Liberal arts can open students up to new schools of thinking.

A business leader visiting us the other day at my school in Manhattan asked me what makes an American College education so valuable. As a college-bound senior, focused on the next four years of my intellectual and emotional growth, I answered without a pause that it was the liberal arts education. It was Albert Einstein who once said: “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” Reflecting on those four years at a high school that required me to take a broad and arguably esoteric range of courses, I’ve come to the conclusion that Einstein was spot on.

While the United States has a history of urging students to explore their passions throughout high school and more importantly, college, seldom do I hear a student in India say that he or she wishes to study the liberal arts. Of the millions of burgeoning Indian scholars who head to college every year, the majority do so with a long-term goal of financial security. One friend jokingly told me: “My dad will kill me if I don't become a doctor.” Sensing his disillusionment, I asked: “What really excites you?” “The study of ancient civilisations,” he replied. “I studied the Indus Valley civilisation seven years ago and haven’t been able to forget it since.” Still, despite his dream, 20 years from now, he will more likely be holding a scalpel.

Overemphasis on specialisation

There has always existed an overemphasis in India on specialisation, and an ever-unpredictable economy only serves to stoke concerns regarding the need to be a specialist. To a certain extent, I am a believer in the philosophy of specialisation, as long as it is augmented by a liberal arts background. The power of the liberal arts lies in opening students up to new schools of thinking, and giving them the ability to approach a complex problem in more than one mechanical way. So would it be preposterous to ask India’s leading educational institutions such as the IITs to make it mandatory for the budding engineer to take courses in disciplines such as philosophy, politics, or literature? Having a command over more than one specialised area allows students to think critically, enabling them to tackle a problem from more than one direction. That principle came to light this year in my studies.

Who would have guessed that a class called Absurdist Literature that fundamentally examines the ways in which society is “nonsensical” would be the class I learned the most from this year. Studying the human condition sows the seeds for intellectual curiosity and exploration. I went beyond the numbers to think in ways I had never done before. For one assignment, I plunged into the world of Hindu philosophy, using Advaita to study the distinction between the dreaming and sleeping states. The class forced me to think in ways I had never explored before, and I can retroactively quantify my intellectual growth by my newfound interest in existential philosophy. The liberal arts teach students to enjoy what they do and not treat their education as a chore.

Each student will have his or her own set of passions and may or may not pursue a career in that chosen path. The plea I make is directly to the parents: give your children the freedom to pursue their dreams and support those who choose to walk down the “liberal arts” path. In the long run, they will be better for it. The right kind of liberal arts education will intellectually excite, emotionally fulfill and eventually transform us into creative, valuable and productive citizens of this great country.

The writer is a student at the Trinity School in New York City.