How Liberal Arts in NEP 2019 can ensure real education to students

Dr. Uma Narain, Fulbright Fellow and founding Dean, JDSoLA, NMIMS University, Mumbai in an exclusive interview to Devdiscourse, argues that the recommendations for the Liberal Arts in the Draft National Education Policy 2019, are revolutionary. “The VUCA world has necessitated a rethink on education because the product of academia is no longer directly employable,” says Narain. Read the Full Interview.

Siddheshwar  ShuklaSiddheshwar Shukla | Updated: 03-07-2019 20:15 IST | Created: 03-07-2019 17:10 IST
How Liberal Arts in NEP 2019 can ensure real education to students
Dr. Uma Narain, Fulbright Fellow and founding Dean, Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts, NMIMS University, Mumbai Image Credit: JDSoLA

The Draft National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 envisions heralding Indian education into an era of Liberal Arts or Liberal Education. Though entire NEP from school education to higher education to professional and vocational education revolves around the central idea of the Liberal Arts, Chapter 11 – 'Towards More Liberal Education' – reveals the direction in which the new dispensation aims to sail through the future generations of the country.

What is a liberal education? How will it impact future generations? There are several questions floating around. Though new for the public education system, the Liberal Arts or Liberal Education is not alien to India. In a telephonic conversation with Siddheshwar Shukla, Associate Editor, Devdiscourse, Dr Uma Narain, Fulbright Fellow and founding Dean, Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts, NMIMS University, Mumbai, shares her views on the provision of Liberal Arts in the Draft National Education Policy 2019. Edited Excerpts:

How do you view the recommendations for Liberal Arts in the Draft NEP 2019?

I heartily welcome the Draft National Education Policy 2019. This was long overdue. The draft is visionary in scope and magnitude (Liberal Arts for all; and 50% GER), comprehensive and yet granular in detail, and it is inclusive in outreach (one HEI per district). Part II gives an astute assessment of the eight challenges plaguing the current state of affairs in tertiary education followed by clear cut goals and objectives with differential time-lines and action plan. The message is forthright assertive and the intention loud and clear – 'shape up or ship out'. For me as a Dean who founded a School of Liberal Arts 3 years back, it is a déjà vu of a calling we answered at NMIMS University.

What delights me most is the return of the dignity of Humanities and Social Sciences which had lost its shine before professional education and called education for 'fuzzies'. I also welcome the 4-year duration for Bachelor of Liberal Arts (BLA) degree. When we were deciding the nomenclature of the degree at our school, the category did not exist.

Should Liberal Arts be an integral part of higher education in all the streams – Humanities, Science, Technology and Medical?

I totally agree that Liberal Arts should be an integral part of education both for its own sake and as a facilitator for continued employment for techies as well as Arts students. Introducing it with a bang, across the spectrum of education is bold. The push from the government is necessary otherwise some of us will continue to follow the existing pattern because it continues to sell. The Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) world has necessitated a rethink on education because the product of academia is no longer directly employable. The prevalent education system has got us thus far, but no further. With 5G, artificial intelligence and data analytics, the way we live and work today will change forever - half the jobs we are certain of today will disappear and a new set of jobs that we may not be able to envision today will emerge. Therefore, the challenge before educationist is: what do we teach to prepare a student for the VUCA world this is upon us? The seismic changes will be felt in the next 5 years. The return to fundamentals is one way: teach fundamental skills of creative thinking, problem-solving, and creative writing so that one can reinvent the skill set for any career tomorrow. In other words, students should 'learn how to learn'. Liberal Arts and Liberal education is a time tested path as our own heritage of Nalanda, Takshila and the Ivy leagues endorse. A student should learn a wide array of subjects to intellectually understanding the lens of every subject and thereafter select specialization in a discipline.

What ails the present education system in India?

