15 May 2011

Indian Higher Education follow up

As I write this, there are forty-six online comments on my Outlook article on education and it’s time to reply. The comment I expected above all was a variation of what commentor Varun Garde declares,
Liberal arts education is about people who dont want to work hard or who dont have intelligence required to do real work. many of these lazy low IQ people become Politicians, Journalists, lawyers and even worst civil servants.
I think this is the greatest fallacy in the debate and I’ll refute that general claim in a moment. But let me discuss India specifically and put my cards on the table. I am asserting that what I would define as a “liberal arts education” does not exist in India today. This is not just my argument but one that I have heard echoed by dozens of friends and colleagues. The “Arts” stream in Indian higher education does not provide a liberal education but rather a narrow humanities education, which I am not advocating. It is a huge mistake to conflate the humanities and the liberal arts. Therefore, claims such as that stupid people in India get a liberal education while clever people become engineers cannot be sustained, because these so-called stupid people are not getting a liberal education in the first place.

One critical passage that I had to cut from the final article—as it went from 2,500 words to 1,700 words—was to define what a liberal education is and isn’t. It is “broad-based”, as I wrote in the article, but that does not mean unstructured. Let’s take as an example my alma mater, Princeton University. At Princeton all undergraduate students studying for an A.B. (bachelor of arts, what most universities call a B.A.) must take a writing seminar and a foreign language as well as classes chosen from seven categories. (Students in the sciences have a similar list.) This is the chart from Princeton’s website, which is worth visiting to read in full:
General Education Requirements for A.B. Students
  • Writing Seminar—one course
  • Foreign Language—one to four terms to complete, depending on the language students study and the level at which they start
  • Epistemology and Cognition (EC)—one course
  • Ethical Thought and Moral Values (EM)—one course
  • Historical Analysis (HA)—one course
  • Literature and the Arts (LA)—two courses
  • Quantitative Reasoning (QR)—one course
  • Science and Technology, with laboratory (ST)—two courses
  • Social Analysis (SA)—two courses
Now the names are misleadingly complicated (why did they have to choose a name like “epistemology and cognition”?), but the philosophy is clear: all students need to take a wide range of courses. Some of these count towards the requirements set down by a student’s department but others are for general knowledge. I got a degree from a literature department but I ended up taking Multivariate Calculus and two chemistry classes to satisfy the QR and ST requirements. These were challenging classes that tested my limits, and they changed my outlook on the world. One major success of the system is that I was able to take them and not fear for my marks: We were allowed to designate a certain number of classes as “pass/fail” courses, meaning that the course would appear on our transcripts but without a final mark. (I turned out to be a terrible mathematician so this was very good for me.) In India I’ve never come across a similar system to allow students to study things that they cannot be confident about mastering.

There are some other misconceptions about the liberal arts. Someone brought up the Sokal Hoax, in which physics professor Alan Sokal sent a completely nonsensical article to a well-known humanities journal and it got published. That is not an argument for why the humanities are useless, but why a liberal education is important: If I were a journal editor, rest assured that I would not have printed that article because I’ve studied science and know its limits. Similarly, Santosh Gairola wonders “If I am correct now, ‘liberal education’ means, art and artistic subjects.” NO. This is “arts” in the old sense of "skills" rather than in the sense of “fine arts”.

And let us return to the assumption that liberal arts courses attract stupid people and engineering attracts clever people. Anshul writes
As someone else has commented it is very much necessary to liberate our civil services, politics, media and civil society from liberal arts type wallas who enjoy sprouting this or that ism and while living as parasite on public money castigate others for trying to make a decent living.
Let's pause to recognise the irony that engineers don’t feel the need to use evidence when discussing a question like this. The recent civil service examination results are out and engineers did very well. But do they make better civil service officers? Where is the evidence? One commenter went so far as to claim that when too many IIT students succeeded in the exam in 1995-6, the next year the marking system was doctored to favour humanities students. Let me call that what it is, a crazy conspiracy theory. Likewise, an MBA is not a liberal arts degree. One successful consultant recently wrote an article his thoughts on why a philosophy PhD was more useful for him than an MBA. Vivek Wadhwa's thoughts on the matter are also useful.

One commenter, Sunil, wrote something that inadvertently helped prove my point and was also very moving:
Our vernacular literature is alive, active advanced and beyond compare - and is generally inaccessible to non-native language speakers like Dudney.
First of all, I do have access to Hindi and Urdu vernacular performance because I can read and understand both. I enjoy Rabindra Sangeet but because I don’t know Bengali except for the alphabet and Hindi/Urdu cognates, I depend on translations. The vibrance of India’s vernacular literary scenes is unquestionable but where does it find a place in the classroom? Indeed, my original title for the piece—before the editors replaced it with the pithier and more controversial “Beyond Techno-Coolies”—was “The Liberal Arts in India, Everywhere but in the University”. Many of the people who are arguing for opening the curriculum up to the liberal arts are just as keen on having the vernacular represented. This is what I hinted at in the last paragraph of my article.

Some people were far less nice than Sunil about my supposedly not getting India because I’m a foreigner, but it’s not an argument to point a finger at someone with a reasoned opinion and say “foreigner!” as if that settles it. Actually, I’ve been educated in the US system, the UK system and the Indian system so I can compare the three. In any case, complaining about the US is irrelevant. One commenter wrote,
also the assumption here is that the liberal American colleges have got it right. They may have good in the past, but average graduate of a liberal arts college in the USA is very poorly educated. And for this the colleges charge $40,000/yr. Its a money making racket just like India
But, respectfully, that is not the assumption. You can get a good education in America or a bad one. However, if you compare the best American institutions with the best Indian ones, it is clear that they are using very different educational models. In the U.S., there have been years of debate over whether liberal education works while in India there has not been any such a debate and top institutions don’t provide a liberal education. Nor do the economic arguments that a U.S. education is bad value for money really hold. In fact, because of the private education model (which incidentally India is rapidly adopting), the best universities in the U.S. tend to have the most money to give for scholarships and so it is often less expensive to attend one of the top universities than a middle-ranked university. Every year universities like Princeton and Harvard provide needy students with a free education, and on average more than half the undergraduate students receive some kind of scholarships. The question of whether it is fair that donations can influence admissions decisions is too complicated to get into here, but I can say that it is not particularly common.

Debotosh Chatterjee takes umbrage at my sentence "Liberal education is not some fusty notion about reading good books, but is rather an important investment in the future" which made him “wonder whether the writer is himself really convinced. There is nothing 'fusty' about reading good books.” This again leads us to the question of what a liberal arts education is. There is nothing wrong with reading good books but opponents of the liberal arts say that it’s just wasting time reading or “talking”. But the goal is to increase people's general knowledge and intellectual capabilities, which involves a lot of reading, writing and discussion. Part of it is learning the indispensable skill of expressing yourself well. It is true that every corner of the Internet is full of bad writing but one commenter deserves special mention: He pulls off the astonishing feat of misspelling “coolies” three different ways (“collies” which are fluffy dogs, “collis” which is an English surname or a hill on another planet, and “colles” which is a kind of wrist fracture). I don't know what kind of education can explain that.

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