Liberal Arts Education: What actually does it mean?

Phurden Lepcha
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Liberal Arts Education at EVERYTHING BLOG EB
People have already spoken to you about the National Education Policy. And that is actually one of the focuses to get away from an education system that is so streamlined. You know into streams that they kind of form silos and you're not able to go across these streams. We don't want that to happen and the NEP also that is one of the big focuses. So the liberal arts education program is anyway based on that.

If you actually think about the ancient schools in India like Taxila, Nalanda University. There it was actually liberal arts education in the sense that students learned everything. They learned different domains. They learned mathematics. They learned Sciences. They learned Astrology. They learned to write. They also learned to think critically, learned on debating. How to think, how to solve problems other than just specific domain knowledge. These were skills also that were actually that the main thing that had to be taught and domain knowledge. If you look at liberal arts education that is actually the main ethos and the purpose of liberal arts education. So what they want is to create problem solvers and they believe the liberal arts education believes that. To be a good problem Solver you have to learn how to ask the right questions first.

Let me give you an example so suppose you are leading a sales team of a big company and you notice that the sales or the last the revenues and sales have been going down over the last several years. There are two questions you can ask. First one would be how can I increase revenue that would be how can I improve sales. The other question you could ask is why are sales reducing. What has caused over the last years the sales to go down. What has caused the revenue to go down. So the second question is likely to be a better question because it would give you more insight into the problem. So to be a good problem solver you need to be able to ask the correct questions. You need to be about able to ask good questions and to ask a good question you need to be able to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. So generally a problem has an economical perspective. It has a financial perspective. A social perspective. Maybe it as a scientific perspective. So somebody who has studied a little bit of all fields. Who has a grounding in all fields is able to look at a problem from different perspectives and because of that they can ask better questions. Because of which they can come up with better solutions. That is basically the idea of a liberal arts education.

Liberal arts education has actually taken off in a very big way in India. Over the last10 years and the number of liberal arts colleges has come and been expanding. It's only going to go up which is very good. Like Albert Einstein says, basically it's just not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think. In a good liberal arts college there are colleges that say they liberal arts but we need to be a little bit careful because there are two things, one is that students are allowed to take a combination of subjects across different streams that is one of the facets of a liberal education but the other thing is interdisciplinary learning. To be able to learn to build a strong base across different domains. That's the actual ethos of liberal arts education. When we are recommending liberal arts education or colleges to students we want to identify. We want to differentiate between is it just a college that is letting you choose across streams or they actually have the entire ethos of a liberal arts education. Like the entire philosophy. Are they teaching you critical thinking. Are they teaching you problem solving. Are they teaching communication skills, etc., We want to make sure that we know the whichever colleges we are we are recommending for our students that it is the one that actually follows the true philosophy of of a liberal art education.

Liberal arts is a multidisciplinary approach of Education which means that they believe if you have a broad base you've studied something from the humanity, social sciences, Natural Sciences and arts then you have the ability to look at a problem from multiple perspectives. This multi-disciplinary-interdisciplinary approach to education is actually one of the big skills that recruiters are looking for in the future. Because basically the skills that you learn in one we see this a lot for example if you learn mathematics mean the skill, the tools that you learn in mathematics you use in physics, you use in economics, you use in Sciences when you're learning experiments and statistics and in even other fields. Those are specific skills and tools that you have learned in mathematics that you're using in other fields.

But there are certain skills for example if you are studying psychology, if you're studying writing, you're studying history. Specific skills that you use learn there a specific way of thinking, a specific way of looking at a problem, a specific way of analyzing information. If you can use those skills to into another field also then the insights that you get into the field are different. For example Steve Jobs has always said that the reason Apple has been so successful at what they do and the reason they have been able to create the kind of products with they have created is because they hire people who are historians or musicians, poets or writers who are artists, who also are good computer scientists. And because they are all of these others so other than computer science have also studied history or studied poetry, studied art or studied design. Therefore the way they're able to look at a problem is different because they're also bringing in their skills from these other fields that they've also studied. That is the power of a liberal arts education. So basically students study a little bit of everything. You study a little bit of humanity, social sciences, Natural Sciences, and arts that you create a very broad base of knowledge. Knowledge based on which you then specialize in whatever it is specifically that you want to study.

Why would we choose liberal arts education?
Because students learn to build a broad base across different domains. Therefore they are able to become better problem solvers and critical thinkers. They get innovative because they're able to look at problems from different domain at different perspectives. They're able to apply skills across domains. And also therefore they're able to adapt change and diversity and complexity of thinking. And of course they become intellectually curious because they have both width and depth of knowledge. The ability to look at things from multiple perspectives. Also for example a student who's in who has an interest or a passion in two or three different fields see many times what happens is at the end of the 12 they're like I'm really really interested in biology but I also really like English literature. Unfortunately you can't choose to both right in a conventional college. In liberal college you are able to choose both which is why you can also you have a greater opportunity to explore your interests and passions for them.

What kind of skills basically one of the big questions that parents ask is that because you end up taking different kind of subjects you're not focusing on any one specific subject it at least till maybe the second or third year. Parents sometimes are not convinced about whether or not you're getting a proper education in depth. What kind of skills do you learn. What kind of skills do you actually learn. Other than domain knowledge you learn to think critically and analytically which is as you know one of the most important skills that we need. It is not just that you learn critical analytical thinking as a byproduct of the subjects that you're studying. This is an actual course that you study critical and analytical thinking. Problem solving, how do you look at a problem. How do you analyze a problem. How do you go through the steps of problem solving. These are all things that you actually learn.

