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The Caravan

BREAKING THE MOULD

“Liberal Arts programmes are filling a genuine, aching need for students who do not want to have their futures dictated by outdated understandings of what constitutes a successful course of study,” answers Sean P. Bala, Assistant Professor, Jindal School of Liberal arts and Humanities, and Director of Admissions and Outreach, Jindal Global University, in response to the spurt in the need for a liberal arts course. This thought process is what gave birth to a burgeoning and rapidly expanding discipline in India that is just beginning to spread its wings. The need for liberal arts has been increasingly deeply felt over the years as students wake up to the idea that they require more educational options to choose from. India has paid particular attention to preset educational systems through increasingly mechanical learning, and as the years have passed, more and more students are beginning to look for other avenues. Over time, doyens of the field have witnessed major shifts in the mindset toward a liberal arts education here, and the general overview is optimistic. Current trends point toward an optimistic future where the course has the potential of defining Indian society and work culture in a positive way.

“I have noticed we do not need to go through as much effort to convince prospective students and parents of the benefits of a liberal arts type education,” Sean Bala tells The Caravan.

“This recognition is most clearly seen when I speak to students and I can tell that they feel an instantaneous connection with the idea of liberal arts.” Anita Patankar, Director of Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts, the first liberal arts institute in India, thinks in a similar vein. “Over time, we have seen the number of students wishing to pursue this choice grow merely due to the sheer number of options a liberal arts education provides.” Sean reiterates this point by saying that not every student in India falls under the traditional ‘respectable’ disciplines. Most educators consent unanimously on the fact that education in India is changing. Dr Uma Narain, Founding Dean, Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies’ Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts, mentions emphatically that “everyone is looking at education that is practice oriented and not just theory centric.”

As India evolves, it is faced with the challenge of honing candidates fit to work both in and outside the country. Today, these courses are not just about getting suitably employed; rather, institutions are beginning to seek candidates with broader experience and understanding in research, analysis and adaptation. As the demand grows, institutions in the country have to step up to the supply needs. To remain in context and line with the industry, most institutions have adopted teaching methods that are instrumental in shaping students to face intellectual complexities without apprehension, and be able to deconstruct and solve problems from multiple perspectives. Dr Narain is quite insistent that short-sightedness is not a part of their liberal arts course. “The course content of each discipline is not only relevant for ‘here and now’ but inclusive of future trends,”

Dr Narain says “critical thinking, holistic development and consequent argument building that differentiate facts from opinions” is what defines a successful student.

Liberal Arts is shaping into a productive field with interdisciplinary learning very quickly. It is creating professionals ready to handle the ever increasing challenges of globalization. A need for innovative thinking arises due to the immense variety of arts and humanities subjects which then inculcates in candidates the skills required to become a next gen leader. Anita Patankar is emphatic in her insistence that a working knowledge of Liberal Arts can turn any candidate into a force to reckon with. She says that subjects taught in the course help shape students ready to enter any field they desire. “A LA student will find it equally easy to switch from a non-governmental organization to a government job to working in the corporate sector.”This line of thought is also reiterated by Dr Narain. “A Liberal Arts education creates clarity of thought as to career options they wish to pursue. It illuminates the path to their desired lifestyles.”

Success is something that has too often, to the chagrin of many, been measured in the worth of marks and degrees. The better the marks, the better the degree and this in turn leads to better jobs and salaries. Too often have vexed Indian youngsters been compared to their meritorious neighbors or friends who have scored very well, or secured admission into elite institutions to study ‘respectable’ specialties. Increasing access to internet and other platforms of awareness, however, has inspired exploration and experimentation when it comes to educational avenues. Perhaps increasing communication amongst students and parents also has led to the fact that many of them are requiring less convincing in letting their wards pursue liberal arts. In Sean’s words, “Liberal Arts is not only recognized by students as valuable but increasingly recognized as such by parents.”

One often wonders why liberal arts is so valuable and what makes a liberal arts student successful? Most educators have carefully evaluated answers to both these questions. Sean feels that successful liberal arts students “are broadly intelligent students who can think both critically and creatively. They understand and embrace the fact that there is more than one way to see and engage with the world.” Bala also mentions that they are also willing to take risks to understand and solve problems. The very terms of success defined for this course leave a lot of space for students to grow. This in turn, makes for informed, intelligent individuals who can don robes of responsibility after entering the professional world. This isn’t due to a strict rigid structure or definitive concept followed by educators; they do this instead, by providing flexibility. ‘Holistic’ is a word used quite frequently while defining the course’s structure. Dr Narain says “critical thinking, holistic development and consequent argument building that differentiate facts from opinions” is what defines a successful student. When asked what differentiates liberal arts from other courses, Anita opines that most courses train students with specific skill sets for specific job roles and that isn’t the case with liberal arts.

