Positive rupture for Liberal Arts?

The discipline gets the right attention in Draft National Education Policy but with a hint at making it capitalism’s ally

By Author Jenson Joseph   |   Published: 10th Aug 2019   12:15 am Updated: 9th Aug 2019   10:53 pm

In June when the new draft of the National Education Policy came out coinciding with the beginning of the Modi government’s second term, the academic community was taken by surprise by the generous endorsement that Liberal Arts received in it. Of course, one could not have missed the irony in the draft’s (henceforth DNEP) strong slant towards Liberal Arts as the future of higher education, coming from a political regime that had always shown an intense aversion to ‘liberals’ and liberal values. This is one of the main reasons why sociologist Satish Deshpande, in his column in Indian Express (June 14), called the draft “too good to be true”.
Despite the general scepticism about the chances of the vision in the DNEP translating into actualities under current conditions, all analyses have tended to understand the elevation of Liberal Arts as the (potential) beginning of something new – as a positive rupture. But there is another way of looking at it which will tell us that this could not have come out of nowhere, after all.

In other words, what if Liberal Arts’ time had long come? What if DNEP’s faith in Liberal Arts is finally the institutionalisation of some of the ideas that had started appearing as methodological avant-garde in Humanities and Social Sciences over the past two decades? And more importantly, what if today’s capitalism sees an ally in Liberal Arts?

An Idea From Within

Take, for example, the DNEP’s definition of liberal education as ‘education across the kalas’, facilitating ‘cross-fertilisation of ideas across seemingly different fields’. It should bring to our mind the clamours for interdisciplinarity, proposed as an instant solution for overcoming ‘the crises’ that the disciplines in Humanities and Social Sciences were facing during the 1990s.
Where else does the draft draw inspiration from when it champions ‘multidisciplinary environments and institutions’ and ‘breaking the silos within universities’? Seen in this way, the DNEP’s patronage of Liberal Arts is the logical end of certain popular pedagogic propositions and methodological practices that had emerged from within various disciplines in universities over the last few decades.

Champions of inter-disciplinarity can cheer, while the minority who still find themselves defending the disciplinary boundaries have reasons to think that their apprehensions are coming true. Irrespective of where one finds home between these two camps, one must understand the emphasis on Liberal Arts in the DNEP as an idea that has come from within the academic community – an idea that has now got state recognition. Thus, the onus is on us.

What does the market say?

It is absolutely crucial to see if there are other stakeholders in this new faith in Liberal Arts, other than the champions of inter-disciplinarity and the state. For example, let us try asking what financial journalists routinely ask when new policies are proposed: “what does the market say about it?” We don’t ask this question as much as we should in relation to academics because we tend to consider Humanities and Liberal Arts as inherently asymmetrical to the status-quo.

But the market is centrally in the equation, especially when the DNEP makes it clear in no uncertain terms that its proposals are also responses to the new global economic order. For instance, it begins the section on higher education by saying: “With the coming fourth industrial revolution, and the rapidly changing employment landscape, a liberal arts education is more important and useful for one’s employment than ever before”.

There are several layers to what appears to be such emerging links between Liberal Arts and the market conditions today. First of all, Liberal Arts has become a highly profitable domain in private universities in India. Consider this: while canvassing for potential students, a relatively new private university in Pune specialising in liberal education tried luring them by saying, “Ours is an entire university of Liberal Arts, not just a one-floor department,” in an apparent dig at its bigger competitor in the city that offers a much coveted degree in Liberal Arts along with other typical professional courses.

But does the market’s interest in Liberal Arts stop with monetising it within the education sector? The answer depends a lot on whether one is willing to see the changes that today’s speculative capitalism has effected by redefining older notions around products and services, producer and consumer, work and play, order and chaos, public and private, and so on. Because, the regime that worked with the older opposition between ‘the mechanical skills that makes one employable’ vs ‘Liberal Arts’ non-utilitarian life skills’ is being rendered obsolete.

Capitalist Cultures

If today’s ludic capitalism has identified our bodies and the knowledges that we produce about ourselves as the new terrains to accumulate and monetise, it could well be looking at Liberal Arts as an ally. After all, today’s biggest corporate houses are those that engage in domains that are ‘life-affirming’, asking us constantly to realise ourselves to the fullest, to think beyond conventions, and so on.

Borders and disciplines have become conservative values for them too; subjectivity, fluidity and self-discipline are the ‘in things’. It cannot then be a mere coincidence that popular slogans of Liberal Arts have been smuggled into evolving capitalist cultures, providing content for new age mottos – like the real estate developer WeWork, designing workspaces for startups, claims to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living”.

Values around notions of productivity, labour and leisure have been turned upside down. We are encouraged to work less and play around more. Creativity is now rated above utility. As Alexander Galloway puts it, “labour itself is now play, just as play now becomes more and more laborious”. Under such conditions, it is one thing to welcome an educational policy that equips our society for what is to come, but it is quite different to allow our critical tools to be appropriated for creating a proletariat for the new global economic order.

At one point, quoting American journalist Fareed Zakaria, the draft says, “the purpose of a liberal arts education is not simply to prepare for one’s first job, but also for one’s second job, third job, and beyond”. If the calls for interdisciplinarity have found a utilitarian purpose in a policy document as the apt pedagogy for an era when permanent jobs are gone, we have reasons to worry.

(The author is a Pune-based academic)

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