In recent times, education has become theory based (not application oriented) and the entire process is geared towards passing exams and grade inflation (99.9% marks? Give me a break. Where are the Tagores and Einsteins?). Life is composite and complex and living and working require not only multiple intelligences but the application of knowledge in real life situations, without a safety net. This experience creates wisdom. The education system has veered more towards information and data - reflection leading to knowledge and wisdom both are missing from the current process. That is why you would find stressed people not able to cope up with job pressures. How did we land up in a mess like this? There is a history to it. After independence, nation building required scientists and technologists. This led to the birth of IITs and engineering colleges - and it was good because it offered immediate employment. But Humanities and Social Sciences lagged behind and consequently did not reinvent the curriculum. We continued to follow the Colonial structure, the Macaulay paradigm that advocated an education system to create subservient Indians. Why else would a course in literature be still about British Literature? Today, the young know Shakespeare and Wordsworth much more than other powerful literature being written in several regional languages in India and abroad. If literature helps us understand the collective or individual consciousness of people, then it is as much the business of problem analysis as it is for aesthetics. In fact, I would even state that the tools of Literature, i.e. ability to read ethically by decoding images and metaphors, should be a basic skill taught to administrators and lawyers so that they do not misread the constitution or law. A fundamental shift in thinking has been long overdue - an act that Draft NEP 2019 promises to correct.

What is the ideal form for Liberal Arts education?

People often ask me: what subjects constitute Liberal Arts in your school? Well, Liberal Arts is not a discipline, it is an approach to learning. In Humanities, we will still teach partition of India in History but will also integrate it with literature written on partition in the Literature class and then discuss the residual social impact of partition in Sociology class. This process leads to a holistic understanding. Liberal Arts pedagogy is trans-disciplinary in approach so that a student can understand the relevance of what happened during a particular time in History. Can we solve the Rohingya issue without first understanding the history, sociology or economics of a particular group of people? That is the point. The education must be trans-disciplinary, integrative and holistic.

Is the idea of Liberal Arts feasible in Indian circumstances?

I can imagine the mammoth challenges in implementing Liberal Arts across boards but the intention of draft NEP 2019 seems to be honest, ambitious and augurs well. The formulators of the draft have thought through extensively and many more details, not included in the draft, will emerge. It is a brilliant start. From a distance, I can only say that it would entail massive restructuring, planning and lot more training and hand-holding from liberal arts academicians and change management experts. The major problem I foresee is deeply entrenched habits and mindset; it does not change overnight with structural reform. In spite of these challenges, it has to be made feasible and the government alone has the power to push it. Education has a larger role - it must prepare the students for life (humane qualities and lifestyle) and living (continuous employability). By 2030, India will have a strategic demographic advantage of having the largest number of young population. If we take action now, India can really be the superpower and provide the workforce to the world in the immediate future.

Is the Western Model of Liberal Arts is the only option or there is scope for developing indigenous models with a global perspective?

Well, I can only speak of my journey at the school. We live in a global knowledge economy and our model should be both context-free and context centric – in other words, 'glocal'. I found inspiration from two great philosophers: J. Krishnamurti who had stated that 'the true purpose of education should be natural flowering of the mind', and Rabindra Nath Tagore who spoke about the 'mind without fear'. I borrowed two concepts from these thinkers: one, every student is uniquely gifted and instead of conforming to a standard outcome, let it be a flowering of the individual talent specific to a learner - excellence is more likely to be achieved this way; second, the role of the educator is to provide a safe learning context for learning so as to retain the joy of exploration and discovery. The role of a faculty is that of a facilitator and the focus shifts from teacher to learner. A student should learn the basics of everything in the first two years and then make an informed choice about specialization in remaining year/s and not go for specialization choices based on socially pushed hierarchy. All these aspects have been covered in the School of Liberal Arts at NMIMS and we can share the experience. We have countered another critique of liberal arts education which relates to employment. Consequently, we factored career aligned courses for specialization in the third year in Mass media, Marketing Communication, Film/Theatre and other performing arts, Public Administration and Entrepreneurship in addition to major in core subjects like Political Science, History, Literature and Psychology etc. If the program expands to 4 years, it would afford a greater scope for strengthening the specialization.

What is the relevance of Liberal Arts in Indian Education?

