The NEP and liberal arts education

The draft’s endorsement of critical thinking would have gained credibility if it had promoted liberal values

Updated - December 04, 2021 10:37 pm IST

Published - July 20, 2019 12:02 am IST

A few months ago, a school principal told me about her conversation in the morning assembly with children of the middle (Grades VI-VIII) section. She had asked them for suggestions to turn the school into heaven. Some children suggested a garden, with trees, grass, and flowers blossoming all year round. Others pointed out that the school already had a nice garden. They suggested that heaven should have peace, so we should end all fights. The assembly ended with everyone taking a vow to stop all fighting in the school to make it like heaven. A short while later, two boys came scuffling into the principal’s office, quarrelling and seeking her intervention. On inquiry, one of them said, “Ma’am, didn’t you say you want our school to be like heaven?” Then he pointed at the other boy and asked, “What is he doing here, Ma’am? He fights with me all the time.”


This story came back to me when I started reading the section on higher education in the 480-page draft of the National Education Policy (NEP) . I had completed my reading of the section on school education, so I was ready to be told how a future generation that spends its school years under the guidance of the proposed new policy will spend its college years. For improvement in learning at school, the draft NEP wants critical thinking and creativity to be treated as the cornerstones of intellectual development from early childhood onwards. As a term, critical thinking or inquiry has gained enormous popularity of late. It does not mean ‘critical’ in the common sense. How the term has evolved in recent educational theory implies the ability to place ideas and problems in a larger context in order to locate creative links and clues by using information and concepts drawn from different subjects. Imagine our youngsters proceeding to higher education after this kind of intellectual training at school: you can picture a transformed college classroom.

Pivotal to reform

In the draft NEP, the section for higher education opens with ‘liberal arts’ as the key to reform. This is another term that has been gaining currency in India over recent years, but its history is rather different from that of critical thinking. In India, owing to our colonial history, we are more used to the term ‘liberal’. In modern education, ‘liberal arts’ refers to undergraduate courses in America’s elite private universities. For years, I have been looking for a suitable term in my mother tongue, i.e. Hindi, to convey the many layers of meaning underlying the word ‘liberal’. The common translation is ‘udaar’ or large-hearted. (I am sure this is the term they will use when the draft NEP is made available in Hindi.) The idea of liberalism as large-heartedness or intellectual generosity ran into trouble when ‘neo-liberalism’ gained centre-stage in economic policy. The only way one might notice some generosity in it was by recognising the state’s willingness to loosen its grip. Neo-liberalism has now settled in, transcending ideological boundaries, but its impact on liberal arts education in America is far from clear. Many scholars have suggested that the turn towards neo-liberal policies has weakened critical thinking in liberal arts courses. This matter has suddenly become relevant for us in the wake of the draft NEP proposing both critical thinking and liberal arts, virtually in the same breath.

Applying critical thinking

Implementing the draft NEP in my own mind, I thought of using critical thinking to reflect on the prospects of liberal training. The late Professor Ravinder Kumar, an eminent historian of modern politics, was a self-avowed liberal. I once heard him explain why liberalism is the hardest social doctrine to practice. He said the capacity to tolerate your adversaries, with curiosity to understand them, calls for a mutual agreement. If there is no such consensus, i.e. liberal outlook is practised by one side only, it can be frustrating, and might even lead to a tragic failure of liberalism itself. When I hear about liberal arts courses being offered in private universities, I often wonder what future awaits them. How will they face a world in which the ‘narrow domestic walls’ are rising higher and higher? This metaphor was used by Tagore, a bold liberal, who wanted India to become a ‘heaven of freedom’. ‘Where knowledge is free’, the same poem said. The liberal arts undergraduate courses I am referring are to cost ₹8 lakh per year.


The draft NEP’s support for liberal arts comes with a plea for increased public funding. It also cites employability as a justification. Even more interestingly, the argument excavates historical grounding. It says: “Indian universities such as Takshshila and Nalanda... definitively emphasised the liberal arts and liberal education tradition.... The critical Indian concept of liberal arts has indeed become extremely important in the modern day employment landscape of the 21st century, and liberal arts education of this kind is already being extensively implemented today (e.g. in the United States in Ivy League schools) with great success. It is time India also brought back this great tradition back to its place of origin.” (pp. 223-224).

The resounding, elaborate commendation of liberal arts in the draft NEP brought me back to the principal’s story about turning her school into heaven. The boy who asked her about his classmate — “What is he doing here, Ma’am?” — was asking a fundamental question pertinent to the future of liberal values. The youngster’s query demonstrates that he has internalised the spirit of the age. Many children do that. Their questions carry valuable material to understand our times better and more objectively than we might be able to do as adults, submerged as we are in our ethos, feeling forced to cope with it. The boy’s query contained the hope that principal Ma’am, being the custodian of heaven, will exercise her authority to adjudicate in his fight. What were her choices? There were mainly two: to expel the alleged fighter or to ask the complainer to talk to his adversary. Only the latter would qualify as a liberal administrative measure.

Perhaps this is what the draft NEP also wants in its push for the liberal arts, as a futuristic substitute for the monochromatic ‘BA’ our system is used to and stuck in. Since the draft NEP is committed to critical thinking, surely its writers had cast a glance at the larger ethos and noticed the demise of several bastions of liberal education. Had they evinced even moderate concern, their endorsement of the liberal arts would have gained credibility. Unless liberal arts graduates are to be produced exclusively for export, their training would have to include the smartness to not let anyone know what exactly you believe in. One suspects that their American counterparts already receive such training.

Let me get back to the heaven alluded to in the principal’s story. Trees and peace apart, a school turned into heaven will surely have to resolve the problem of fear, so endemic to our education system. The boy who wanted the principal to adjudicate was not afraid of indicating to her his own preferred solution. It was implied in the question: ‘What is he doing here?’ This stance also carries the hope of impunity from being charged of intolerance. As a grown-up he might say: ‘If we want to preserve our neatly fenced heaven, why can’t we expel from it the people we don’t appreciate?’ We might add: isn’t this already being argued in many liberal countries, so why should we hesitate? My principal friend, however, followed her instinctive good sense and sent the two boys away, asking them to talk it over and play without a quarrel together.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT

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