No doing away with liberal arts in universities

Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Jan 25,2020 | Updated: 23:26, Jan 24,2020


MY NIECE is an adjunct teacher of the English literature at a Florida University. A few days ago, she called me from Delhi to say how depressed she was at the outrage that people who were studying contemporary literature in the Indian institutions of higher learning and did not know about Andaleeb Shadani. In case you do not know either and are too embarrassed to ask, Dr Shadani was a Bengali scholar and an admired poet of the Urdu literature.

When asked, even teachers from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan whom I had known looked quizzical. And they asked me the same question: Andaleeb, who? What has he got to do with improving the grade point average, landing a job at Google, securing funding for a startup or getting full scholarship for grad school in a top US university? Since no professor, interviewer or grad school selection committee member cares much about Andaleeb, who was the professor emeritus in the University of Dhaka and head of the department of Urdu and Persian till his death in 1969. Even in the off chance that they had known about him, the relevance of Shadani to a bright student is zero.

Since some of students in Jawaharlal Nehru University Delhi I have known would go on to become members of the faculty, teaching the next generation of students who are likely share similar objective functions — a few professors consented to have known about Dr Andaleeb either. Surprised! Why are we surprised that India’s colleges are so deliberately un-Shadanied?

It is not just the universities in India or the institutes of technology. It is not only our engineering colleges. Medical, science, business, and commerce colleges perhaps suffer from the same literary ignorance. Certainly, there might be the odd physiotherapist here or an unnecessarily better-read physics student there, but by and large, we should not be surprised if students and faculties in our top colleges do not know about Faiz. To be fair, students at professional colleges are not totally disinterested in arts and culture. Many watch Bollywood and Netflix shows. They follow cricket and football. They also read, as the sales figures of books of Chetan Bhagat’s and Amish Tripathi’s attest.

The education process of aspirational middle-class children starts early, when their parents enrol them in tuitions and coaching classes to prepare for board examinations and JEE/NEET. India’s school learning app Byju’s now has a separate application for kindergarten children. As everyone knows, the competition is hard and you have to prepare for these entrance examinations.

Preparation requires time. Would you let your teenager’s time be wasted reading Urdu poems or ask him to learn how to make the right-hand-side equal left-hand-side? Language and social studies are unavoidable irritations that you need to bear before calculating how an electron moving in the z-direction moves in fluctuating magnetic field on the x-y plane. Can the brilliance of poets help solve calculus problems? If he cannot, he is not too useful, is he?

Indians have been like this for at least three decades, during which engineers, doctors, accountants, and MBAs have acquired social status and economic power. So, most of our elite have had little exposure to humanities and social sciences. We cannot blame ourselves too much for this. After the 1991 economic reforms, we suddenly had access to career opportunities that could lift us out of poverty. Getting into a good professional institute was the gateway to a rewarding global career. If that meant preparing for JEE/NEET at the cost of ignoring other subjects, then that was the rational thing to do.

It is still the rational option for a lot of families who could not get on the bandwagon earlier: getting your child into IIT, NIT or a good engineering college is the ticket to better prospects. That it is partly also a lottery ticket is all the more reason to encourage your child to prepare harder. Can Shadani’s poems help make the cut-off? If he cannot, what use is he?

So we have ended up in a situation where the most intelligent people of two generations have good degrees, but lack good education. This was initially not a problem while a lot of us were still writing software codes, and climbing corporate ladders.

But now we need a lot of able leaders in higher management and need educated people in civil services, people with ‘officer-like qualities’ in the armed forces and, in all these cases, we are short of them. This shortage of broadly educated people will be felt even more acutely in the future in a world where machines do the drudgery and humans exercise judgement. A solid foundation in science is necessary, but in my humble opinion, is not sufficient. A young person today must be familiar with the arts and the social sciences to be equipped to succeed in the fast-racing 21st century.

That is why the world’s best universities, including some IITs, are putting liberal arts into their science and technology courses.

Shall we continue avoiding instruction of liberal arts in our institutions of higher learning? And can we afford not to produce decent, well-educated and well-rounded leaders in our communities?


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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