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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 44 New Delhi October 20, 2018

Liberal Education and Crisis in Society

Friday 19 October 2018


by Shushwi Ke

The present crisis in society is the result of systemic failure of the sites of learning in all branches. The Indian education system, either the schooling or higher education, has taken the form of utmost utilitarian or instrumental character. At a time when societal change and transformation is being witnessed at the surface level, the perception of society towards education has dramatically changed. The aspiration of citizens, particularly the ‘new middle class’, has taken a new height. In this regard I would like to point out that before formally introducing economic liberalisation a link was effectively established between education and private players. However, this link was well established in professional courses as professional courses were seen to have the inherent potential for wealth creation. Moreover, this has taken a new turn in recent times towards more ‘corporati-sation’ of education, particularly with regard to higher education. In this ‘corporatisation-led model of education’ sites of learning are an investment and that investment is in its infrastructure. Therefore, the architecture of building should be more attractive, should have all those facilities like swimming pools, incubation centres which have become new signifiers of ‘development’ as per the inter-national order.

This is unique in the sense that local, context-specific taste of education or food is becoming outdated and irrelevant. ‘Packaged food’ or a complete package of education has become the new norm. Under this packaged form of education the idea of education has been reduced to possessing certain kinds of ‘skills’ which can be bought and sold. It is no more contemplation and reflection. Education, parti-cularly higher education, has taken the form of what Ronald Barnett says ‘operationalism’. Education is being equated with ‘skills’ and knowledge is being valued in its ‘applicability’. As a result ‘application of knowledge’ has taken supremacy than ‘learning’ itself. Due to the very nature of global services outsourcing companies, which look for certain ‘soft skills’ such as fluency in English with the ability to interact easily in cosmopolitan and multicultural settings, the content of humanities and social science has been reduced to providing ‘soft skills’ for employment. One of the goals of citizenship education of a newly independent nation like India having a structurally hierarchised society with uneven development was to master social science knowledge to make reflective decisions, from thoughtful, sensitive citizens, having the judgement or ability to clarify one’s moral commitment. Now in the changed paradigm of the ‘perfect market’, citizens have to be consumers to bargain properly. Consequently sites of learning, particularly higher university spaces, have become ‘sites of consumption’.

Under the paradigm of knowledge economy where knowledge is being viewed more in terms of information, technology has become the prime mover to pass that information. Consequently it does not need rigorous or intense teacher-student engagement. In this context knowledge has just become any good or service which can be ‘exchanged’ through money. It is no more ‘engagement’ between humans. When it is no more engagement then ‘cultivation and expansion of mind’ is not the priority. And if this is not the priority then it is meaningless to expect to think and behave critically because access to knowledge is not coupled with the ability of reason. The changing nature of education in general and higher education in particular has got confined to ‘economic value’. The socio-cultural and aesthetic value of education has taken a back seat. As a result the space of ‘reason’ is becoming limited in society. In the absence of the values of truth-telling, persistence, courage, sincerity, appropriateness, care, criticality and otherness, the ‘culture of violence’ and ‘culture of mob lynching’ would become the new norm of the new social order.

Therefore, this fragmentation of pedagogically well-established knowledge in the name of skill is leading towards fragmentation of ‘self’. In this regard the idea of cultivating the ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ man is being projected as irrelevant. Here the point needs to be understood that in this economic globalisation, where the educational outcome which can be measured on a ten-point scale, has become the utmost reality in educational policy. The question arises as to what kind of human being and what kind of social order we want to perceive? In this whole discourse of the changing idea of education the severe attack has come on a liberal university. Is it because we have lost our trust in ‘collective and dignified existence’ or what Erich Fromm coined as ‘having mode of existence’ has become the new reality of the new social order? The idea is that day by day we are getting alienated from our true self and losing faith in the ‘emancipatory’ idea of education.

Here I would like to highlight that liberal education and ‘liberal university’ as site of learning with co-existence of a diverse body of knowledge must be established in its true spirit. The contribution of a liberal university does lie on the individual and society in an indirect, implicit and in more enduring terms in the form of the Newmanian end—of lifting the cultural level of society.

Moreover, the significance of humanities and social science needs to be recognised in a more comprehensive manner as Ralph Barton Perry has said with regard to humanities and liberal learning as general education: humanities have “something to do with man—not man in particular but man in general, the Man in men”. He further says Humanistic studies, “or studies insofar as they are humane”, are good for everybody, and may be said to consist of those studies by which men are made men, in advance of being men of any particular kind. Consequently there is the need to create and cultivate a community of scholars for mobilising people’s sentiment toward a democratic vision of education in general and higher education in particular. Liberal education as a process is realistic. It is motivated toward the exertions of the liberally educated man as a person, as a man-at-work or as a citizen. Its trajectory takes it through the realm of possibilities. And this realm of possibility is in contrast to the vision of Margaret Thatcher’s popular dictum ‘TINA’, that is, ‘There Is No Alternative’.

The author did her Ph.D from the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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