The Case for Liberal Arts Education

by Vishakha Desai – May 11, 2015

The Hindu

The party tents are up and bleacher stands are in place on the Columbia University’s beautifully apportioned Commons (public yard) that will bring together some 45,000 people — undergraduates, graduates, Doctorates, their families, the faculty, and the university administration—to celebrate the value of higher education at one of the great universities of the world where I teach. The undergraduates, trained in the famous Columbia Core program that incorporates western and Asian Philosophical systems, great literature of the world, as well as introduction to natural sciences and maths, will proudly get their Columbia degree, confident in their knowledge that the degree from one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education will prepare them to become leaders, not just for the first job out of college.

For much of the last century, the U.S has led the way in developing and sustaining institutions of tertiary education with a focus on liberal arts education and innovative research that has allowed the country to be a global leader in developing new technologies and finding solutions to intractable problems. It is no surprise that in most international rankings of major universities, American universities take the largest number of top spots. It is equally disappointing that in none of the 150 such rankings, Indian universities figure anywhere near the top one hundred spots. There are many reasons for this glaring absence. One could argue that for a country that needs to create jobs for 14 million new entrants to the market every year, the priority has to be given to vocational training for the large masses of people who are equipped to take on the low to mid-level jobs. Some would also make the case that after all, with the establishment of the highly competitive Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), the country has taken care of the highly talented students who become industry leaders. But this does not take into account the stark reality of the Indian higher education system that some have described as “a sea of mediocrity with a few islands of excellence.”

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