Isn’t It Pragmatic?

Michael Roth explores how and why Indian students are embracing liberal arts education.

April 5, 2017
 
 
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Earlier this semester I traveled to India to talk about the importance of a broad, contextual education -- a pragmatic liberal education. Over the last few years, Indian students fortunate enough to have choices about where to pursue their studies have been, like their counterparts in China, increasingly interested in American liberal arts colleges and universities. They see the virtues of studying a variety of subjects before committing to specialization, and they are attracted to small classes and the opportunities to really get to know their teachers. Granted, this is a very small segment of the population, but it is one that, with the growth in the Indian economy, is getting larger every year.

India’s higher education system is the third largest in the world and is expanding at a startling pace. As University of Pennsylvania political scientist Devesh Kapur has noted, over the last few years several new Indian colleges or universities have opened their doors every single day. Most of those institutions are narrowly and professionally focused: engineering, technology, pharmacy and the like. Similar to for-profit universities in the United States, they attract students with the promise of specialized training in specific skills. Yet such for-profits all too often wind up graduating men and women who have a terribly difficult time finding jobs where they can apply what they have learned. Also, when things change, those graduates can find that their skills have become obsolete. And today, things change fast.

The strongest traditional universities in India, like those in Great Britain and many European countries, encourage early specialization. However, many of the families, teachers and students I met with in Mumbai questioned why one’s destiny needed to be decided at age 15. How could one be so sure than engineering or business or medicine was the right path without having had the opportunity to explore a variety of fields -- or to develop habits of inquiry and a work ethic to make that exploration productive?

There are signs of change. Education leaders across Asia have become interested in moving away from exam-dominated curricula and their requisite memorization and toward experiential, interdisciplinary learning aimed at exploring connections between research and action. Having traditionally insisted on early vocational specialization, universities in India, South Korea and China are now considering how best to encourage the inquiry, collaboration and experimentation that are key to the American pragmatic traditions of liberal education.

Inquiry, collaboration across differences and courageous experimentation require freedom of thought, freedom of speech and the free circulation of ideas. Conformity is the bane of authentic education. A liberal education includes deepening one’s ability to learn from people with whom one does not agree -- an ability all the more important in the face of illiberal forces at work in the world today.

As Pankaj Mishra argues in his new book, Age of Anger, the populist politics of resentment sweeping across many countries substitute demonization for curiosity. New provincialisms and nationalisms are gaining force through fear-based politics. Such orchestrated parochialism is antithetical to liberal learning, and liberal learning is one way to counteract it.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so disturbing to see outbreaks of intolerance on American college campuses. We expect more from our educational institutions. Troubling though occasional outbursts against provocative speakers may be, they should cause far less concern than American policies that scapegoat immigrants or filter ideas through know-nothing nationalism. A refusal on our campuses to counter ideas with arguments, and the easy recourse to juvenile chants and thuggery are indeed signs of educational failure. But I am confident that faculty, students and administrators will find ways to correct this. I am far less sanguine about the ability of our political leaders to find ways to use evidence, reason together and learn from their differences.

Learning across differences in a context of change is a core aspect of liberal education, and the students, business leaders and professors whom I met in India recognized the power of this pedagogy in the contemporary world. Almost everywhere one looks today -- throughout the world -- one sees dramatic changes that are eliminating old jobs and creating new ones. Those adept at using a variety of methodologies have experienced “intellectual cross-training”; they have developed the capacity to continue learning so as to be more empowered to deal with an ever-changing environment.

The importance of technical expertise is obvious, but the problems confronting our world today cannot be addressed by technical specialization alone. Environmental degradation, increasing inequality, international political tensions -- these are complex issues that demand the kind of holistic thinking characteristic of liberal education. Perhaps that’s why some leaders in India are eager to create new institutions that build on the work of traditional educational theorists like Rabindranath Tagore and the example of contemporary institutions like Ashoka University, which has been in the vanguard of offering a liberal arts education in that country.

In Jaipur, I participated in a panel discussion in which everyone deplored the creativity-killing effects of premature specialization. Business strategist Tarun Khanna told the story of a team he works with that has developed an excellent treatment for diabetes. Without an interdisciplinary approach that included communications, cultural studies and design, the medical advances would have gone nowhere. Members of interdisciplinary teams learn from one another because they approach issues from very different perspectives: pragmatic liberal education at work.

I am encouraged to see more Indian students coming to liberal arts colleges and universities like mine to pursue a broadly interdisciplinary education that they can put to work in the world. With the current administration’s legitimation of hostility to immigrants, this trend may not continue. Be that as it may, I am even more encouraged to know of Indian educators and entrepreneurs developing plans to create higher education institutions in their country that will provide a much larger number of students the opportunity to combine science, the arts, the humanities and social sciences into creative endeavors that will have positive benefits for economic, cultural and political life. Liberal education will prove to be pragmatic for those students, and for India, too.

Bio

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

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