So what is it that a Liberal Arts course offers and what teaching methodologies does it employ: All liberal arts courses speak of certain skills in common such as critical and analytical thinking, research and communication skills. Most classes are aimed at interactions amidst small, carefully cultivated groups that enhance understanding and core basics. Sean mentions that JHLS’s “pedagogy is based on active learning through experiential learning inside and outside the classroom. This is done through small, discussion-based classes and close faculty-student interactions.” The heart of the program “is an interdisciplinary course of study with a rigorous set of core courses that are in conversation with one another.”

Sean mentions that JHLS’s “pedagogy is based on active learning through experiential learning inside and outside the classroom. This is done through small, discussion-based classes and close faculty-student interactions.”

JHLS offers a flexible program that can be customized too. “Students complete three semesters of core courses before beginning a course of study in a specific major stream. They can opt for one of eight majors or even propose a self-designed course of study that matches their academic interests.” In addition to these requirements, students at JHLS are required to do at least four internships for credit to graduate.

Along with flexibility, keen emphasis is paid to cultivating contacts, research and connecting to local and global communities. A strong base in technology platforms and ethics is also imbibed into students. Anita Patankar says that the liberal arts course at SSLA isn’t just a run of the mill study method, but rather a carefully researched, experimentative program that is embedded with research, critical thinking and cross-specialization modules. “Core classes are designed around the concepts of cross-media communication, technology skills and knowledge of ethics and laws. My students should be foresighted and have mastered working in small, effective groups to attain visible results.”

NMIMS’ liberal arts course aims to be highly informative and wants students to forget all the restrictive information they gathered from school. Dr Narain is of the view that at NMIMS, “the focus is on ‘learning’, not ‘teaching.’ Courses are trans-disciplinary and integrative over here and 3. 50% of course content is through live action- learning. That is ‘learning by doing’.” She maintains that real time issues by their very nature lead to reflection which is the “most important part in learning.” The “magic of the course content” at NMIMS is in the delivery. “Our pedagogy is highly creative and forces grasp of essentials in each subject in a manner that facilitates learning.”

India is certainly catching up to the world standards of education and employment slowly, but steadily, and one often wonders how suitable is it in today’s time to create leaders and qualified professionals in the current politically and culturally charged global atmosphere. Anita mentions that over the past few years, she has seen a definite change in mindsets around her including that of parents and professionals. “Nowadays, it isn’t so much as the degree that you hold than the skills you possess. In fact, these skills that are being developed in colleges today, would do so much better being taught in school itself,” muses Anita, while adding emphatically, “These are very essential life skills that train our students to shift with opportunity, irrespective of geography, cultures and languages since they are trained to face challenges and best them.” Today’s generation has more power than previously imagined; they also have more issues that need solving. In a time when the world is undergoing tremendous socio-economic, political, cultural and environmental upheavals, smart, multi-skilled and knowledgeable professionals are needed to understand the pulse of our society and shape it. Sean Bala also says that it takes him lesser effort to convince parents of the benefits of a liberal arts education. “I would also say that Liberal Arts graduates are better equipped to navigate a rapidly changing world because they are more comfortable with ambiguities and complexities,” he opines. “Ultimately, they can look at problems from multiple angles and have more empathy and understanding about different points of view.”

Anita Patankar puts it interestingly when she says that “in India, where most changes are uncomfortable, it is highly necessary to produce stable professionals who have to move with the times.”

So what exactly do employers need from their recruits? Recruiters have often told Anita Patankar that they “don’t want Chartered Accountants, but someone who can solve financial problems. We don’t need an engineer, but someone who can solve engineering problems. Now they don’t care about the degree. As long as you have the skills, they’re happy. And that’s the same trait we’re looking for.” Most employers and institutions are on the lookout for a wide variety of traits and skills which make a candidate an asset to the organization. In order to be successful both in the future and present, a sound base is essential. A candidate must be able to perform research that his/her employers require, such as performing market analyses, product research and the like. A liberal Arts student is expected to have ‘transferrable skills’ that can be tailored to fit any employer requirement. Anita Patankar puts it interestingly when she says that “in India, where most changes are uncomfortable, it is highly necessary to produce stable professionals who have to move with the times.” A professional should be able to foresee repercussions and be ready to deal with them.

