Employers appreciate the knowledge base that liberal arts education bestows
The binaries of “us” and “them” cannot be rooted out without an understanding of how and why other people have evolved the way they have—the bedrock of humanities and social sciencesanalysis Updated: Apr 30, 2018 11:53 IST
With the wide range of courses available at the undergraduate level these days, many students and parents are confused. About two decades ago, the preferred professions were engineering, medicine, banking or law. Most times, parents made these choices for their children. That is not true any longer. Liberal arts have emerged as a new stream of choice in the last five years. We must ensure that our undergraduate education doesn’t produce trained technicians who are less-than-educated in the broader sense of education. Undergraduate education must carry out some very important responsibilities. It must create curious, creative, critical and principled minds, which can balance multiple opinions and beliefs and make sound value judgments.
The globalised world is moving towards a knowledge economy and adopting workplace reforms and knowledge-driven occupations. Undergraduate education must be in sync with this. Never before in the history of humankind has learning been as multifaceted as it is now. Learning takes place not only as formal education but also as continuing professional education, personal enrichment and workplace training. For an individual to contribute to society, he must have the attributes to cope with many potential contexts. Learning refers to a repertoire of qualities such as a questioning mind, effective communication, personal agency (confidence in one’s competency and autonomy), problem solving, adaptation skills and a helicopter vision or the ability to look through a situation and figure out the interconnectedness of the different parts.
The way we teach domain specific knowledge must change too. We must sharpen our focus on learning outcomes, transferable skills and an interdisciplinary context so that the knowledge that is delivered to the students is not only technical, but also substantive.
Eminent institutions such as Harvard and Stanford reserve a place of pride for their liberal arts programmes. Institutions in the US have taken the lead in launching programmes in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) disciplines that combine features of liberal arts education by including courses in humanities and social sciences in their curriculum as well as other attributes of the liberal arts model, such as a focus on imparting “essential skills”.
In India, the expression ‘liberal arts education’ is at times used incorrectly to refer to any or all of the performing-visual fine arts. At other times, it is used to mean programmes in humanities and social sciences. Although all of these subjects feature as areas of study in liberal arts programmes, a curriculum that focuses on one discipline alone, such as an honours degree curriculum, does not qualify as liberal arts education. A liberal arts programme, by definition, is multidisciplinary in nature.
The apprehension that liberal arts graduates may fall behind graduates with technical training in respect of their earning potential and long-term career advancement does not have a factual basis. Job markets in the globalised world tend to be unpredictable. Employers prefer to hold on to a workforce with transferable skills, rather than continually reinvest in the human resource to top up individual talents. Many studies have proved that a liberal arts education provides a safety net of assignable skills that offer steady protection in the face of a changeable job marketplace.
Hiring patterns suggest that employers appreciate the broad knowledge base that liberal arts education bestows, such as cross-cultural and global competencies. Plus, a liberal arts education fosters core transferable attributes such as reflective reading, applied writing, evaluative skills such as pattern-intelligence, information literacy (the ability to “learn how to learn”) and problem-solving (applying classroom knowledge to solve real-world problems. These traits readily lend themselves to research acumen, project management and judgment of human psychology.
I would like to mention what is called “cosmopolitan capital” in the lexicon of internationalisation—the ability to navigate cultural and geographical differences as a result of awareness and acceptance of differences. The traditional binaries of “us” and “them” cannot be rooted out without an understanding of how and why other people have evolved the way they have—the bedrock of humanities and social sciences.
Vidya Yeravdekar is Pro Chancellor of Symbiosis International University
The views expressed are personal