Ending the void through liberal arts education

Posted by Parvinder Singh
March 29, 2017

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We are at the cusp of an iconic shift in our education system with the of liberal arts education taking roots through pioneering institutions and universities that are creating success stories through its students, multi-disciplinary partnerships, and social change-oriented leadership.

The call for relooking at an education system that has for close to a century been focused overwhelmingly on technical or so-called pure sciences with siloed approach to education catering to an industrial era is not new. But in the past two decades, it has grown at a steady pace in India.

Changing context 

Any education system is largely a reflection of the dominant or prevailing economic, social and political system. It is reflected in what we teach, how we teach and what we celebrate or showcase as the institutional knowledge.

Since India’s Independence, we have celebrated technical knowledge and applied sciences. Even today, we, as a society, look at doctors and engineers as the only role models and profession worth aspiring for. This is also visible in the thrust of our successive education policies, the allocations of public and private investments, the growth in the infrastructure for educational and research institutions over the years and even the heroes we have celebrated over the years.

The focus on creating a talent pool and a supporting infrastructure of education that catered to the needs of a nation looked at dams and massive factories as modern day temples came at the cost ignoring liberal arts education.

Though the above generalization holds true for the most part, there is, however, an aspirational part of education spectrum where dialectical — two different points of views — processes are constantly seeking change. These changes though can always be linked back to the larger social and economic transformation yet are also the harbinger of new ways of thinking, processing and creating a leadership narrative.

Any discussion on liberal education in India, therefore, needs to look at the changing context that appears to be underlining the need to shift from an overwhelming focus on technical knowledge and applied science to a liberal arts education.

We also need to look at the nuances of the awe-inspiring changes that the world is witnessing in public engagement and social mobilization. This is bringing new voices into the discussion on what education must focus on and the very idea of knowledge creation. In other words, apart from industry and government/public institutions, the need or purpose of education is now defined by a much wider set of stakeholders.

An idea whose time has come

The conversations on the need for liberal arts education in India have been gaining momentum steadily. The discourse is now backed by a handful universities and institutions that are demonstrating how a more nimble, interconnected and dynamic mix of theory and praxis can fill the void and open new spaces of leadership and steer social change in the emerging world.

We must also acknowledge, that the yearning for knowledge and skills that empower people across sectors has created pioneers, ranging from start-ups to social innovators to technology disruptors. Many of these new age champions changed the prism that they were handed down through dominant approach, some even went off the grid to draw from education that life has to offer through hyper-local solutions.

India needs a well-rounded liberal arts education that is responsive to the needs of an interconnected, knowledge-based and interactive world. It needs an education system that does not look at humanities as a passive set of information, but as a process of engagement and learning from the real world, through application and celebration diversity.

India offers a tremendous opportunity with its historic youth bulge to create a liberal arts education model that are not just geared for survival but diversity, innovation, and immersive experiences. The knowledge and thought leadership, we aspire for as a nation is not possible without a multi-disciplinary liberal education system.

Ashoka University has seen a remarkable growth in the past seven years. It has also drawn huge support and interest from some of the brightest students and scholars.

In terms of strengthening its role nationally and globally as an influencer on liberal arts education,  Ashoka needs leverage the leadership narrative of its exceptional students and fellows. As it is through their success and struggles that stories will carry the wider message of what liberal arts education provides in terms of knowledge, perspectives, citizenship values and leadership.

Ashoka has a tremendous scope to establish itself as a space and driver of critical and cross-cutting conversations that though have an academic rigor, yet are also of immediate relevance to the media, policymakers, civil society, and institutions. This approach is already visible in some its engagement and can grow with a strong engagement strategy that straddles both knowledge and public conversations. Use of communication technology and digital media can be a game-changer in these efforts.

A rainbow coalition of stakeholders has come together to give leadership and provide resources to Ashoka University to take the mandate of liberal arts education at the forefront. With this leadership, Ashoka has the ability to create knowledge and evidence for the education sector in India and outside, by bringing more and more public and private education institution together on this agenda.

Media and public policy space are in dire need of fresh perspective that is knowledge-based yet relevant in terms its observations and learnings from the real world and real issues that are also geared towards social change. Ashoka’s faculty and students/fellows can play the role catalysts in driving critical conversations on these platforms.

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