Personal Reflections

Liberal arts in Indian varsities

Originally posted at Youthpad.

News coming in today that Kapil Sibal’s plan for introducing medicine and law as courses in IITs has been set to motion. Each ‘old’ IIT is taking on different areas to introduce new courses in. Greater autonomy is being given to IITs along with more funding. IIT Kharagpur is mulling setting up a super-specialty hospital, which probably because a student died there this year because he did not get medical attention on time. Anyway, whatever be the reason, I do think that theoretically it’s a great idea to introduce liberal arts courses in technical colleges in India. I’m speaking not just about IITs but colleges in general should have a more holistic approach to education.

I wonder how many of you are aware of the fact that even institutes best known for science and technology such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology have degrees in English literature, philosophy, music, mass communication, etc. In most colleges / universities abroad the trend is that even in so-called ‘technical’ colleges you will find liberal arts / law / medicine courses. You can migrate from one course to other, take on additional modules in areas you’re interested in. You could join in an engineering course and migrate to an arts course if you want to. Or you could do a double degree – majoring in, say, some branch of engineering and minor in business. You get an incredible amount of flexibility. Thinking that “If colleges try to do too many things at one time, they’ll fail” is fallacious because as these institutions of higher learning have shown us, they definitely haven’t failed. The reason why this ‘branching out’ is needed because in real life, you will need skills in these ‘soft’ areas, not just technical skills. And if you can pick up these skills in college itself, then great!

The problem that I foresee happening in India is that the implementation will get screwed. Not by the government or the institutions – I’m sure they’ll put in their optimum efforts – but probably by the prospective students. Already existing double degree programmes / integrated degree programmes are treated as pariahs when it comes to ranking hierarchy amongst students. It’s weird, because ideally one would think that students would like to get skills in multiple areas. I couldn’t quite find the link to that article right now, but I read on one of the news sites that this year many seats were left vacant in the new IITs because students simply didn’t want to join them. Maybe the same thing will happen with the new arts / medicine / law courses, as has happened with existing technical double degree programmes.

A core problem many students face is that they aren’t aware of what exactly the field they want to join entails or even what they want to do. In this vacuum of information on career advice, most just choose to go with ‘what gets the highest package’ rather than what they could be potentially interested in. I said earlier that providing career counselling to students on a wider scale is probably the way ahead and I still think that’s a good idea. Also, if Indian varsities bring in the kind of flexibility that is available abroad of migrating from course-to-course or at least allowing to take up minors in other areas, then I think that will help a lot in solving the kind of frustration that a student might have if s/he thinks after joining college that that course is not right for them. Besides, skills in multiple areas have practical use in someone’s career.

Hope this initiative gets an enthusiastic response!

2 replies on “Liberal arts in Indian varsities”

Well said ankur. this Sibal fellow means business. A product of St. stephens and Harvard himself he’s gonna bring about some good changes.
And yes, Indian education needs restructuring and even more than that the students minds in general. Continue to pen your thoughts.

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