It is not only relevant but also urgently required. Rote learning, outdated syllabi and teaching in silos are already being questioned as these will be inadequate in times to come. The VUCA world is upon us - it not about one-time change, it is about continuous change as a way of life - change that is much sooner and faster than we have known before. Biotech i.e. brain research on how the human mind works will enable programming machines to replicate the human brain and Infotech with the 5G facility will integrate the system and speed up communication. To remain employable, the transformation and up-gradation of skill are going to be the norm otherwise technology will replace the human workforce and do the job much more efficiently and without human error. Human beings may not communicate with each other but the integrated systems do (thanks to IoT). Second, in a globalized world, education has to prepare students for the global knowledge economy. In such a scenario, how to derive practical wisdom from theories and concepts to find a creative solution to unforeseen problems anywhere in the world, will be required. Third, good communication skills both in speech and writing will be critical otherwise co-existence will become difficult. The world is already witnessing more strife. Fourth, the volatile political climate of the world will need the skill of an immigrant for survival. Liberal Arts education may not solve all of these but at least it has the wherewithal to awaken multiple intelligences. Broad-based learning has a greater chance of being relevant than narrow specialization or only technical education. Experiential learning is a powerful pedagogy of liberal education that enhances understanding and imparts practical literacy. Exploration through research and purposeful 'meandering' are common tools of liberal arts education.

Today, the Liberal Art is relevant for several technical and management functions also e.g. critical thinking and writing are required to create the logic for the algorithm and data analytics; in management, customer relations, marketing communication functions require liberal arts attitude. At the family level, it means better-adjusted people and fewer divorces.

How will Liberal Arts produce good human beings?

I view it as not only good human beings, good citizens and sensate participants in democracy. Liberal Arts education shapes holistic personality by developing social skills like effective communication skills, interpersonal skills, ability to understand the perspective of others, conflict resolution and ability to make decisions wisely. Whether it is family, the workplace or at the country level, or even international level, relationship management requires understanding psychology, sociology, history, morality and ethics and even economics. In life, we require basic understanding and use of all the disciplines in humanities and social sciences. As I said before, a lawyer needs to decode law like textual analysis in literature. Every subject is a referent lens to understand life. Multiple lenses create high definition picture and a better understanding of the problem. Therefore, broad-based education creates good human beings and good citizens. In fact, Liberal Arts education is a leadership development plan. We all know that in ancient India, kings used to send their sons to the ashram of the 'guru' where they learnt essential life skills. Plato's concept of training the 'philosopher-king' is about liberal arts education.

What are the challenges for implementing Liberal Arts Education?

Well, change management is always a formidable task. There is resistance to change as it threatens self-preservation and survival. Change Management literature acknowledges these challenges and proposes several strategies to surmount them. Organization culture, which means how people behave, perform and interact with colleagues in a system, is rigid about change. All management thinkers and practitioners unanimously agree that older the organization, more deeply entrenched is the organizational culture, and consequently more difficult the implementation of change. The irony is that the VUCA world requires everybody to change and change continuously. The same is true of bringing in Liberal Arts perspective across the country. In the education sector, there are three fundamental stakeholders, each with different levels of resistance - students, parents and faculty.

Students who are accustomed to rote learning and exam oriented study find it difficult to adjust to open exploration in liberal arts where it is encouraged to listen to and accommodate several divergent perspectives; where it is alright not to have one normative readymade solution. Students will have to study for the whole year and not just 15 days before the examination. I have observed that once students understand the purpose, they will adapt but this requires a regular conversation with them otherwise certain changes may happen without touching the actual benefit. Similarly, parents need assurance of the purpose, utility and benefit of Liberal Arts education. Not all parents understand today. Many ask me about specialization options right at the beginning and the liberal arts model is based on a wide bouquet of subjects in the first stage. They also express apprehension about the inability of their ward to show interest in every subject. Still, these two groups are easier to handle, the third stakeholder, the faculty mindset is more difficult to handle. Liberal Arts education requires a faculty to have a broad-based knowledge of not only their subject but inter-connectedness with other subjects. They also need to be academic mentors to students. Today, a faculty is only concerned about theory-based classroom delivery - they work in silos and rarely communicate with other faculty to integrate academic inputs. There are administrative hurdles also. Faculty workload is assessed as per workload norms which only capture classroom teaching hours. Liberal Arts education is as much about non-classroom learning as about classroom teaching (I am making a distinction here between 'teaching' and 'learning'. Learning is the purpose of education and not teaching. This is a profound concept that requires detailed independent discussion). So the challenge for the government is that there may not be enough trained faculty available for immediate implementation of Liberal Arts education across the board.

