A few years ago, Yale president Peter Salovey explained the rationale behind the Singapore government’s investment in the Yale-NUS College, a liberal arts institution co-founded by Yale and the National University of Singapore. As I had described in these very pages, Salovey had credited the politicians with recognising that the impending arrival of a messy democracy in Singapore made a more open, liberal-arts education essential for the country’s citizens.
The ground reality of the relation between the government and liberal education in India, especially of the public universities of arts and sciences, has been an ironic opposite, never more so under the government led by the current political alliance, in power since 2014 and now more powerful than ever since the electoral mandate on May 23.
Liberal thought is exactly what has made these universities suspect in the eyes of the government, and this mistrust has spread far and wide in the general population, deepening the perception of universities as bastions of “anti-national” ideologies, propaganda, and action. Leading the charge of the reputation of “anti-nationalism” are the three universities which have been bastions of academic excellence in India — Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and Hyderabad Central University in Hyderabad.
While the dominant model of the Indian public university is traceable to the British colonial model ushered in the three Presidencies in 1857 — Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay — it is not coincidental that these three universities were either set up as part of an anti-colonial movement (Jadavpur) or as parts of a wholly different educational enterprise in independent India (JNU and HCU). But the enmity with the government is simply emblematic of their loss of favour with the Indian population at large, which has, of late, upheld the rhetoric of nationalism that has brought the NDA government back to power and has doubtlessly also led to the electoral defeat of young, radical student leaders such as Kanhaiya Kumar.
It is in the light of this government’s troubled relation with liberal thought that a particular feature stands out in the draft New Education Policy submitted to the Ministry of Human Resource Development by the Kasturirangan Committee. This is its foregrounding of liberal arts education. It comes as striking news not only in the context of India but the world today that the policy imagines the liberal arts as foundational to higher education of any kind. “The needs of the 21st century,” the draft states, “require that liberal broad-based multidisciplinary education become the basis for all higher education.” This includes fields of training that are usually held in direct contrast to liberal arts education: “Such a liberal education would be, in the long run, the approach across all undergraduate programmes, including those in professional, technical, and vocational disciplines.”
This is a welcome hue of innovation in a nation trapped in a sharp binary between an antiquated colonial model of general education in the arts and sciences on one hand, and on the other, a fevered fetish of professional, mainly engineering education. Even champions of liberal education, myself included, have tended to define it against professional education. This is the continued acknowledgement of the binary that goes back to Cardinal Newman’s idea of liberal knowledge as its own end and Immanuel Kant’s formulation of the “higher faculty” of clergy, law and medicine against the “lower faculty” of “philosophy” — which, in today’s formulation, would be the faculty of general arts and sciences. However, here is where the NEP committee has gone beyond the modern western notion of the liberal arts. It has traced the liberal arts as a “liberal definition of the arts” that goes back to the idea of the 64 “kalas” or arts canonised in India’s ancient books, which included singing, playing musical instruments, and painting, but also “‘scientific fields’ such as engineering, medicine, and mathematics”.
Sometimes I worry that the expansive definition of the arts obtained from “kala” threatens to make it almost shapeless. But I can also see that the committee’s understanding of the symbiotic relation between the liberal and the professional stems from this very expansive definition. It helps this narrative of the arts go beyond the modern western notion of the opposition between the two. As such, even as it recognises the liberal and the professional as two different tracks of education, it is able to imagine their mutual energisation as and when possible.
The idea of energising professional education with elements of liberal education is not far from the original vision behind the IITs, which were always meant to go beyond mere technological competence and create a holistically educated technocrat. But this vision has tended to fall by the wayside in the feverish dream of quick upward mobility offered by an engineering degree from an elite institute. “Given that professional and vocational fields are also better served in many cases by those obtaining a liberal education,” the policy states, “professional, technical, and vocational education programmes will arrange to enable arrangements and room for students to pursue a truly liberal undergraduate education.” It is common in the US for professional training in law and medicine to follow a foundational education in the liberal arts and sciences. Whether a developing nation like India can approach this longer and more expensive route is debatable; however, a policy that makes a strong recommendation to bolster professional with liberal education might go some distance to dissolve what has become sharply polarised tracks of Indian higher education.
The policy also recommends the reverse: “All undergraduate liberal education programmes shall have a robust element of skills and professional competence.” It is important not to see this not as an instrumentalisation of liberal education, which would defeat its very purpose — but rather as a broadening of its range to include aspects of experiential learning and community service, that would denude the rarefied, elitist aura around the classical western meaning of liberal education as that meant for the privileged gentleman of leisure.
The unwitting subtext of the bitter conflict between the liberal university and anti-liberal nationalism around the world has often been that between an expansive humanistic education and a sharply instrumentalist one. The proposal of mutual symbiosis between professional and liberal education in the draft of the New Education Policy hints at some possibilities of resolution.
The writer is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University