By Shashidhar Nanjundaiah
A recent discussion at the Mysuru Literature Festival on liberalism was especially illuminating for me. The questions around the concept’s perceived problems took me back to 2019, when the National Education Policy (NEP) committee headed by K Kasturirangan envisioned it around liberal education. Although the final draft has a liberal use of the word holistic rather than liberal, it is nevertheless a policy that purports to go beyond the content of what students will learn, and tackles education at the very mechanism. That is why it is a structural change. I have argued for more than a decade now that content is fluid, but methods must fulfil education’s basic agenda.
Let us begin with understanding what liberal education is, and even before that, what liberalism itself means. It is undeniable that the history of liberalism is chequered or at least confusing. Although liberalism has been around in some form right since the ancient Greek era, it was John Locke in the late 17th century who formalised it as a theory, and today many people say that’s all it is. A theory. But it has been co-opted in eclectic and sometimes self-contradictory ways — from John Stuart Mill’s individualistic utilitarian concepts to Keynesian economics that involves state intervention. The right wing’s critique of liberalism the world over is that it’s devoid of moral values and is too driven by market economics and materialism. Liberal education is the opening up of education to interdisciplinary understandings, to choices, and to critical inquiry.
Massifying liberal values
But that’s the point of liberal values — to constantly aim to move forward, inclusive and humanistic, individualistic and practical. We still don’t know the diametric opposite of liberalism: Is it conservatism as American politics have adopted, or is it conformism, or is it absolutism, or is it, simply, ideology? Can liberalism truly claim to be critical, relativistic and devoid of ideology?
Modern liberalism has stood by social reform. It has seemed to remain among elites and hasn’t really trickled down all the way to the last mile. Is it too esoteric? Or is it hard to practise? Or does it plain go against the grain of the Indian society? Why is it that liberalism has become a “cult”, as one viewer asked at our conversation, bracketed as merely the protector of fringes?
So, if we take a dipstick of what liberalism stands for today, it claims to represent free markets, free trade, limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism, democracy, secularism, gender equality, racial equality, internationalism, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. Paradoxically, it seems to stand for so many things that it seems idealistic. But what’s a social philosophy without idealism? The very fact that liberalism has been so contentious in its definition is what defines it best. It is inclusive and ever-evolving. A more restrictive worldview does not afford this level of openness.
There is no doubt that the structure of overcentralised oversight is problematic to the concept of liberal education. There is no doubt, too, that the structure runs the peril of content control. Think of an apparatus in a laboratory, with twisted tubes and beakers and burettes and pipettes. The apparatus does not control the fluid that goes into it, and thereby the result of the reaction it aims to perform. Only when the contents are coupled with an intervening chemical and perhaps accelerated by a catalyst will we see the results.
The process is so much in sync with our education system, so like before, the new NEP, makes our students vulnerable to manipulation at the content level. Fluidity of content in a structural reform will remain at the mercy of incumbent ideologies. There have been sporadic policies over the past three years to reward high performers among higher education with autonomy. But as this author has argued before, more autonomy is needed as academics endeavour to meet industry demands with theory and philosophy—a potent combination that graduates will carry with them.
Enabling through structure
With that presumption, like never before, a faithful implementation of this policy will automatically deem a process that heralds the kind of structural change we need today, and that is why liberal education is so exciting. This author has argued before that a specific promotion of liberal education has eluded us since the spotlight on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) is increasingly misinterpreted with an excessive attention to toolsy skills. If liberal education takes root as the new Policy aims it to, it could return to a tradition definition of the purpose of education in society, integrating skills with competency, thought with the actionable. The NEP promises to simultaneously promote a gestalt and wide-spectrum thinking and its practice on the ground, thereby balancing emphases on concepts and skills, and foster interdisciplinarity, the very method that enables that combination.
In our quest for specialisations and anxiety to teach technology for over half a century, the emphasis on a 360-degree worldview has been lacking—and as we can see, it shows. Any techie who has a great worldview has inculcated it despite, not because of, systematic education. Liberal education and interdisciplinarity are joined at the hip, and that augurs well for the need for sets of complex competencies. The linkage comes with its own imperatives. Content and methodology must go together.
Openness of structure through interdisciplinarity and flexibility not only opens possibilities of graduates with unique expertise simply by permutations, but also opens the scope for critical thinking. Learning outcomes must be drawn to bridge the academic-industry gaps. This in turn may necessitate involving practising industries into identifying those goals. Learning must be mapped and measured as a progressive continuum.
But does this government have the ideological inclination to permit a truly liberal education system, or will it be ‘adapted’ to suit the politics of the day? I would argue that the change from ‘liberal’ to ‘holistic’ is such an adaptation, especially since in practice, the two terms are different. The Indian Constitution and the concept of liberal education agree on several aspects, including an emphasis on democracy and pluralism and non-relativistic tolerance.
Autonomy in higher education does not merely apply to awarding degrees and setting curricula, but in a larger sense, akin to our competitive and independent media ecosystem, it means that the government distances itself from the content itself after having enabled independent bodies for regulation. If indeed the government is serious about this policy, the NEP needs to be implemented to the objective of openness of thought and individual freedom. Whether this government is committed to it will be evidenced in how the NEP is implemented.
(The author has started and led reputed institutes of higher education and is the founder of Being Responsible, which conducts programmes in responsible media literacy, storytelling, and corporate culture. He may be reached at email@example.com. The views are personal.)