The overall challenge is of scale and magnitude - the student population is large. But as I said before, change management is a well-researched domain and there are well-defined ways to go about it.

What should be the roadmap to transform Indian universities into centres of Liberal Arts?

On the part of the institutions, this exercise requires a change in approach and clarity of objectives and processes. I am sure the formulators of the draft NEP have taken every aspect into account. Let the fingerprint emerge. Mission Nalanda and Takshila (MERU) offer interim and immediate process. I am sure a road map with detailed milestones can be worked out. The intention of the policy is certainly not just change the 'label' of existing institutions, regrouping is with a purpose. The proposal is targeted at 600 Type 1 and Type 2 Higher Education Institutions by 2030. The adapters will become role models for others and will mentor other institutes – same way as new IITs and IIMs are being mentored by established ones. Of course, it will involve training programs for the faculty and academic administrators and sincere hand-holding during the initial phase. The regulators should have tolerance for experimentation and phases of intermittent failure. Regrouping the existing colleges and universities is sure to ruffle feathers. Impressed by novelty, most institutions would claim membership of the new category with cosmetic implementation. I am not suggesting that it should not be done. I am saying, this may require academicians with restructuring and change management expertise, consultants and facilitators.

Some universities and institutes in India are already running inter-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary programmes. How is Liberal Arts different from these courses?

I think these institutes have a head start – the question is of scalability. The intention of draft NEP 2019 is much wider in scale and magnitude.

It is said that the Liberal Arts is simply a reshuffling of the existing disciplines. What is your view?

That is not true. Liberal Art is an approach to learning (not teaching) the same domain with its interconnectedness to several other dimensions. Let us take one example from professional courses like the MBBS. A doctor needs to understand the anatomy and physiology of the human body; then learn symptoms of diseases and options for medication or surgery. Then during 3rd year, experiential learning by way of ward visits, followed by internships. This is a good model. Now let us apply the Liberal Arts perspective to this. Today, it is widely acknowledged that practising medical profession requires team skills and interdependence with other team members (technicians, nursing staff, ward staff and other professionals like Anaesthetist and junior doctors) – this means management skills of teamwork and coordination with people involved in the value chain at the hospital - this is never taught in the curriculum. Handling patients requires understanding their sociology, economics, psychology and communication skills – medical care must take these into account for optimizing healing. While one learns on the job, these aspects could be part of the curricula.

Now let us take the example from Performing Arts. Theatre and films are collaborative arts requiring actors, set designers, technician, composer, costume designer, floor manager etc. Now let us look at the processes: finding a story is about product identification, casting is about recruitment, rehearsals are about product development and final performance is about product launch – all these are topics drawn from management education. The creative process of developing the plot requires inputs from Humanities and Social Science. Could director Prakash Jha have made the film Rajneeti without knowing the sociology of caste system, the psychology of different characters, the economic condition of the state and the politics of Bihar? Life is an amalgamation of all the disciplines. In schools, we teach them in silos because it is convenient. However, the knowledge of each discipline needs to be integrated and presented in a holistic way. Here comes the role of the Liberal Arts.

What changes, according to you, Liberal Arts could bring in the higher education system in India?

It is a matter of time but eventually, Liberal Arts will transform and completely revolutionize the education in India. Today, too early specialization in education is creating one-eyed scholars who are so convinced of knowledge of their one discipline. It is what I call the 'Elephant & the Blind Men Syndrome' – each blind man was convinced that the elephant is a wall, not a pillar or a rope or a fan – and all of them were wrong. I repeat, integrative, trans-disciplinary and practice-oriented education will enhance value creation in education.

Social media has further compounded the problem. Narrow specialization and freedom and ease of communication have made people react emotionally than from intellectual understanding of issues and checking the facts. In such a situation, high emotionalism drives behaviour. We are witnessing every day. So the virtue of balanced and critical thinking is essential to save society from the backlash of social media.

What is the significance of Liberal Arts in school education?

Indian schools are teaching various subjects but not in an integrated and holistic way. The Liberal Arts approach till Grade 8 is not sufficient as the power of critical thinking is not much developed in students. Therefore, this should continue up to the under-graduate level. If an 18-year-old is eligible to exercise franchise and help select the political leader of the country, she is old enough to think critically and choose wisely.

