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Home > 2021 > A Plea for Liberal Education | Avijit Pathak

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 38, New Delhi, Sept 4, 2021

A Plea for Liberal Education | Avijit Pathak

Friday 3 September 2021, by Avijit Pathak


by Avijit Pathak

To begin with, let me make it clear. What I am going to write is not something bookish—yet another soulless academic exercise. Instead, my words emanate from the authenticity of my experience: the entire process of self-churning that I pass through as a learner, a teacher or a wanderer. Yes, I know that education, as social anthropologists are fond of saying, is a process of transmission of the entire social heritage— its traditions, symbols and knowledges— from one generation to another because, as it is said, it is only through education and resultant socialization that a society can continue to renew itself. And in modern times with the speedy growth of complex and advanced knowledge systems, and the necessity of inculcation of formal/abstract/universal principles and values, family/kinship socialization alone is not sufficient; instead, formal/institutionalized education with its official curriculum and professional teachers, it is said, ought to play a key role in educating people. In a way, we live in a ‘schooled’ society. I am also aware of the fact that a sophisticated form of ‘skill learning’—and that too in a complex/technological world like ours— is also a major component of education because to survive is to master the techniques of diverse skills—be it the skill of an architecture or the skill of a heart surgeon. Likewise, education, as it is said, is also about cultivating our mental/intellectual faculties. And in the age of minute specialization and academic division of labour, education equips one with the specialized academic knowledge one needs to acquire to exist as, say, a molecular biologist, a historian of medieval India, or a cultural theorist of film studies. In other words, I am aware of the fact that education is also about some sort of mental/ intellectual gymnastics.

Yet, my heart does not remain contented merely with this ‘practical’ and ‘socially useful’ orientation to education. Although I do not negate its importance, I strive for or imagine something deep and possibly immeasurable—beyond techno-scientific reasoning, beyond ‘skills’, and beyond ‘academic excellence’. In other words, I am not always very easy with the idea of equating knowledge with power— say, the power to dominate, conquer, objectify and establish human supremacy over nature. Nor do I give my consent to the idea of equating human intelligence merely with academic excellence, or techno-scientific/mathematical reasoning. Instead, I see liberating or emancipatory education as the cultivation of awakened intelligence—not instrumental reasoning. And this cultivation means the possibility of inner flowering—the integral development of reason and intuition, brain and heart, science and aesthetics, body and soul, and thinking and feeling.

Furthermore, education, for me, is also about the development three important qualities—reflexivity,empathy and ethics of care. To know the world is also to know oneself; or to know oneself is to know the world. For instance, I cannot theorize violence in the world unless I see the violence within me—my greed, my fear, or my urge to establish my supremacy over others. Likewise, I cannot understand the violence within me unless I understand the violence in the world we live in—its structural inequality, exploitation and competitiveness. In other words, meaningful education seeks to build a bridge between the inner and the outer, the self and the world, and subjective experience and objective reasoning. This is what I regard as reflexivity. One is not just a distant/detached knower; one is also realizing the vibrations of one’s self-churning in the process of knowing the world. Similarly, empathy is yet another important faculty that emancipatory education ought to cultivate. This means the ability to expand one’s horizon, imagine oneself in the position of the other, and understand the meaning she/he is attaching to her/his action. With empathy, the knower becomes sensitive, and also responsible to the other. Take a simple illustration. I belong to the majority Hindu community. And I do not feel a sense of marginalization or stigmatization. I might feel tempted to normalize my reality as the ultimate reality. And then, I would never understand what, for instance, it means to be a Muslim when there is widespread communalization of politics and human consciousness. However, if my education sharpens the power of empathy, I, despite being a Hindu, could possibly begin to understand the agony and pain of being suspected as the ‘other’; and it is only through this empathetic understanding we can move towards a more egalitarian world that values the spirit of pluralism. And finally, can we redefine knowledge as love? See the way our prevalent education denies the lightness of being. With degrees, certificates and gold medals, we feel tempted to carry the egotistic burden of knowledge, and we feel that as ‘superior experts’ we have the right to dominate others. This is the violence of knowledge. It hierarchizes. It classifies. It excludes. Is it possible to alter this orientation, and see knowledge as the ability to love and heal the world? Here is a world characterized by technological violence, ecological disaster, caste/class/race/gender asymmetry, and the newly emergent risks ranging from climate crisis to life-threatening wars. This world needs a healing touch; this world needs the fragrance of love; this world needs the ethics of care. And hence, I have no hesitation in pleading for a kind of education that transforms us into reflexive, empathic and compassionate beings. What do you do with science without ethics, experts without conscience, knowledge without humility? It is, therefore, important to restructure and redefine education.

What sort of ‘science education’ is it? 

