Liberal Arts:More Important Now Than Ever

In today’s increasingly evolving ,interdependent global world we need youth who are grounded, capable of navigating rapid changes and cultural differences and  having flexibility  to continually learn new skills . Liberal Arts education is conducive in developing  these qualities.Derived from the latin word liberalis meaning free and ars,art or principled practice, Liberal Arts  Education ( LAE) does not focus on just the arts. It is inclusive of the Natural sciences , Social science ,Mathematics, Philosophy, Religious studies, as well as, Fine Arts . The essence of liberal education is to develop the freedom to think critically and independently, to cultivate one’s mind to the fullest potential and to liberate oneself from prejudice, dogma and superstition(The Yale Report 1828)

Liberal arts education isn’t a novel concept. In fact, it is an ancient tradition of learning that originated in ancient Greece ,from where it got transmitted to Roman and medieval world. With time via Renaissance it expanded to the schools and universities of modern Europe and America. India also had a  tradition of Liberal Arts Education. At the classical Indian centres of learning Takshashila and Nalanda, students came from across the world to study language, philosophy, ayurveda, politics, warfare, astronomy, commerce, the fine arts and much more. These institutions trained some fine scholarly minds from India, China and Japan. Chanakya (philosopher and economist) and Panini (father of Sanskrit grammar)were among them. However, over time Indian education system evolved in a manner which was narrow ,not allowing enough space for students  to discover and explore their interests and passion . This is true of most of the Asian countries where technical and specialized  education became  the forefront. There was merit in emphasizing technical education in the earlier stages of economic development.However,today with economies becoming more diverse, where an individual is more likely to make 5-7  career changes in his lifetime,Liberal education is what is required. The new National Education Policy of India 2020 also exhorts education to be liberal in character. The underlying principles of the policy is to “develop good human beings” who are rational and critical thinkers. In an era of rapid knowledge generation and technological change, the NEP rightly recognizes that a rush towards achieving narrow specialist skills too early in the cognitive development stage of children and young adults may be detrimental later in their lives.

Why consider a Liberal arts education?

Firstly a liberal arts education expands the capacity of the mind to think critically and analyze information effectively. Logic, reasoning and intellectual openness broaden the mind and enable individuals to gather and process information so that they may make informed decisions, based on reason, not emotion. Secondly LAE promotes innovative thought and action in individuals. According to Jack Ma,the founder of Alibaba,  the Chinese are not as innovative as westerners as China’s educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not allow experimentation  and enjoyment  while learning.LAE addresses this by enhancing space for students where they acquire wide ranging skills and multifaced world view. They develop skills of  creativity, the ability to think outside the box, and openness to multiple perspectives.  Thirdly,LAE prepares individuals for multicultural life by making them aware of variety of cultures and  effective intercultural communication . It encourages students to think beyond their own perspectives, to develop empathy for multiple perspectives, even when that challenges their own views .Fourthly,LAE  fosters self awareness and self criticism,thus promoting  examination of one’s own prejudices and assumptions. Fifthly, Employers endorse it .As per the findings from six earlier surveys commissioned by AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities) , employers overwhelmingly endorse broad learning and cross-cutting skills as the best preparation for long-term career success. Reports by E&Y and Deloitte emphasize that employers are placing higher value on critical thinking ,problem solving and communication skill than vocational schooling when recruiting graduates.

Looking forward

The global world is changing very fast and our young college graduates will have to deal with disruptions  in the coming decades. No longer can they just garner specialised skills. Instead, they need 21st century skills that will allow them to evolve with the changing time. Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, argues that it is a broad focus on a range of subjects, rather than on career or vocational skills that will prepare young people for the future. According to Michael Milligan, CEO and Executive Director ABET students exposed to art integrated  science knowledge will “play a vital role in developing meaningful solutions to societal problems, such as the (COVID-19) public health crisis we are currently facing,”.

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