Push your limits, explore the unknown, and learn all through your life. Does the present education system help you to do this? Liberal arts provide some hope.

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a handwritten note to a University of Texas art historian, apologising for a January speech in which he had urged young people to train in manufacturing rather than major in art history.

In his apology, Obama explained that the field he had so summarily dismissed was among his “favourite subjects in high school”— in fact, he was simply “making a point about the job market, not the value of art history.”

Fine distinctions are indispensable to a good defence, but there is a more general subtext to the contrast Obama draws between being equipped to navigate economic realities (“the job market”) and gaining some more ineffable positive quality (“the value of art history”).

Any conversation about the role of the humanities or social sciences — and more generally, the liberal arts — must contend, somewhere, with this opposition. For anxious parents, it condenses into a necessary question.

In an ailing economy, isn’t it somewhat self-indulgent for their children to say, spend time talking about poems and novels, or comparing theories of psychological dysfunction, or studying matrilineal societies? Put through an economic calculus, a pre-professional degree in a field like management, engineering, medicine or law seems a better investment for future job security.

Indian scene

That belief is all the more deep-rooted in a country like India, where the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) have traditionally been valued more, and where getting into an IIT or an IIM is still seen as the summa of academic achievement.

Indeed, there is no shortage of public and private institutions devoted to engineering, marketing and medicine. Elite colleges that offer an undergraduate degree in the humanities, social sciences or sciences (like St Stephen’s or St Xavier’s) also post forbidding cut-off marks that place them out of the reach of most applicants.

Not surprisingly, the tendency is for ambitious high school students to spend a lot of time preparing for standardised tests: a good performance in the JEE or the CAT could be the ultimate meal ticket.

And yet, there is that other side of Obama’s equation — the fact that, for some students, history or literature just happened to count among their “favourite subjects in high school”, or that it’s actually the theory in physics that they fell in love with, not how it could be applied in mechanical engineering.

For many parents, it can seem that following a passion of the mind is the wrong choice to make, one that forecloses employment opportunities that will eventually buy their child a happier (in other words, more privileged) life.

One of the reasons the choice is so beset by anxieties, even for the affluent, is that a 17-year-old entering one or other course is willy-nilly making a lifetime commitment. At an age when few would be entrusted with selecting a life partner — or, for that matter, a drink — students fresh out of school find themselves deciding to spend the next several decades of their lives as lawyers, doctors or engineers. (Interestingly, the vast majority of engineering students — as high as 80 per cent, according to some estimates—eventually work outside their field of training). Even someone entering a BA or BSc (Hons) course must forego other intellectual interests. With little experience to undergird such a decision, the applicant and her family tend to fall back on a cost/benefit analysis that leads, usually, to the most conservative choice: a pre-professional degree.

Alternative education

One relatively recent alternative in India is the option of a four-year liberal arts education. The idea of the liberal arts — the range of subjects a good citizen must master — reaches back into classical antiquity.

In the current, primarily American model being adapted by colleges including my own home institution, Ashoka University, students take courses across disciplines before deciding on a major.

Two years of wide-ranging, integrated knowledge thus lead into intensive study and specialised research. At Ashoka, students will be required to take foundation courses that acquaint them with a range of humanities, sciences and social sciences subjects, as well as shoring up skills like writing, numeracy and analysis.

That kind of education is a little too young for jokes in India, but in the U.S. one favoured quip about the liberal arts involves someone majoring in underwater basket-weaving: in other words, choosing inconsequential study over useful, marketable skills. But is that really the case?

The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) said last year that 80 per cent of the business and non-profit leaders they surveyed advocated a broad liberal education, for fostering skills like “critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge” in the workplace.

It isn’t hard to see why. As people show an increasing tendency to switch careers midway, the capacities nurtured by a liberal arts education — flexibility and breadth, a comfort across disciplines, and an ability to synthesise ideas, think critically and communicate well — look rather useful.

Microsoft and Google may well be known for flinging fat purses at recent tech graduates. However, an AACU report last month claims that while liberal arts majors start off making less money than their peers from pre-professional programmes, they earn more later in life.

As I figure out readings for the Introduction to Critical Thinking course I teach this August, I’m not considering “critical thinking” as a marketable buzzword.

My focus, rather, is on enabling my students to become rigorous, independent thinkers who can join their own unique voice to the larger conversation of ideas.

I hope they learn how to question their assumptions and those of the society around them, including the base of unjust privilege that supports such notions as ‘the job market’ in this article.

I hope their education will introduce these young people to a wealth of human thought to replenish their inner resources, enable them to push against the limits of what is known and, above all, help them learn how to learn — not just in their foundation courses or their majors, but through the rest of their lives.

Mandakini Dubey is an Assistant Professor of English at Ashoka University, and also teaches at its Centre for Writing and Communication.