As I look at the prevalent practice of education, I see a huge gap between my ideal and the dominant reality. I see the pathology of the obsession with what tends to be regarded as ‘science education’. Before I reflect on this pathology, let me reflect on the ideal of science.

Well, science as a body of knowledge based on empiricism and rational analysis, a method of enquiry free from institutionalized dogmas and prejudices, or a distinctive way of seeing the world is immensely relevant. And we all know that this ideal of science—its quest for universal law- like generalizations, its adherence to objectivity, its enquiring spirit—is an integral part of our road to modernity: its gospel of progress, development and human emancipation from the dead weight of the past. Furthermore, there is a political economy of science. Our modern industrial culture needs science—the precision of mathematics, the development of physical and life sciences, and above all, the cumulative growth of technology and engineering. Not surprisingly, in modern times, science is seen as some sort of ‘high status’ knowledge. The state needs it (in fact, science is often seen to be an integral component of the project of nation-making); modern medicine needs it, the army needs it; and the market needs it.

Quite often, the extraordinary importance we attach to science leads to a hierarchization of knowledge traditions. While techno-science is given supreme importance, liberal arts, humanities and social sciences are devalued, or tend to suffer. This is like growing up with a set of hierarchical binaries: ‘fact’ vs.’fiction’, ‘real’ vs. ‘imaginary’, and ‘theory’ vs. ‘poetry’, When we look at our own country, we see the seeds of this hierarchization right from school education. The ‘toppers’, it is assumed, must opt for science. Science, as it is perceived by teachers, parents and students, is ‘prestigious’; science demands ‘merit’ and ‘intelligence’; and science is the way towards the desired goal—upward socio-economic mobility, career enhancement and success. Is it the reason why schoolchildren seem to be obsessed with the ‘PCM’ (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics) syndrome? Not solely that. For many, science is often experienced as a ‘product’—something utilitarian or instrumental: say, a road to engineering, management and corporate jobs with a huge salary package. Is it the reason that these days, for an average science student in our schools, physics means primarily FIIT JEE physics, or education means what coaching centres at Kota—the notorious town in Rajasthan known for everything that is black about our education—teach? The point I am trying to plead for is that with this hierarchization and purely instrumental orientation to ‘science education’, a severe damage is caused to the psychology of young learners. First, they miss the wonder of science; they miss the quest of science; they miss the culture of critical consciousness, dialogue and reasoning; instead, they confuse science with merely the strategic preparation for cracking all sorts of MCQ-centric entrance tests; they fail to see anything beyond an admission in the department of, say, information technology or electronics in an engineering college. Second, they grow up with a very distorted and negative understanding of liberal arts, humanities and social sciences; or they remain deprived of good literature and social philosophy because of their pathological obsession with ‘PCM’. And third, this obsession kills human possibilities. The peer pressure, the parental anxiety (this anxiety is acute in a country like ours characterized by chronic insecurity relating to career opportunities), the mob mentality, and the general absence of emancipatory pedagogues(particularly, in a milieu filled with coaching centre ‘gurus’ whose only task, it seems, is to sell ‘knowledge capsules’ and deliver the mantras of ‘success’): these are the reasons why we fail to appreciate the uniqueness of each child, and force almost everybody to follow the same path. Isn’t it absurd that every middle class parent, barring remarkable exceptions, wants her child to enter one of the IITs and become an engineer? Isn’t it absurd that a potential poet or a singer has to be forced to go to Kota to prepare for the engineering entrance test? Isn’t it absurd that an average Indian parent feels embarrassed if she sees her child weak in Mathematics, but quite sensitive to painting and theatre? Isn’t it a conspiracy to destroy human minds and creative possibilities?

I should not be misunderstood. I am not ant-science. As I have already indicated, there is a liberating potential of science ; yes, it gives us the reason to overcome the darkness of prejudices and superstitions; with physical and life sciences, we acquire a deeper understanding of the functioning of the world around us; and above all, it can create technologies to help humankind. Yet, it is no less important to be acutely aware of two dangers. First, when science becomes hegemonic, or it is reduced into scientism, it closes the windows of consciousness. We know and relate to the world not merely through the scientist’s eyes; we require a poet’s vision, a philosopher’s insight, or an artist’s sensitivity to live more meaningfully, holistically and aesthetically. And if all these traditions of knowledge are devalued in the name of hegemonic science or scientism, we become aesthetically and spiritually impoverished. Second, when the market-driven notion of utility is allowed to colonize the realm of education, science tends to lose its liberating potential. Instead, it promotes instrumental technocratic rationality; science is reduced into a principle of domination. With this sort of ‘science education’, life becomes one-dimensional. It loses wonder, creative surplus, and even the critical consciousness to see beyond the parameters of technocratic capitalism. This sort of one-instrumental consciousness, I have no hesitation in saying, prepares the ground for totalitarianism.

