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The Emerging Significance of Liberal Arts – An Insight from National Education Policy 2020

-Sunayini Parchure (Ph.D)

There was a joke I heard once: “Two people met in a party and one of them, who was from the Navy, introduced himself as a “naval” surgeon. The other one responded in shock, “Oh, I did not know specialization had gone so far!”

Specialization and super-specializations have become the focus of our higher education system for the past many years and, somewhere down the line, the multi-disciplinary approach to education got sidetracked. Historically, this was the approach that most civilizations adopted towards education, where every university student was taught all existing fields of knowledge.

Recognizing the effectiveness of this approach in imparting holistic knowledge and creating well-rounded professionals, the National Education Policy of 2020 (NEP)  emphasizes on the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to higher education as one of its recommendations, borrowing from the ancient tradition of Indian universities like Nalanda and Takshashila.

At the Nalanda University , for example, the system of study spanned almost the entire body of existing knowledge. Along with the study of the Vedas, students were exposed to various disciplines such as fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics and the art of warfare. This was aimed at nurturing and harnessing the multidimensional facets of the individual thus leading to holistic development, the underlying philosophy being ‘Sakal Shastra, Sakala Vidya, Sakala Kala, Paarangata” (i.e., accomplished in all disciplines, all sciences, all arts and all skills).

Our National Education Policy of 2020 (NEP) 

seeks to revive this ancient wisdom of the Indian educational system and integrate it with modern and contemporary requirements.

The West is far ahead in this direction, as reflected in the success of their higher education. The education system in India today is highly rigid, in the sense that subjects are compartmentalized and lack multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach. This creates super-specialists with narrow approaches.

There is no doubt that a strong domain knowledge is the foundation of education and employability. Nevertheless, an ignorant and almost indifferent approach to other disciplines can prove to be a hindrance in the real world.

History is abound with examples of eminent personalities who have excelled in their fields with a multidisciplinary background. Classic examples are:

  • Sir Isaac Newton who was a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, philosopher, theologian and author
  • Sir Winston Churchill who was a politician, statesman, journalist and historian and had served in the military
  • Bertrand Russell, a philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic who also excelled in mathematical logic and analytic philosophy.

The strength of a ‘liberal’ approach to education is reflected in the success of these personages.

Origin of Liberal Arts

Liberal arts originated in the Classical era of ancient Greeks and Romans and stems from the Latin word ‘liberalis’ meaning “appropriate for free men”.

The aim of liberal arts was to develop free citizens. Resultantly, the original liberal arts subjects were grammar, rhetoric and logic, which were considered to be essential to develop ‘aware’ and ‘thinking’ citizens for a good civic life.

Later, in medieval times, subjects like arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy entered the folds of liberal arts.

Traditionally, liberal arts derive its subjects from four main areas: Arts, Humanities, Social sciences and Natural Sciences.

Over the years the canvas of liberal arts has expanded to include a plethora of subjects.

Typical Composition of Liberal Arts Courses

Liberal arts derive its courses dominantly from three major disciplines:

  1. Humanities: which include subjects like history, art, literature, philosophy, languages and communication, music, creative writing, theatre, film studies, religion studies, media & cultural studies, performing arts et al.
  2. Social Sciences: which includes economics, political science, law and justice, psychology, sociology, international relations, anthropology, archaeology, linguistics and other subjects in this discipline.
  3. Natural Sciences & Mathematics: which covers subjects like chemistry, biology physics, astronomy, geography, earth science, computer science, mathematics et al

This list is not exhaustive, because ‘Liberal Arts’ by definition is a free-flowing, unfettered and an inclusive educational system which is not meant to be confined; the subjects therefore keep expanding based upon whatever the universities/colleges deem appropriate to include. The sky is the limit!

The underlying logic is that students abound in ‘curiosity’ and therefore should be able to ‘choose’ what to learn. Liberal arts is generally a four-year programme with subjects classified into ‘Majors’, ‘Minors’, Electives and Foundation courses. For example, students could major in economics with a minor in logic, music and philosophy, or create for themselves just about any combination that they may wish to choose from the available courses!

