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 Parchure

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]

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  • 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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