My College Years Education

‘Engage with the world’

Saikat Majumdar is both a creative writer — accomplished novelist (Silverfish, The Firebird), and an academician — who taught for several years at Stanford University, and authored Prose of the World, an academic book of criticism. This may seem to require major gear shifts, but for Majumdar, the roles are inseparable. He sees himself as a “novelist and critic who loves to teach and think about education.”

Majumdar’s latest offering, College: Pathways of Possibility, explores avenues of post-secondary learning and liberal arts-science education in the Indian context. He discusses this, as well his own college pathway, with EDGE. Excerpts:


I studied English at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, along with sociology and political science. I later went to the U.S. for an MFA in Creative Writing, and completed a Ph.D. in Literature from Rutgers University.

Favourite mentors

Professor P. Lal at St. Xavier’s College. He was a radically charismatic teacher, and listening to him teach was like hearing poetry, or watching a gripping play! He was the defining force of the small literary publisher, Writers’ Workshop; they published my first collection of short stories while I was a first-year student in college.

That was the defining event that seriously put me in the pursuit of a writing career.

Indian and American systems

In the Indian undergraduate system, the focus is on acquiring a breadth of knowledge which is then evaluated through examinations. My sense is that in the U.S. system, the focus on the acquisition of knowledge is partial and more eclectic — it often depends on the personal choice of the particular instructor. But there is also a certain emphasis on the creation of new knowledge through research, original theses, and projects. I feel I have benefited from both systems — the Indian system, I would say, taught me how to consume knowledge, while the American system trained me to produce it.

As a teacher

My teaching is very much shaped by the American classroom, which is more interactive and student-centred than the traditional Indian classroom, where the central focus is on the teacher and the lecture method. I teach through a mix of lecture, discussion, student participation, and occasional use of multimedia — most of which has been moulded by the more free-flowing, interactive pedagogic culture in the U.S. rather than the singular focus on the professorial lecture that is the British legacy in the Indian system.

Liberal arts in India

It’s exciting to see a surge of interest in the liberal arts approach to education throughout Asia. At the same time, I feel the liberal arts are a much-misunderstood term.

Many people think it is synonymous with the arts and humanities. In fact, it cannot be equated with any discipline as such, but is rather an approach to education which focuses on fundamental study as opposed to applied or professional education. It is easy to forget that biology is a liberal art even though medicine is not, political science is a liberal art while law is not, economics is a liberal art even though accountancy is not.

The supposed opposition between STEM and the liberal arts is really a confused one, as the foundational “science” of STEM, is as much a part of the liberal arts as literature, philosophy, and history.

In a way, there is no such thing as a liberal art subject. There is only a liberal arts education, which combines a degree of horizontal range in all disciplines, from the quantitative to the qualitative, with deep vertical depth in one or sometimes two disciplines. It is a broad, rich and well-rounded education.

A message

Make use of your college education to engage with the world. The rest of your life will be spent in making a living, and you’ll also have multiple opportunities to get specialised training for your profession. Undergraduate education is your real chance to immerse in things you really care about, knowing well that your job may or may not be directly connected to these things.

A college education is not just about mastering a single subject; it is a broader process where you should diversify as much as your curriculum or institution lets you, and try to get a wider exposure to multiple disciplines.

The best undergraduate education is the right balance of depth with range.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 11:23:04 AM |

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