The Teaching–Learning Methodology in Liberal Arts

The unique Teaching–Learning methodology in liberal arts can be traced to the ‘Socratic method’ (named after the Greek philosopher Socrates) that emphasises on the debate-discussion method of education rather than being confined to a one-way delivery of knowledge. This approach believes in the ‘questioning’ method of educating minds where the answers to problems should emerge from the discussions and not simply rote learning!

Such kind of learning imparts freedom to explore and innovate in the Teaching–Learning processes of higher education, so crucial to creating truly educated minds. Thus, debates, discussions, role play, class presentations, book reviews, outdoor learning and ‘learning by doing’ are some of the methods adopted by liberal arts.

Skill Sets Developed by Liberal Arts

The focus of liberal arts is to teach the students ‘how to think’ and not ‘what to think’. This latter has been a mainstay critique against the Indian education system for the past many years. By the very virtue of its process, liberal arts encourages critical and independent thinking, an inquisitive mind, research aptitude, public speaking, effective communication skills, team work, problem-solving, negotiations and decision-making skills and leadership skills.

Since human beings have the ability and potential to be multi-faceted, it also gives students the opportunity to develop multiple strengths rather than having to select a single one by relinquishing the others.

Career Avenues with Liberal Arts

Since long, liberal arts, as a stream, was considered to guarantee an individual a ‘place’ in society but not a ‘placement’ for any job. This has been changing, with the increasing popularity of the liberal arts programmes and the growing career opportunities stemming from this.

Liberal arts opens up a whole array of career opportunities, as demonstrative examples, project and business management, financial and general analysts, risk management, public relations, advertising, marketing, corporate communications, programme and project designing, human resources manager and many other fields where having multi-disciplinary knowledge and a well-rounded personality is an asset.

Introducing the liberal arts structure on a large scale in universities/colleges in India will no doubt be constrained by the high student strength in our higher education system. A very detailed mapping of courses, academic infrastructure, student population, qualified faculty and infrastructure would be required for the actual implementation of the ‘liberal arts’ structure in higher education in India. This, undoubtedly, will be a marathon task but an extremely satisfying one, when achieved!

Liberal arts is already slowly but steadily gaining popularity in India, with a number of leading institutes like Ashoka University , Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University , FLAME University, Azim Premji University and Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts taking the lead in this direction. The popularity of these courses speaks for itself!

The essence of ‘Freedom in Education’ which Liberal arts seeks to impart can be captured in a quote by Bertrand Russell

‘Freedom in Education has many aspects

There is first, the freedom to learn or not to learn,

Then there is freedom as to what to learn,

And in later education there is freedom of Opinion’.

Sunayini Parcure Photo 2021

Prof (Dr) Sunayini Parchure

About the Author

Dr.Sunayini Parchure is a Ph.D in Economics. She was formerly the Vice Principal and Head, Department of Economics at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune. She has a teaching experience spanning almost a period of more than three decades at the undergraduate level coupled with about fifteen years post graduate teaching experience in economics and banking. She is also a recognised research guide for Ph.D. in the faculty of Humanities at the Symbiosis International University, SIU.
She is currently, Member, Academic Council of Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune and visiting faculty at the PG Economics Programme and the Symbiosis Centre for Liberal Arts at Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, Pune.
Reading, music, travelling, writing are her other passions and she is a very social and friendly person and loves to be with people and friends.
Sunayini may be contacted at: [email protected]

Want to read more articles like this? Check out our Author Speaks page, here you will find more such content.


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7 Comments

  • Sharmishtha Pande says:

    Liberal arts have unique significance. It cherishes traditional, cultural as well as historical knowledge. It helps to encourage creativity. It is a need of time and it is very crucial as explained by the author in an article. Liberal arts hold a wide range of subjects and their specializations. Article articulates how liberal arts have evolved over the time. It is an emerging field of study which is not only an interesting learning subject but also real time study. Being a student of economics, I belong to the social sciences. Hence, I agree with what the author depicts in an article. I am really glad that I have plentiful stuff on my palate, and I am into something which is not ordinary.

    Author has highlighted NEP 2020 which I feel is the second most important point in this article. Author has exceptionally explained how the government is also looking into certain subject areas with an objective of specialized study. This article explains that subjects have no boundaries and one can learn about their interests in depth by jumping into an ocean of knowledge by choosing the path of liberal arts. Various colleges and universities have already initiated courses which throw light on subjects like arts, performing arts, humanities, legal studies,etc. My college, Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce, has multiple options of subjects under liberal arts. Those subjects are very interesting and meritorious. These courses not only took away the classroom beyond four walls but also helped students to pursue spectacular perceptions. One of my friends from school went to Nalanda university, when everyone else was busy studying for entrances like JEE, NEET and now she holds a degree in dancing, which is something I really admire.

