than treating the current batch of students as lab rats. One can only hope FYUP will evolve further–backed by more thought and sounder logic.

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