The future of the world stands at a crossroads. The global pandemic of coronavirus has sent shock waves, not only across every sector
s, including Universities and Colleges, but also across the world. In order to analyse the ongoing turmoil, we have to look more carefully – with a broad lens – to find out exactly what is happening and why and, what could be the way out to overcome the mountainous challenge?
Humanitarian crises demand humanistic measures and interventions. Responsibilities of citizens deepens, as each and every one of us is needed for enhancing civic engagement, expressing solidarity, and igniting hope for better collective futures. Therefore, the time demands not only the lenses of Einstein, Newton, and Hawkins but also of Socrates, Gandhi, Aurobindo among other thinkers. When the pressing concern for everyone seems to be ‘what will happen next’ – only hope, love and wisdom can sustain and move life. In the continuum of life and death, the meaning of the lives of human beings exist.
It is here that role of Liberal Arts education becomes increasingly vital. Liberal Arts education doesn’t intend to create a free person. Rather in the freedom that Liberal Arts education espouses and advances, lies the vested responsibility for each of us to think imaginatively, connect to others, and question the various aspects of life. It is not the kind of education that sets out to provide voyaging through other peoples’ suffering, rather a training in liberal arts intends to seek questions and nurture human values. With the advent of neoliberal policies, the focus of higher education has apparently shifted from ‘search for truth’ to ‘honing skills’ Although, there is nothing wrong in honing the skills, to do so at the cost of compromising emotions, empathy and critical thinking is a seriously flawed, and must be strongly questioned and resisted. Liberal Arts education questions any practice of singularity, and in so doing, emphasizes the interconnectedness of life and tests the knowledge of ignorance. It, therefore, cuts across disciplines, promotes training in broad disciplines and resists the practice of what renowned Indian scholar Avadhesh Singh terms ‘compartmentalization of higher education’. Why else would Plato seek students who could not think geometrically? Here, geometrically means ability to create knowledge of worldliness, which is sadly and for the worse, is missing from the existing framework of higher education of many countries. Compartmentalization of knowledge system runs the risk to see the interconnectedness of life and different knowledge traditions. Whereas the integral model of education is more inclusive and, rests on the notion that if there is a problem in one’s neighbourhood, it could also impact him/her sooner or later. No other example could be so timely as the pandemic of coronavirus to explain this feature of interconnectedness – a feature that lies at the core of the curriculum of liberal arts education. What started in China has now found itself deeply rooted across the world. All of a sudden, the entire world seems to be united in the battle against the pandemic. When nations fail, only emotions, empathy and humanism can reunite the world. This type of crisis not only demands sacrifice but also selfless service for others. It takes us back to the notion of ‘Loksangraha’ (wellbeing of all) advanced in the Gita, which stresses true renunciation not for self, but also for others’ sake.
Liberal Arts education could be best understood through the metaphor of ‘train’ – a journey of people seated opposite to each other, having opposite views – but all heading towards a destination, a common goal, in case of higher education, inclusive growth of society, nation and world. Gandhi’s humanism becomes increasingly pertinent here. Gandhi was very fond of Nari Mehta’s bhajan, ‘vasihnav jan to tene kahiye je/ peer parayi jane re’, which means that a true Vaishnavite (it could stand for human being here) is the one who not only knows the pain of others, but also tries to remove this pain. To take another example from a different knowledge tradition, listen to what Seneca suggests on the idea of being a human, “while we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity.’
While our love for machines and artificial intelligence has spiked unprecedently, our love for fellow beings (including the non-humans) has registered a significant downfall. Artificial intelligence without elements of justice, emotions and values signify nothing. Training in liberal arts education can cultivate the hope for human goodness. We are more attached to numbers than feelings. Sadly, emotions can be expressed through neither numbers nor language despite the fact that education can only be given through language. Languages can be detrimental and it has been proven repeatedly, particularly the way politicians use it as rhetoric tools to manipulate their voters. Therefore, what is needed is to read through the gaps and silences of the language of sufferings and vulnerability. The Liberal Arts teach, among other things, us to grasp the emotive power of language as well as its power to communicate – to express the unexpressable – and to live with the unliveable. It can only be understood through the language of feelings or what renowned educationist, Rajan Welukar sees as ‘kriya’ in his series of lectures on Main hi Mera Rakshak (I am the protector of myself). The onus to think and see through the crisis and adopt collective measures lies on the individual as suggested by Welukar.
We live in a world, where everything has been converted into data. Seen from this problematized position, Liberal Arts education plays an important role since it provides intervention by giving lens to prioritize feelings over numbers. A training in liberal arts can let citizen see whose suffering is prioritised in society or whose life count as human life. The world can’t be run without numbers; concurrently, it can’t be run without emotions and humanity. Liberal Arts education provides informational and emotional equilibrium and hence it restores and brings to the centre the aim of knowledge in Indian tradition which is ‘vidya dadati vinyam’ i.e., ‘knowledge gives modesty/ humility.
In the present time when the meaning of human life has been reduced to numbers and productivity, a different reimagination of education and life is required. Liberal Arts education provides that vision to systematise the provisions. That is why Shashi Tharoor advocates liberal arts education, since it “teaches you how to think, reason, rationslise, draw conclusions and speak what you believe through words and actions” One could connect this to Socrates’ much celebrated idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. We are certainly faced with a deep crisis right now, and hence one should consider this as a passage, which would test our life on the crucible of humanity. Liberal Arts education can certainly provide ways to deal with this pandemic. Remember what Marcus Aurelius famously pointed out “death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.”
* A slightly different version of this was published in the online edition of the Times of India.
Dr. Om Prakash Dwivedi is the Head of the School of Liberal Arts and Human Science, AURO University, Surat, India. He is also the Deputy Chair of the international research network, Challenging Precarity: A Global Network. He sits on the advisory board of the international journal,Journal of Postcolonial Writing(London: Routledge). Dwivedi is the author of Re-Orientalism and Indian Writing in English (Palgrave, UK),Human Rights and Postcolonial India(Routledge, UK & India) and Indian Writing in English and the Global Literary Market(Palgrave, UK). Dwivedi is also the External Reviewer for Database on Humanities, Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research. He has delivered invited talks in Australia, Italy and the UK.