    Article elucidates how far we have come from basic learnings to extraordinary ones and there is a way to go more and grow more. Thoughts unfolded amazingly, indeed a great article.

  • Nalini Sapkal says:

    Excellent article 👍 looking forward to see more

  • Paulami Sen says:

    Beautifully articulated. Loved the way the thoughts were explained along with examples. Liberal arts is indeed a growing field and requires attention. The importance of liberal arts has been drawn and put forward explicitly. Very insightful.

  • Aakanksha Sharma says:

    A classic, informative, & refreshing piece of writing. As someone has said that everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler. Well, this saying completely goes with this particular piece!

    One doesn’t have to make an attempt to move from one sentence to another. It just flows. The research, the language, the easiness, the approach, the base, the crux, and the format- it is a perfect blend of all of these. There’s a sense of practical application too and something that makes me feel productive.

    Balanced beautifully!✨

  • Monica says:

    So well explained and extensive

  • Dr. Marcelle Samuel says:

    Dr. Parchure has beautifully traced the concept, origin and increasing importance of Liberal Arts in education. Her insights linking the new National Education Policy and the spread of Liberal Arts education make interesting reading.

  • Muskan kapoor says:

    I just finished reading the article and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed it. Truly as a liberal arts student myself I feel imparting a Multi disciplinary approach and giving freedom of choices in subject combination is what the Indian Education System needs for all round development of the student .

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      Sunny Side Up’ is a book of joy for every child. With colourful illustrations and child friendly language this book opens up a world of different kinds of food to the young minds.

      An instant hit - With colorful illustrations and an engaging narrative, this playful nature book is perfect for curious toddlers. A Wormy Tale..an engaging, simple yet extraordinary new story from Katie Bagli, number one bestseller and fastest growing children’s author in the country

      Through this story, A Wormy Tale, the author Katie Bagli highlights earthworms as a part of the ecosystem. Educators can use this story for crossdisciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking within the national curriculum. Katie’s love for nature is evident in all her books.

      To be hired in today’s global marketplace, employers demand more than basic ‘hard’ skills. The difference between a frustrated candidate and a sought-after recruit, the long-term worker and a compelling leader, or the stagnant professional and the rising manager can be the ‘soft’ skills each exercises in the workplace. This highly researched book analyses the job environment of today and for the future where ‘soft’ skills become a more critical attribute. The reader gleans valuable guidance on how to acquire and improve these ‘soft’ skills for a more enriching career.

      Alpha Zone book – ‘Sunny Side Up’ - shows the variety of food that is present round the world. All of us know the common pizza or burger but there are many delicious dishes out there that many have not experienced. This book encourages us to be curious and to learn, enjoy and experience the art of the culinary skill.

      I’ve absolutely no hesitation in saying that even after working for 30+ years in Manufacturing and Education sectors, I was not able to correlate nonverbal communication skills of a person with his personality and credibility. But after getting in touch with Prof (Dr) Shalini Verma and going through her first book, ‘BODY LANGUAGE: YOUR SUCCESS MANTRA, (2005)’ I immediately fell in love with this beautiful subject and understood that body language is an important personality trait of any person. I am delighted to know that Dr Verma is bringing out a multi-title series of that inspiring book after 15 years, which is surely going to be another ‘hit’ and beneficial for the readers, especially the Gen Z youth, who gravely need the maturity to understand and cope with complex personal & professional relationships to move forward in life.

      Children’s literature largely trivialises and glosses over such issues such as gender or colour biases. But this book deals with the sensitive issue of our proclivity or preference for fair skin colour. In the context of the Indian subcontinent, such debates and discussions should be encouraged so that children grow up with a healthy self-image and grow up with the right attitudes that skin colour is secondary to inner beauty. Dr Monica’s sensitive handling of this subject deserves to be applauded. Kudos!

      This book talks about the fact that beauty has no standards - it’s the way one looks at one own self. I am sure this book will surely attract young readers. I wish all the best for the book.