I think at the primary and secondary level, abstract concepts can be better understood by liberal arts pedagogic tools and some schools are already doing a good job. What they are not doing is - integration and superimposition. Can we teach them life through the game of 'snakes and ladders' by discussing why a ladder takes you to 92 and a snake bites you at 98? What better way there could be to tech uncertainty and ambiguity in life? But I agree, at the junior level, the challenge is bigger because the kids are more vulnerable.

If the institutes like AIIMS, PGI Chandigarh, IITs, IIMs, IITs, etc will start courses in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities; how will they be able to maintain focus on their specializations?

We are assuming that it is a case of 'either-or' - either specialization or broad-based education. How about substituting 'either-or' with 'and'. In the examples given earlier, specialization becomes more efficient within the context of broad-based knowledge. To quote from the Draft NEP 2019 remarks by journalist Fareed Zakaria, the purpose of liberal arts education is not simply to prepare for one's first job, but also for one's second job, third job, and beyond. With the coming of the fourth industrial revolution and the rapidly changing employment landscape, a liberal arts education is more important and useful for one's employment than ever before". I agree.

A doctor, engineer and manager will benefit from liberal arts even if one were to find employment in the area of specialisation. But if one is forced to reinvent, as the threat of the VUCA world, the chances of a broad-based education to morph into new skill sets are higher for employability than just one domain specialisation. Look at the fate of IT specialist in the age group of 45-50 – they have no jobs. Outsourcing and lower end IT jobs are gone and it is too late to learn AI and Data Analytics.

There are several research institutes funded by ICSSR working in specialised areas. Will the research standards not be compromised if they are merged with universities?

Research is about curiosity and exploration in any field. There are two types of research: Fundamental research and applied research – both are required. For the latter, if the researcher is connected with society, there are chances of utilitarian research happening, which benefit the community & society. The draft makes the important point about community and environment based research and not some abstraction. It is a good idea, not dilution. Both fundamental and applied research happens at the intersection of disciplines e.g. orthopaedics and mechanical engineering intersection for research on joints. 'Jaipur foot' is a response to the socio-economic need of society. Necessity is the mother of invention. Where is the harm or dilution?

The policy also proposes 'Indian Institutes of Liberal Arts' on the pattern of IIMs/IITs. How do you view this proposal?

I have no immediate comment about this. Need to reflect more.

Do you find any scope for indigenous subjects in the Liberal Arts?

Absolutely! This is what I referred to earlier as 'in-context' education which rides on local and native wisdom. As a professor of Literature, I have had to contextualize all the time. How do you teach Wordsworth's poem Daffodils to students in India when students have neither seen the flower nor can they imagine 'ten thousands' of them 'fluttering and dancing in the breeze' on the British meadows? I evoked the image of mustard flower fields that all of them had seen, the second instance was to explain the beautiful climate of summers lauded in English literature when summers in the north of India is a time of intense heat wave. Therefore, native wisdom enriches the learning of concepts and indigenous examples help. There is immense richness in indigenous wisdom. I have been toying with the idea of starting a course in my school on Indian proverbs and sayings that have guided the common man for centuries. The professors in Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai are studying astronomy through the eyes of the tribal communities who depended on reading the stars for guidance. There is enough scope for indigenous and tribal knowledge in Liberal Arts.

Kautilya's Arthshastra comprises knowledge regarding various modern disciplines like political science, diplomacy, sociology, ethics, military science etc. Do you think, Arthshastra of Kautilya has any scope in the Liberal Arts?

Well, Kautilya is already part of the Business Strategy class in the MBA programme. Arth Shastra and Natya Shastra are seminal works. They have been heavily researched for relevance in the present context and inducted into the syllabus. I would say the same for Art of War and Mahabharat. The scope of these ancient texts is vast. Liberal Arts are comfortable in using them.

Ayurveda advocates for the holistic health of a person. Do you find any scope of a course on Ayurveda under the Liberal Arts particularly to teach students about holistic health comprising curative treatment, preventive care, mental health, emotional health and spiritual health?

Certainly. The Liberal Arts is the name of holistic and composite learning. It could be from anywhere. ‎Alternate ways of healing whether it is yoga or Ayurveda is time tested. They have been recognized and practised all over the world. It is a proud heritage of India.

Thank you.

  • Devdiscourse



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