As I reflect on these two dangers, I feel science without a creatively nuanced critical consciousness and spiritually enriched humanistic wonder might prove to be disastrous. Yes, I understand the physics of a sunset; yet, I am no less eager to go deeper into its sublime aesthetics through the eyes of Vincet van Gogh. Or for that matter, I would not like our youngsters to miss Charlie Chaplin and Satyajit Ray, Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore, or Karl Marx and Jean Paul Sartre simply because they study physics and mathematics, and want to crack all sorts of entrance tests.

 Beyond the measurable: the aesthetics of education 

As it is said, science/technology/commerce seems to have measurable utility, or visible impact. An engineer builds a bridge; a heart surgeon performs a complex bypass surgery, and a techno-manager enhances the profit of her company. Amid these dazzling effects of techno-science, can we see anything significant in what a poet creates, a novelist writes, or a social scientist engages with? Or is there any meaning in studying poetry and literature, philosophy and history? Quite often, this question haunts many. Is liberal education useless? Or is it just an intellectual luxury that only the select elite can engage with?

It would be really sad if we try to measure the impact of arts and social sciences through the instrumental logic of utility or profit. Furthermore, it would be pathetic if we argue that you and I as ordinary mortals should not ‘waste’ time in thinking of or reflecting on literature, creative arts and social philosophies because we can’t think beyond career and money. We all need poetry, music, literature and philosophy to make our living aesthetically enriched and meaningful. We must interrogate this oppressive duality: ‘practical’ vs. ‘ideal’, or science vs. arts. In fact, liberal arts and humanities enrich our life. An engineer needs it; a physicist needs it.

Yes, poetry does not enhance the GDP or ‘growth rate’. However, it does something very deep and profound—beyond the utilitarian scale of quantification and measurement. To me, every inch of space is a miracle, wrote Walt Whitman. What does this poetic truth mean? Is it just a rhythmic arrangement of discrete words? Is it just a fantasy? Or is it that a poet sees and feels what our prosaic intellect cannot? Is it that a poet sees beneath the surface reality, and feels what statistics or crude empiricism misses? Imagine you as a seeker looking at the Himalayan peak. Is it just a matter of geology? Or is it that at the intense moment of realization you experience the Himalayan peak as your spiritual companion? This is the moment of wonder and longing. This is the moment when the peak becomes a miracle—the way a tiny blue flower is a miracle. This is the poetic truth. This softens the soul, and enriches the vision. There is not a singular and monolithic definition of truth. A botanist looks at a tree; his truth has its own context and relevance. But then, when you see an artist drawing the painting of the Buddha meditating under a peepal tree, it touches yet another realm of truth. No wonder, it is only a poet who with heightened sensitivity and penetrating eyes can see beyond the finite, and experience the glimpses of the infinite in the finite. You and I need to see beyond the monologue of instrumental reasoning, or the utility of economics to enter into yet another realm of truth that William Blake was visualizing:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Think of great literature—the way it sharpens the power of empathy, enhances our understanding of the social reality, and takes us to the interiority of human consciousness. In a way, great literature makes us sensitive and reflexive. It is not about discrete facts; it is not about solving a differential equation; it is neither a survey nor a statistical document of human needs. Instead, it is about our deep emotions and experiences—pain and love, and longing and suffering. Imagine, for instance, Saadat Hasan Manto’s partition stories. These stories need not change the world; yet, Manto’s creations make us realize deeply the trauma of partition, the violence that characterized the subcontinent, and the moral/ethical decadence we passed through. Even now when we witness the ugly politics centred on religious nationalism and resultant violence, Manto whispers into our ears; and possibly, some of us begin to feel how devastating it is to to brutalize our consciousness, and see people merely through their religious identities. In a way, Manto becomes our conscience. Or, for that matter, think of novelists like Albert Camus, Franz Kafka and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They make us confront the fundamental question relating to the very meaning of living amid apparent absurdity, nothingness and violence. For instance, the character of Alyosha that Dostoyevsky created in The BrothersKaramazov makes us feel the nuanced art of living filled with the spirit of love, tenderness, patience and religiosity. Yes, while statistics measures, science explains the natural world, and technologists invent tools to make life faster and easier, great literature takes us to the depths of human consciousness. A song wrote and composed by Rabindranath Tagore, the eyes of Monalisa Leonardo da Vinchi could visualize, and the social landscape of a feudal/caste-ridden Indian village that Munshi Premchand could draw: these gifts are immeasurable. It will be suicidal if in the name of ‘utility’ and ‘profit’, we fail to see their worth. Life without art, music and literature is dull—nothing beyond the monotonous cycle of earning money, eating, drinking and sleeping.

