The National Education Policy 2019, framed by a committee headed by Dr K. Kasturirangan, a former chief of the Indian space agency Isro, submitted its report to the human resources development ministry in late May. It included two parts — school and university. The government has periodically paid lip service to the strengths of liberal education at both undergraduate and graduate levels. But a specific promotion of liberal education has eluded us since the spotlight on science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) is increasingly misinterpreted with an excessive attention to toolsy skills. If liberal education takes root as the new policy aims it to, it could return to a traditional definition of the purpose of education in society. (There is a thin difference between liberal education and liberal arts education, so I use the words, liberal education, here.)
Every two years, the World Economic Forum identifies a set of skills (although I dispute that term and would rather call them competencies) that will be most useful for the next five years. The ones that top the list for 2020 are problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity. The industry has set the trend towards thinking, not merely skilled, professionals.
Yet, most technical graduates struggle to put together a basic presentation or to solve an operational problem. That is why we need to transit quickly to a democratised way of learning where a student can take a variety of courses across departments and colleges in order to fulfil an objective that gets defined along the way to graduation.
In its most indisputable meaning, liberal education promotes human empowerment, preparing students to deal with complexity, diversity and change. While providing a worldview, it also offers the opportunity to specialise in one area of study. Significantly, it helps the student develop a sense of social purpose and responsibility and competencies such as communication and problem-solving.
The biggest strengths of liberal education are that it simultaneously promotes a gestalt, wide-spectrum thinking and its practice on the ground, thereby balancing emphases on concepts and skills. It holds immense scope to foster interdisciplinarity.
Although liberal education has often been criticised for being elitist and having failed to instil critical normative goals among its students, we should really see the policy as an effort to revive the true purpose of liberal education that is framed to embrace new realities of technology and adopt principles beyond narrow constructs of a specific industrial phase.
Interdisciplinarity is the key: Breaking down walls is the key that will unlock such newly recognised competencies. Very few universities have implemented interdisciplinarity in its truest meaning, largely because of its perceived operational complexities. An interdisciplinary graduate will make a far superior journalist, politician, or administrator. But today's technology industries are fast recognising the importance of interdisciplinarity, as we transit from domain silos to connectedness. These are job-ready positions, unlike “economist” or “political scientist”. Even though these older positions may be seeing a revival thanks to political research groups and think tanks, they are still far and few between. In our quest for about half a century, a 360-degree worldview has been lacking.
By definition, liberal education and interdisciplinarity are joined at the hip, and that augurs well for the need for sets of complex competencies. The linkage comes with its own imperatives. Content and methodology must go together. Learning outcomes must be drawn to bridge the academic industry gaps. This, in turn, may necessitate involving practising industries into identifying those goals. Learning must be mapped and measured as a progressive continuum. The assessment must adopt a well-rounded view of competencies, capabilities, and both conceptual and practical output, the details of which must be made transparently available.
Training to train: The biggest obstacle and challenge in the implementation of a liberal education policy would be its effective practice. All over the world, the accent in our Ph.D. programmes is excessively on research and very little on teaching methodologies. The NEP wants a restructuring of universities into teaching and research centres. So much so, it is even possible to question the practicality of a doctoral degree requirement. Even today, the emphasis while selecting faculty is on prior knowledge, not on methodology, on personal scholarship and not on its deliverability. That must change, and before using a testing mechanism, a massive programme must be launched to train university faculty.
Higher education’s purpose has been questioned time and again. Some scholars go as far as to say that there is a crisis in the institution of the university. We can only hope that this will fructify as a step towards futuristic policies that ensure the right balance between a worldview and a practical view, between concepts and the ability to implement real problems using those concepts. Concerns will remain as to the implementation of this new paradigm in education, especially in that it will require institutional and faculty training at a massive, national scale — and with far more success than we have seen so far with skill training programmes.
For better or worse, a new reflexive nationalism is arising as the concept of globalisation is in decline. A spurious intellectualism-versus-culture debate has resurfaced after it died down 50 years ago in the United States. This is also a time when many of us lament that the new generations are not adequately informed citizens, especially in a global economy.
That is why it is especially commendable that the new policy hopes to promote a deeper, more intellectual understanding of the progressive values enshrined in our constitution. India's constitution and the concept of liberal education agree on several aspects, including an emphasis on democracy, pluralism and non-relativistic tolerance. If indeed this government is serious about this policy, it would be evidence of a more liberal stance than its rhetoric and even some ground realities.
Socrates had envisioned a university to provide a good life based on reason, and Unesco drew the contours by defining education in terms of learning to know, do, be, and live together. Could this policy envision a return to that reason and a framework that helps bridge gaps rather than create them?...