Changing mindsets: Liberal Arts education in India

Updated: 20 November, 2020 12:39 IST | A correspondent | Mumbai

Liberal arts colleges in India are paving the way for those who are looking for a liberal education close to home

Ashoka University
Ashoka University

Are you a fuzzy or a techie? These terms, first coined at Stanford University, differentiates between students who study humanities and social sciences (fuzzy) with those who pursue computer science and pure sciences (techie). This informal division, explained by Scott Hartley in his book The Fuzzy and the Techie, is accepted worldwide, with liberal arts often being a part of the “fuzzies” camp. However, the true definition of a liberal arts education is one that awards a non-professional qualification. This means that all subjects outside of medicine, engineering, and business are considered a part of liberal arts, not just those confined to humanities, social sciences and languages.

Liberal arts education isn’t a novel concept. In fact, it dates back to the ancient Greco-Roman world which combined lessons in grammar, rhetoric and logic, later expanding this to all subjects aiming to provide a general education. This still continues to be the goal of a liberal arts education, which has become the foundation of education systems in North America, with Yale University first adopting this concept after the Yale Report 1828. Today, there are over 500 US universities that pride themselves on being completely “liberal arts” where they do NOT offer professional degree programmes. Some of these colleges are Williams College and Pomona College.

In India, however, the higher education system has mimicked that of the UK. At the age of 17, students are expected to apply to a particular major and then study only that subject for the duration of their undergraduate degree. This decision is usually based on their strongest subjects in high school, which may not always be the best path. Recognising the need to update and change this perspective, various world-class liberal arts colleges have been established in India over the past few years. In fact, in July this year, the Indian government released a new National Education Policy aiming to make it multidisciplinary and orientate it towards critical thinking and problem solving.

Liberal arts colleges in India are paving the way for those who are looking for a liberal education close to home. Explaining his choice to study liberal arts at Ashoka University, Ishaan Khosla, a third-year student says, "A liberal arts education is ideal if you want to explore your options, rather than be boxed in a particular field. Initially, I wanted to be an engineer and was even studying for the JEE before changing course and applying to Ashoka University. At Ashoka University, I took courses in physics as well as philosophy, politics and economics to really explore my options. Now I am majoring in politics and international relations. I would have never got this breadth of study, had I continued down the engineering route." He also goes on to say that at Ashoka University he is able  “to interact with Indian intellectuals and academia on a personal level which is instrumental for my growth as a student. The small classrooms coupled with mentorship from India’s finest intellectuals were a crucial factor in why I chose Ashoka University.”

Here are some unique aspects of the liberal arts curriculum:

1.            No pre-decided majors:

While traditional colleges will ask you to submit an intended major when you apply, this is not required for a liberal arts college. To graduate, students need to fulfil a certain number of credits, which are a combination of courses that are related to their major along with some general education requirements (GERs). Students use the first two years (in fact it’s mandatory) to fulfil the GERs and then declare their major at the end of the second year. Their last two years are focused on courses that specialise in that major. Discussing the policy at O.P. Jindal Global University, Ankur Vohra, Head - Outreach & International Admissions says,  “At O.P. Jindal, it is only after the third semester that students need to declare their major. We have 19 core courses which are done in the first three semesters and are common for everyone.”

2.            Fours years versus three years:

Most liberal arts programmes can be completed in three years. However, most students prefer to add on a fourth year so that they can graduate with a double major or a major and minor. According to Parneet Shergill, Associate Director of Outreach, Ashoka University, “As per the University Grants Commission guidelines, we award a BA (Hons) or BSc (Hons) degree to the student after three years. The fourth-year is optional but recommended for students who are looking for a liberal arts education. The fourth-year gives you a Diploma in Advanced Studies and Research. A liberal education is complete if one does the four years.”

3.            Breadth rather than depth

The idea of a liberal arts education is to make connections between subjects and look at problems from various perspectives rather than study one topic in depth from one angle. For example, the gender pay gap in India can be looked at from an economic, social, psychological, historical and even scientific perspective. Liberal arts students are taught to look at questions from different angles and bring in multiple ideas during discussions. Dr Raghavan Rangarajan, Dean of the Undergraduate College, Ahmedabad University says, “Our signature Foundation Programme is holistic, and based on the idea of a phenomenon-driven core curriculum. For example, in a studio (class) on water, students will learn to connect disciplines like biology, gender studies and economics to find solutions to issues related to water.”

Below are some popular Liberal arts colleges in India: 

Ahmedabad University

Ahmedabad University:

Founded in 2009 by the Ahmedabad Education Society (AES), in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Ahmedabad University is known for its multidisciplinary, experiential education with a focus on building research thinking. They focus on four ways to learn: Ways of Thinking, Ways of Doing, Ways of Connecting, and Ways of Becoming.

Ashoka University

Ashoka University:

With 150+ founders including Vineet Gupta, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, Ashish Dhawan and Pramath Sinha, Ashoka University opened its doors in 2014 in Sonipat, Haryana. It emphasises philanthropy and helps students develop skills such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration with its interdisciplinary approach.

FLAME University

FLAME University:

Since 2014, the Pune-based FLAME University–founded by Nemish Shah, Parag Shah, Vallabh Bhanshali and Anil Singhvi–has been encouraging students to explore a focused yet interdisciplinary curriculum with its unique Guru-Shishya Philosophy. Students can also take advantage of its research opportunities and experiential learning.

KREA University

KREA University:

The newest college on the list, KREA University was founded in 2018 in Sri City, Andhra Pradesh. Backed by the Institute of Financial Management and Research (IFMR), Chennai and philanthropic contributions from several of its 16-member governing council, its School of Interwoven Arts and Sciences (SIAS) has pioneered the Interwoven Learning Model that weaves together the traditional humanistic approach of liberal arts with recognition of quantitative and technical skills.

OP Jindal University

O.P. Jindal Global University:

Another college based in Sonipat, Haryana, O.P. Jindal Global University was founded in 2013 by Prof. Dr. C. Raj Kumar and Prof. Dr. Kathleen Modrowski. It offers students an interdisciplinary education, with international collaborations, experiential learning and access to faculty from around the globe.

Each institution has its own application requirements, which are outlined below:

Indian Liberal Arts College

Author bio:

Written by Namita Mehta, who has been in the college counselling space for more than eleven years. She established the University Guidance Counselling Department at B.D.Somani International School in Mumbai before joining The Red Pen where she currently serves as President.

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First Published: 18 November, 2020 10:54 IST

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