Man does not live by bread alone

February 10, 2020

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Did you know that some of Silicon Valley’s top-notch personalities are not IT personnel; they belonged to the world of liberal arts and literature. LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Hoffman did his Masters in philosophy; You Tube’s CEO, Susan Wojcicko majored in History and Literature; Airbnb’s founder, Brian Chesky, in the Fine Arts; Alibaa’s CEO, Jack Ma, graduated with a BA in English.

It seems as if coping with challenges that the modern world is confronted with requires the ability to think critically about their human context which persons with a liberal arts background are supposed to be best trained in. The primary function of education is to enhance the humanising potential of Homo sapiens. The other possible alternative is dehumanisation. Between the two, only humanisation can be the real vocation of humankind. The study of liberal arts and science promotes humanisation and also stands as a bulwark against dehumanising forces.

In many European countries it was classical learning that kept the flame of freedom alive through decades of dictatorship. The dehumanising forces threatening humankind today are those let loose by aspects of technology and economy that have become independent of the human element. Hence, the need to reinforce the study of classics and social sciences. One pernicious need to hit the world of letters is usefulness in education. The obsession with earning the power of learning ignores the fact that education should be useful in more ways than one, and that the development of an individual goes far beyond the vocational role it is called upon to fulfil.

Students of liberal arts are likely to view challenges from different perspectives and come to optimum solutions

The effects of such a doctrine can be seen all around us; we have highly technical personnel who may be insensitive towards fundamental human values of compassion, tolerance and magnanimity. It is the liberal arts, far more than professional courses, which may fulfil this role. Their purpose is to develop a set of core capabilities that are essential for survival – the ability to analyse, introspect, contextualise, humanise and sensitise.

Literature sensitises men to human feelings and emotions; History sensitises us to the infinite patterns of life and rhythms of human existence and economics to human condition in the midst of poverty. A psychologist has the distinguishing attributes to know how to motivate people and to understand users’ demand. The study of liberal arts and science is based on two principles.

First is the freedom to reflect, to create, to venture and wonder. Such a freedom requires individuals to be responsible and not just cogs in a well-oiled machine. Such a freedom is far removed from the system of transfer of skills and information that professional courses undertake. Essentially, it is the freedom to be. The second principle is discovery – discovery of new concepts and novel ways of thinking. This discovery delivers us from the mindsets that entrap us. In the ultimate analysis it is the discovery of our own selves.

The argument that these principles are not much reflected in our curricula today is not a reflection of their validity but an argument in favour of the way in which our focus has become blurred. This blurring is often the result of importing the pedagogy of professional courses into social sciences. Mechanical responses, stereotypical methods and programmed performances have reduced the adventure of social sciences into a mundane set of formula only to get through the examinations.

The study of liberal arts evolved during the 20th century to focus almost entirely on personal intellectual development. But what has not been paid attention to is how students can use those abilities effectively in the world. We have created a disjunction between the liberal arts and sciences and our roles as citizens and professionals. The ancient and early medieval universities were established to train persons in professions like divinity, medicine and law. In medieval times the seven liberal arts included grammar, dialectics, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

In modern days a typical liberal arts curriculum might consist of courses in literature, language, mathematics, scientific methods and principles, history, philosophy and perhaps public speaking. By the time modern universities came up, the whole spectrum of knowledge had developed and expanded. During this period of flux most European universities retained only liberal arts courses within their purview. However, fully organised American universities designed conglomerates of all known disciplines considering that all disciplines are equally important and require equal support from the authorities, irrespective of their varying market values.

The traditional university obtaining in Britain was the model transplanted to colonial India. Its purpose was to prepare clerks to serve the vast British Raj. As soon as the imperialists left, the economy changed. But, sadly, we somehow or the other, stuck with the model. To complete the irony, we have grafted elements of the American model into our colonial one.

We condemn their inadequacy, but we allow their uncontrolled production. Interestingly, in the US there are some liberal arts colleges that still enjoy importance and draw international students.

Oxford and Cambridge universities boast of excellent departments that beckon the cream of the crop among international students. A degree in History from Harvard still carries the greatest weight. The common idea is that a traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a vocation, rather for critical thinking. The historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that they develop have a different purpose; they are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a democracy, regardless of career choice.

The importance of liberal arts education in today’s world that is experiencing a paradigm shift in global communications and information technology cannot be overemphasised. Just as mathematics is regarded as the queen of sciences although pure mathematics has no utilitarian value, so too it must be recognised that the liberal arts are the foundation of what we define as knowledge. Liberal arts academics are determined to find meaning in the darkest corners of thought, experience, communication and texts. They can sometimes devote themselves to this task for decades. Literary critic Geoffrey Hartman published into his late seventies; organisation theorist Russell L Ackoff did publish until his death at 86.

Einstein once said, “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen, and thinking what no one else has thought”. Students of liberal arts are likely to view challenges from different perspectives and come to optimum solutions. Hopefully, the new interest in liberal arts education in India is as much about giving young citizens the power to determine their life’s course as it is about sending critically-oriented minds into the country’s broader job sector.

Encouraging the freedom of choice in the lives of all youth is vital to the success of liberal arts education. A recent American survey reveals that the three attributes of college graduates that employers considered most are written communication, problem solving and the ability to work in a team. The need of the hour is to focus on the purpose of liberal arts and science and to recover the joy and adventure that such a study ought to provide.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 10th, 2020