In Bala’s words, “Companies have begun to recognize that the liberal arts graduates bring a wider range of skills into the workforce.” He also says that a liberal arts education inculcates creativity and encourages students to solve issues innovatively. “Beyond essential skills in writing and communication, these graduates bring adaptability and creativity to their jobs.” What recruiters looks for are “clear and effective communication, confidence, self-initiative, adaptability, and the ability to accept and thrive off change.” Dr Narain takes an academic stand to the query. She believes that for any student entering the professional world, first needs to “learn to learn.” This coincides with the thought that liberal arts tries to ‘un-teach’ the constricting, inflexible and often incomplete education we’ve received in schools. She says that a student must inculcate “the abilities and methods to intellectually learn any idea.”

In Liberal Arts, students can choose from a stunningly wide variety of courses. If a student were to study Media Studies and Law, they would learn what journalism courses teach. But if a student wishes to study Sociology and political science, they will find themselves in a very different landscape. All employers look for the all too frequently mentioned skills of research, data analysis, cycle forecasting, decision making and the like. Liberal Arts institutes are now aiming to produce multi-skilled, highly talented individuals capable of solving many issues. Where the candidates choose to take this set of skills, is only limited by their imagination.

So is imagination the only thing limiting liberal arts students or is there anything else in the system that needs a dressing up? In India, education has mostly centered on rigorous, archaic teaching methods and success is often measured in the terms of examinations, degrees and jobs, mostly in that order. Experts agree that today is not all about archaic norms. It is about turning courses into interactive and analytical learning platforms that produce free thinking professionals. “Rote learning must go and education must move beyond examinations,” says Uma Narain. Anita Patankar expresses similar sentiments when she says, “The mindset that degrees make you everything needs to change. They don’t; skills do. When students realise they have such energetic and active minds and can do so much with them, they are filled with new vigour.” Patankar emphasizes that it seems very “short-sighted to train students for specific jobs with specific tools.” Teaching liberal arts should include a wide variety of tools and modes of learning that enable students to perform as many roles as needed. In order to have a more effective imprint though, things need to start changing at school levels. According to Sean, the “current education system in India struggles with class sizes, resources, and inflexible board examinations.” He believes that “no matter what discipline, you cannot teach effectively in large classes.” Due to the large sizes of classes and a paucity of resources, “rote learning is necessary to contend with large numbers.” This thought is in tandem to Dr Narain’s view that rote learning has no place in education anymore. Bala also says that the centralized board examinations “create inflexible, outdated curriculums that put an overemphasis on passive memorization to obtain that the highest score—a number that does not fully measure your ability to think and reason.” The future certainly looks bright for all those students who function more on logic than memory and have found it difficult to fit into the proverbial rat race culture. Two major factors affecting employment in India are globalization and the complex cultural environment governing the globe at this minute. How exactly does this affect students? “Globalization has meant that while unique cultural differences matter, students are not just competing against fellow nationals but also against people from around the world,” says Sean. This means that “students around the world must have similar skills and competencies to compete in this global marketplace. For employers, this globalized workforce also means that they must raise their standards to draw from this highly mobile pool of talent.” As this course aims at producing stable professionals in an increasingly turbulent environment, it is a necessity to change with the times. As globalization expands, a set of jack-of-all-trades professionals are needed to keep the expanding industries running. Off the top of her head, Anita Patankar mentions that her students are working in the sectors of hospitality, medicine, aeronautics, think tanks, NGOs, law, media and film industries. For Liberal Arts students, the possibilities seem endless. The mind boggles at the very thought of the variety of options available to LA graduates. The future of tertiary education in India, according to Dr Narain, belongs to liberal education which applies to both Arts and Science and technology streams. “Globalization has paved the way because anybody can now search what is being in any institution across the world. Technology has also empowered the young generation.” Due to increasing globalization, geographical locations are now irrelevant. Dr Narain says that job opportunities are myriad and in interesting domains. “Today you need a liberal arts student in creative fields of high tech companies like Google and also for leadership positions.” The future for liberal arts is certainly looking up as the course becomes more relevant and the quintessential idea of success is changing. Perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that liberal arts is the future and it is time for them to start defining their own terms.

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