A liberal education with Indian characteristics: The guiding star must be debate and dialogue, not dissent and protest

September 10, 2021 5:45 AM

Further as a society, are we tolerant enough to dissent with an idea and not the individual? Recent events have shown that both these tensions are real and likely to raise their head.

Further as a society, are we tolerant enough to dissent with an idea and not the individual? Recent events have shown that both these tensions are real and likely to raise their head.Further as a society, are we tolerant enough to dissent with an idea and not the individual? Recent events have shown that both these tensions are real and likely to raise their head.

By Mukesh Sud

Is India ready for a liberal education university founded on a Western model? First, a little context. Over the past decade, a number of new liberal education universities have come up. KREA, probably the most recent, has joined the ranks of Ashoka, OP Jindal, etc. Older players like Christ, JNU, etc, have been around for some time. Even the IIMs Bangalore and Kozhikode have announced programs in liberal studies.

We have publicly funded and private universities offering students a choice of a liberal education. The large number of applications, especially among the newer universities, indicate that students, and potential employers, see benefits that this education provides. Further, the government’s new education policy (NEP) has laid out an ambitious path for liberal education. While paying tribute to the grand traditions of Takshashila and Nalanda, the NEP envisages Indian Institutes of Liberal Arts (IILAs) with 30,000 students each to encourage interdisciplinary thinking. Before embarking on this journey, let us be aware of some pitfalls.

Dissent in public and private universities
Worldwide, liberal education programs are largely based on a Western model where freethinking individuals enjoy the right to protest and dissent. In fact dissent, much like the economic concept of creative destruction, is viewed as being necessary to destroy the old and make way for the new.

If dissent is a central piece of liberal education, are our public and private universities equipped to handle this? Let’s first examine public universities. The twin pillars supporting them are government appointments and state funding. Only a handful of our universities function through their boards and enjoy genuine autonomy. The majority have leaders whose philosophy is broadly aligned with the existing dispensation. Similarly, for funding they need to play by the often-unstated rules of the game. Clearly, this creates a structural mismatch.

Can privately funded universities take on that role? Many of the newer ones have been funded by first generation entrepreneurs whose past success were based on challenging the existing order. At first glance, they are in the best position to encourage free thinking and dissent. However, the political consequences of dissent can be harsh and difficult to bear.

Further as a society, are we tolerant enough to dissent with an idea and not the individual? Recent events have shown that both these tensions are real and likely to raise their head.

Institutional climate
The historian Alexander Gerschenkron said that, in both spirit and ideology, the intellectual climate in late developing countries (read India) differs fundamentally from early developers (Western Europe and the US).

In the West, a culture of dissent is intended to spur a marketplace of ideas. In an Indian context, is this the best trade-off? Discarding the old, to embrace the new, could be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have wicked problems, many of which defy simple solutions. To address them, we need critical thinkers with an interdisciplinary perspective. It is through debate and dialogue, and not just protest and dissent, that solutions will be found that bring in the new while retaining what has worked in the old. At the same time the Western model, which many academics and public intellectuals favor, is also in crisis. Perhaps, lessons from other countries where the Western liberal education model has been introduced can show us a path forward.

A context for dissidence
In 2019, Yale- NUS offered a course “Dialogue & Dissent in Singapore”. It included a workshop involving a simulated protest at a local park. Later, after students had registered and classes were about to begin, the course was cancelled. This was criticised for infringing on academic freedom. A fact-finding committee found administrative lapses, but no evidence of violation of academic freedom. However, the university had to comply with local laws and balance the tension of functioning in a quasi-authoritarian state. Critical discussions on local politics have continued in courses like “Philosophy and Political Thought” and “Comparative Social Enquiry”. Controversial speakers, including some who had been listed on the course that was cancelled, continue to be hosted on campus. In another instance, journalism professors at New York University (NYU) refused to teach at their Abu Dhabi campus when two faculty members were denied visas to travel and teach there. NYU’s president, while sharing the faculty’s concern, said that refusing to teach at Abu Dhabi only punishes students and faculty who had no role in the problem. NYU agreed to set in place a more transparent system for visa acceptance.

While both Yale and NYU have had run-ins with their host countries, solutions have been found through dialogue and discussion. As the new liberal education landscape opens up in India, our own universities will need to debate such questions and find suitable answers.

The author is Associate professor (business policy area), IIM, Ahmedabad, and visiting faculty, Ashoka University

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