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Liberal Education Is in Vogue in India

By Ganeshdatta Poddar

December 10, 2021

Liberal education is in vogue in India.

Over the past two decades, liberal education programs have proliferated at private institutions across the country, including Ahmedabad University, O. P. Jindal Global University, Ashoka University, Shiv Nadar University, FLAME University, Krea University, and others.

At first, this growth was not driven by the Indian government. The inspiration came from US colleges and universities, which increasingly embrace liberal education as an “approach to undergraduate education that promotes integration of learning across the curriculum and cocurriculum, and between academic and experiential learning, in order to develop specific learning outcomes that are essential for work, citizenship, and life.” The growth also came from disillusionment with India’s traditional system of education, which created a binary between general education in the arts and sciences, on the one hand, and professional education on the other.

While these private institutions produced a marked increase in access to a liberal education for students from privileged backgrounds, the Indian government’s National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) made providing a liberal education for all students an important public policy goal. The NEP’s approach to liberal education is being hailed as a game-changer in India, a panacea for the ills afflicting the education system that will restore India to its former glory as a knowledge and wisdom hub.

The debates taking place in elite circles in India, especially among educators at liberal education institutions, revolve around program design, pedagogy, and the benefits of the US model of liberal arts and sciences education. What are generally ignored in these debates are the larger issues of the nature of democracy and the complexity of adapting liberal education for the social structure in India.

In the United States, many of the White Americans who resisted “systemic hate propaganda against Muslims, people of colour, Latinos and immigrants” had experienced the benefits of a college education, writes Harsh Mander, an author and human rights activist who directs the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi. “By striking contrast,” Mander continues,

in India, the greatest support of divisive hate ideologies lies with people with the highest levels of education and privilege. I find much greater instinctive willingness for peaceful and respectful co-living between people of difference in India among people who have been denied education and benefits of economic growth. This illuminates worryingly what higher education does to those who benefit from it in India: far from building liberal values or scientific temper, it seems only to nurture a sense of selfish entitlement and prejudice against minorities of various kinds, and the poor.

Indian society is highly unequal. Reproduction of caste inequalities in public spaces is a fact of everyday social life. Students at the elite Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), described as “islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity,” mostly come from “upper-caste” family backgrounds. Though training at the IITs enables students to become world-class technocrats and professionals, it fails in changing their attitudes toward their less fortunate peers. Often, they carry their baggage and prejudice against their peers to their workplaces in India or even overseas in the Silicon Valley.

Democracy in India is also sliding toward despotism, and the Indian government openly displays nationalist and majoritarian tendencies. There has been a rise in government surveillance and interference in the internal affairs of institutions of higher education. India's leading public universities—Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Jadavpur University in Kolkata, and Hyderabad Central University in Hyderabad—have come under attack for allegedly harboring “anti-national” ideologies.

These issues have serious implications for the autonomy of academic institutions, academic freedom, and the freedom of expression for faculty and students. Acknowledgment of problems besetting the university system is a first step toward ushering in transformation.

It is heartening to note that some educational leaders in India are starting to have these conversations. K. Kasturirangan, the architect of the NEP, recently listed the prevailing mindset and culture in Indian universities as the biggest obstacles in the implementation of the new national policy. It is also heartening to note that, in the same discussion, K. V. Ramani, founder and chancellor of Sai University, a new liberal education university in Chennai, pledged that Sai University would ensure that no deserving student is deprived of the opportunity to pursue higher education on account of social background or economic means.

To make higher education more egalitarian and inclusive, we need to broaden the global debate on the prospects and the challenges of liberal education to factor in the nature of democracy, the democratic functions of our institutions of higher learning, and the complexities of hierarchical social structures and the “culture of exclusivity” created by elite colleges and universities.

Ganeshdatta Poddar is an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Social Sciences at FLAME University.

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  • Ganeshdatta Poddar