Value of Liberal Arts Education

Rabindranath Tagore envisioned an education that was deeply rooted in one’s immediate surroundings but connected to the cultures of the wider world, predicated upon pleasurable learning and individualised to the personality of the child. He felt that a curriculum should revolve organically around nature with classes held in the open air under the trees to provide for a spontaneous appreciation of the fluidity of the plant and animal kingdoms, and seasonal changes. 

Image - courtesy newslanc.com
The liberal arts (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person (Latin: liberal, "worthy of a free person") to know in order to take an active part in civic life, something that (for Ancient Greece) included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, rhetoric, and logic were the core liberal arts, while arithmetic,geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a (somewhat lesser) part in education. In modern times, liberal arts education is a term that can be interpreted in different ways. It can refer to certain areas of literature, languages, art history, music history, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, and science. It can also refer to studies on a liberal arts degree program. For example, Harvard University offers a Master of Liberal Arts degree, which covers biological and social sciences as well as the humanities. For both interpretations, the term generally refers to matters not relating to the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. ~ Wikipedia


Education is freedom with responsibility, and this is only possible when our minds are free, we learn to delve deep within and think how each of our actions will affect the people around us. My favourite poem is that of Tagore, and this is what the whole liberal arts philosophy is all about.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free 
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls 
Where words come out from the depth of truth 
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection 
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit 
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake

The world today feels the need for liberal arts education much more than professional, vocational, or technical curricula.  East scores over west as historically east has been the cradle of civilisations and culture, the west today looks to the east for traditions and learning from the spiritual past. Education must not be experimental learning alone and should work to build our spiritual quotient. Education must help us build our perception beyond the five senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. There are perhaps more than 14 different types of senses as suggested by psychologists, for  example there are many people who can sense impending weather changes. My mother could always sense when I was about to make a mess (the sense also known as "eyes in the back of the head"). And many people feel that they can sense when someone else is looking at them. Study of liberal arts makes us go way beyond the physical self and this is what makes liberal arts more interesting and relevant today.

The term education encompasses a whole gamut of experimental learning which, in a school, is given through teachers in the classroom and often, more importantly, outside. It is the nature of the experience and how it is designed to be imparted that makes the difference between a good school and an ordinary school. Liberal arts education is beyond simple Q&A and is more like fuzzy logic, helps us develop the creative infinite mind. The study of Science and Maths helps us become analytical and find simple solutions for every day needs, while liberal arts will help us delvelop and go beyond the finite. Maths, Algebra, Geometry all work in the realm of cause and effect and will limit us to finite answers. True freedom will only come about with the development of liberal arts education.

Eudcation today with many of the modern day curriculums, lays emphasis on developing an analytical mind, this is done more with research and experiential learning. Looking back at my school days, perhaps the most profound of learning experiences were the adventurous journeys and excursions. The mid term break in many institutions are meant for the students to travel, explore and see the world. This is where beyond developing a great understanding of living together, we are given a true life feel of nature and that the world beyond the simple brick and mortar classroom offers immense learning. Knowledge put to practice brings about real learning, most of the outward bound experiences, the service projects and even the sport camps gave us an opportunity to develop as better human beings. 

Artisans and entrepreneur skills are passed over generations, and when I look back at the qualification levels of many such people, they are far more successful than those with professional, vocational, or technical qualifications. These individuals have learnt the ways of the world and have a deeper understanding of nature as well as the resources they use for their livelihoods. The experts of traditional medicine, the home remedies, the life skills that liberal education provides is far more complex than the learning of a classroom based on Science, Technology or Maths.

The leading universities in USA and even the UK owe their eminence to liberal arts education.  Liberal education presents students with at least 6 major benefits, according to Robert Harris from the book On the Purpose of a Liberal Education: 
1. Liberal education teaches students how to think
2. Liberal education teaches students how to learn
3. Liberal education allows students to see things whole
4. Liberal education enhances students’ wisdom and faith
5. Liberal education makes students better teachers
6. Liberal education contributes to students’ happiness

Knowing more about life increases pleasure. Wheaton College promotes the growth of liberal arts education and stated by Harris, “A cultivated mind enjoys itself while life and knowledge makes you smarter and smarter makes you happier.” It’s been proven that people who are highly educated have higher satisfaction in life. At the end of the day, we should all know what we are doing, which one of those reasons is to study liberally. We are all truly blessed to have the opportunity to be liberally educated, and I hope you take full advantage of its benefits as you learn, grow and develop. 

"That man, I think, has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease and pleasure all the work that, as a mechanism, it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength, and in smooth working order; ready, like a steam engine, to be turned to any kind of work, and spin the gossamers as well as forge the anchors of the mind; whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the great and fundamental truths of Nature and of the laws of her operations; one who, no stunted ascetic, is full of life and fire, but whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience; who has learned to love all beauty, whether of Nature or of art, to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself." ~ Science & Education, of Huxley's Collected Essays.

The newly established Ashoka University near Delhi,  focuses on liberal education and their website states,  "The Greeks did it. The Romans loved it. The Indians excelled at it. The Egyptians lived and died by it." By breaking down borders between arts and sciences, theory and practice, living and learning, a liberal education ensures that students develop multi-dimensional skills. Liberal education at Ashoka aims to allow students to take courses across subjects and even to craft their own interdisciplinary major. Student learning will simultaneously be broad and deep and will instil an intellectual curiosity more tolerant of difference, debate, and dissension. In keeping with both ancient and modern models of learning, Ashoka University celebrates a broad-based pursuit of knowledge grounded in the Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural and Applied Sciences.
Good Schools should offer quality liberal arts education. 
Yes, Science and Medicine help us with solutions, technology gives us convenience, it is however empathy and understanding of human nature which alone helps us become better human beings. Today we find the world is showing a renewed interest in the study of liberal arts and needs this as a 'saviour of humanity'. Good Schools should offer quality liberal arts education. Teachers should be well read and inspired people. They should read about education, love the children they teach and have all-round personalities. They should acquaint themselves with the Montessori methods, the philosophy of Swami Vivekanand and read John Dewey, Rabindranath Tagore and Jean Jaques Rousseau. Quality in education leads to quality in our lives and that is what we are all striving for.

The author of the article Sandeep Dutt takes the onus of the content and the opinions expressed are his alone. You may please email the author on sd@ebd.in for comments if any.

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