      Kudos to Books33 for coming up with a separate segment of Children Books under its imprint Alpha Zone. Your initiative will definitely make parents and teachers understand the importance of inculcating reading habits in your kids right from their young age. I appreciate Dr Monica Khanna for her bookSunny Side Up’ and love its ‘kahani mein twist’ which made it all the more exciting.

      A lovely rhyming style and delightful words make this book effortlessly readable. Dr Khanna addresses a vital issue of our times in this allegorical tale of female crow.

      One may speak good English, bad English, good Hindi, bad Hindi, a mix of Hindi-English or 'Hinglish', Spanglish, Pig-Latin, Gibberish, Mumbling or Double-speak, the sub-text that one's body speaks is just ONE -- CREDIBLE or NOT CREDIBLE! Be aware of your body language. You can lie in your words, but the body never lies. We communicate through our Body all the time, even when we don't realize it. However, there are very few expertswho can deeply understand, analyse and decode Body Language. Dr Shalini Verma is one of them.

      Kyra’s Return Flight conveys through a delightful story the very important message that there is great joy and power in accepting ourselves as we are,and not falling prey to harmful social prejudices about what is attractive or good. I greatly recommend this wonderful book about loving oneself!

      ‘Sunny Side Up’ authored by Dr Monica Khanna is a slice of delight with just the right bite.

      ‘Sunny Side Up’ is a delightfully wicked book! A complete treat for kids of all shapes, sizes and taste; those who fuss around their meals and those who devour their food. A visual treat for the eyes that moistened my curiosity palate, as I turned each page to follow Sunny’s exciting culinary adventures. An astonishing finale, that enhanced some beautiful childhood memories.

      Katie Bagli has two interests, nature and children. She has two talents, writing and drawing. As a story teller, she engages children with her colourful puppets and other visual aids, bringing to life the characters in her books.

      Dr Monica Khanna’s new book ‘Kyra’s Return Flight’ dwells deeper into the age-old societal challenges of colour differentiation amongst humans. Through a simple life story of a crow, she brings to the front the problem that we have of self-pity and self-doubt that dark coloured people face through the generations. As a school principal, I definitely recommend Monica’s books in all school libraries and encourage parents to share a copy with their kids.

      My compliments to the author for developing rich and novel content in an area that still lies underexplored. With so little information available on body language in the Indian context, I can imagine how much hard work
      would have gone into creating a book like this. This book is beautifully crafted in terms of quality content and relevance in the current context.

      Former General Manager from State Bank of India

      An Electrical Engineer and a first-generation entrepreneur with PhD in Management

      Has been working in the corporate world for the last 10 years

      A 17-year-old bright student of 11th standard at Dibrugarh, Assam

      A student of IBDP program (at DYPIS) in Mumbai, India

      Analyst at Deloitte USI

      A 15-year-old student of class 10 at Apeejay School - Panchsheel Park, New Delhi

      A 15-year-old student of class 10 at St. Mary’s ICSE School, Navi Mumbai.

      An M.A. in English Literature from Tezpur University, Assam

      A NIFT graduate and a professional Jewellery Designer

      An educator by the day and a poet by night

      A professional Microbiologist and an avid nature lover

      Currently pursuing BDS & aspires to become a successful writer

      A Communication Professor & Authorpreneur

      English Language and Personality Development skills Trainer

      Aspires to make career and writing and become a successful writer

      Winner of ‘Mrs Karnataka’ and ‘Inner Beauty’ titles

      A 13-year old 8th grader studying in Mangaluru, Karnataka

      Student of English Honours at Calcutta University, West Bengal

      A student of airport handling at YMCA, Delhi.

      An engineer by profession and a writer by passion

      Author & co-author of multiple books and anthologies

      A nine-year-old student of Silver Oaks International School, Hyderabad

      A Grade-III student of Silver Oaks International School, Hyderabad

      She adorns the hat of a multitasker - an educationist, an artist, a poet, a photographer, an author, a homemaker, a wife and above all a MOTHER

      3rd grader studying in Silver Oaks International School, Hyderabad

      A writer by passion and a Physicist by profession

      Sr. ERO (Sr. Employee Relations Officer) at Indian Oil Corporation Limited

      Associate Professor at Indira Institute of Business Management

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