If poetry, literature and other art forms sensitize us, philosophically enriched social sciences equip us with a distinctively new way of seeing the world—beyond the dominant commonsense or the official truth. In other words, with history, sociology and political philosophy, we understand our social locations, see the dynamics of power prevalent in the network of social relationships, make sense of conflicts and hierarchies, and possibly, derive some sort of inspiration to create a just society. The critical consciousness, or the socio-historical imagination that meaningful social sciences nurture is not a superficial prime time panel discussion on a noisy television channel; nor is it like what the official bureaucrats and the ruling class want us to believe. Think of, for instance, the meaning of studying Marx, Ambedkar and Gandhi. A great teacher of history/political philosophy/sociology can help her students to open their eyes. Marx’s economic and spiritual critique of capitalism, or his ability to see the role of conflict in the movement of history; Ambedkar’s powerful arguments against the hierarchical caste system often legitimated by the ideology of patriarchal Brahminism; and Gandhi’s deep insights into the violence or brute force implicit in colonial modernity, and his quest for an ecologically sustainable , decentralized and nonviolent social order as swaraj: these reflections help a young learner to make sense of the age she lives in—its conflicts and contradictions, or its possibilities. In fact, this sort of critical social science can also help us to see the illusory notion of freedom through which the doctrine of neoliberal global capitalism seeks to seduce us. These days we are all consumers driven by the logic of a ‘having mode of existence’—the neurotic urge to buy, consume, possess, and see our ‘happiness’ in these consumable products and symbols. While the market-driven needs tend to appear as our true needs, we fall into the trap of never-ending consumption. The more we buy, the more restless we feel to have more. Eternally hungry, neurotic, restless: is it what it means to be a ‘free’ man/woman? Yes, liberating social sciences (Dalit studies, gender studies, critical theories, subaltern histories) enhance our democratic and critical thinking. To live meaningfully is not to live as well-fed/well-clothed employees of gigantic corporate employers (it is sad that this has become the primary aspiration of the much-hyped IIT/IIM graduates); to live creatively and gracefully is to reflect on the discontents of the age, evolve an art of resistance, and then strive for a humane and just society.

Imagine a world without Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, Arnold J. Toynbee and Eric Hobsbawm, Simone de Beauvoir and Margaret Mead, or Ranjit Guha and Ashis Nandy. Imagine a world that produces only engineers, chartered accountants and computer scientists. It would be truly dystopian.

For a pedagogic revolution 

Yes, liberal arts, humanities and social sciences are immensely important. However, a question remains: Who will educate our parents and teachers? We often hear the narratives of the unbearable parental pressure that has compelled many youngsters to out for science and engineering, and eventually feel discontented and unhappy because they wanted to do something else. We know how the fear of a bleak future is projected before children by their parents if they do not wish to study science, and show their inclination to, say, history or philosophy or literature. We also know how our parents, barring exceptions, seldom bother to know and appreciate the uniqueness of each child, and instead, expect the same achievement form everybody—a career in techno-science/management, and economic success. Well, despite the stories of depression, mental agony and even suicides, nothing alters. While the billboards in our towns and cities advertise the ‘success’ stories of the IIT JEE toppers, and associated coaching centre gurus, there are innumerable stories of ‘failure’. In a way, here is a system that manufactures failures.

Likewise, the dominant pedagogic practice kills the joy of learning. Education, far from being a celebration, becomes a burden. With rote learning, exam-centric education, popularization of the MCQ tests, proliferation of guide books and coaching centre mantras, nothing is left of meaningful education. In our classrooms, we kill the spirit of poetry and literature, or the critical consciousness implicit in emancipatory social sciences. When everything, be it a poem by Pablo Neruda or a historical narrative of Gandhi’s Noakhali days is reduced into a 2-marks question, and a student is transformed into an ‘exam warrior’, where is the scope for self-churning or deep realization of the beauty of poetry, literature, arts and social sciences? The tragedy is that even teachers, because of the faulty pedagogy, trivialize liberal education in our schools, colleges and universities. We need intellectually alert, spiritually enriched and passionate teachers; we need a pedagogic revolution.

I know educating the parents and teachers is not an easy task. I know that in the age of market-driven notion of ‘utility’ and ‘productivity’, it is not easy to question the dominance of instrumental approach to education, and plead for more integral/holistic/life-transformative education that unites science and ethics, reason and intuition, and celebrates music, painting, art, literature and philosophy no less than physics, mathematics and engineering.

Yet, as a student-teacher/wanderer, I do not wish to give up my struggle and quest for awakened intelligence. I am ready to take the path less travelled.

Avijit Pathak is Professor of Sociology at JNU

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