And again creativity and Innovation is a byproduct of being able to look at something from multiple perspectives. You have classes on research skills. You have actually taught how to do good research. Communication skills which is a really really important skill because you might be a person who is excellent in what you do but if you're not able to communicate your understanding then you know there is big loss. So basically communication skills are also taught and interdisciplinary and transfer skills which comes basically from learning so many across different domains. So other than domain knowledge, other than the two subjects that you choose to study or the you know electives that you take across domains these are some of the very very essential skills that you learn through liberal arts education. If you if you look at the World Economic Forum, look at the kind of skills that are required in say the 2030s. These actually are some of the top skills that you need:
  • Critical an Analytical Thinking
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Research Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Interdisciplinary and Transfer skill
In the liberal arts education just the entire philosophy is already building towards that. See it's just over the last 50 to 75 years in India. After Independence especially the focus became very much on you know science because as a young country we wanted to make sure that you know scientifically, technologically we could make a stand in the world. So focus became a lot on that and which was great that time. The idea was that to be to have a secure you know future you need to be studying science. Now things are changing. We realize that the importance of communication, research thinking, critical thinking, analytical thinking all of these are also very important and actually have to be taught. Not just that you just invite them through other things that you're studied.

The NEP has also said for example even in engineering colleges and technical universities you have to do some kind of humanities courses and even if you're doing a humanity you know if you're doing a major in Humanities you still have to do a little bit of technical courses so this way generally education is going forward in that direction. And liberal arts curriculums are spearheading that kind of change.

This is again one of the big questions. Liberal education sounds fantastic you're going to learn all of these skills but what kind of jobs am I actually going to get after this because the fear is that if I am not focusing on one specific subject and getting in-depth knowledge for in four years. Am I as a student going to have enough knowledge for me to be able to get a job at the end of these four years. The fact that the end of the four years you have the student is going to be able to be a good Problem Solver, going to be able to communicate very well, have to be able to think across domains, is able to communicate very well. These are essential skills that any group be looking for. Basically career choice after liberal arts is anything depends on what are the majors and miners that the student has decided. Could be economics, from public policy, Consulting, psychology, academics. Many students who do this end up studying further because they're so interested in uh studying. Because of these the skills that you learn right you students from liberal colleges are very attractive to recruiters and depending on the what major you have done or what minor you've done you are basically your career choices everything is open to you.

How does this the liberal arts curriculum actually work?
The students in the first year irrespective of what it is that you want to study say I want to study Physics and computer science, irrespective or I want to study history and economics, irrespective of what actual subjects you actually want to specialize in. In the first year all students take Foundation courses. The Foundation courses we'll get into that so all students take that. From the second year on they then decide what kind of a major and a minor they're going to take. Major is basically the main focus of the course so you take the maximum amount of credits in that you take the maximum amount of hours studying that. This is also very similar if you look if you think about it to overseas education. But different from that is the first year everybody has to do a foundation course. They do have to take courses from The Sciences, from Humanities, Mars, little bit of Technology, critical thinking, research skills, communication skills Etc. Then they choose the major and their minor. You can choose one major, you can choose two majors, you can choose one major and a minor. Various combinations are possible. You can also do a pure major, you can also do interdisciplinary like for example you can do history and economics or you can do history and political science those kind of things.

The foundation courses usually universities if you look at the curriculum at liberal arts curriculums. They will have say group one, group two, group three, group four. So group one could be Sciences, group two could be Humanities, Etc,. for example. How some universities might work you say you have to take 10 Foundation courses and you have to take two subjects from each of these groups. That way you've built a foundation across all streams. Other than that these are some of the examples of kind of courses that you could take. Creative writing, principles of science, Indian civilization for example is a very popular course in Ashoka University, Visual art. It forces you to think in different ways because if you are a student for example who at the end of 10th grade stopped taking science. You again get back into thinking about that a little bit.

Suppose you a student who has never done any kind of creative writing. You taking this course helps you to think differently. So each of these courses basically the foundation courses help you think in a different way. Because through school 10th grade and then specialize already stream selection 11 than 12 grade. You are streamlined to think you're thinking in a certain way. You analyze problems in a certain way. You have a certain perspective. These Foundation courses kind of jolt you out of that and force you to look at things in different ways. Based on this many times what happens is students go with an idea of what they want to study.

For example they know, I'm going to college and going to be studying history and economics. I know that for a fact that I don't like math at all and this is what I'm going to study. Then they do the foundation courses. And just the way they think changes and they are exposed to things that they have never studied before. And many students actually end up changing their mind because they like oh this is very interesting this is very interesting I thought about that. So which is why many students end up changing. If they have not thought of a major when they actually started that's fine but even if they have thought of a major they're allowed to change a major at the end of the first year after being exposed to these kind of different courses. And then of course the majors so like they can have a single major like history, biology, mathematics Etc,. that major or you can also have interdisciplinary Majors.

These are some very popular Majors and these kind of combinations are offered even in other universities. This combination of Majors is interdisciplinary Majors is not specific only to Liberal art polies. So history and international relationship, English and media studies, computer science, and entrepreneurial leadership or politics, politics philosophy and economics is a very standard combination. For example if you study in the UK.
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