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Posted at: Jul 12, 2018, 12:30 AM; last updated: Jul 12, 2018, 12:30 AM (IST)

Celebrating liberal education

Avijit Pathak
Liberal education gives us reflexivity, criticality and politico-ethical sensibilities. It humanises us, helping us create a sane society. Its worth cannot be measured through what Marx regarded as ‘callous cash payment’.
Celebrating liberal education
Life-affirming: Visitors at a sculpture exhibition in Amritsar. File PHOTO: RK SONI

Avijit Pathak

Professor of Sociology, JNU

Perhaps the Earth can teach us, 
As when everything seems dead,
And later proves to be alive,
Now I will count up to twelve,
And you can keep quiet and I will go.
 — Pablo Neruda

What does it mean to be educated? It is sad that the youth — caught in the trap of pedagogically starved coaching centres, parental pressure and pathological obsession with 'market-oriented professional courses'  — get a wrong answer to this pertinent question. To be 'educated', they are told by the insecure middle class living with severe 'survival anxiety' in the neo-liberal era, is to be just a well-fed/well-clothed employee — a fashion designer, a computer professional, a management executive; and education means essentially 'success' and 'settlement' — free from all sorts of 'risks' and poetic madness. No wonder, we tend to forget the deeper meaning of education -- its ethical/philosophical/psychic/cultural significance. The realm of education becomes crudely instrumental when nothing matters more than 'placement' and 'salary package' for selling a set of techno-managerial 'skills'. It is sad to see the youth growing up with chronic restlessness and existential emptiness emanating from the market-induced rationality and its implicit social Darwinism: 'survival of the fittest'.

However, even in these troubled times, we should not stop asserting the significance of the lost virtue — the life-affirming character of liberal education. Yes, even in this prosaic/pragmatic world we will find youngsters joining colleges and universities for pursuing courses in history and literature, art and politics, philosophy and theoretical physics: the courses that, unlike the notorious MBA phenomenon, are not based on the needs of the fluctuating market. Is it possible for them to survive, live with a positive self-perception, overcome the societal stigmatisation and stereotype of the 'left-overs', and find life's true calling and vocation? This is possible only when as teachers and educationists we succeed in inviting them to the enchanting world of liberal education.  

Seeing beyond technological spectacles

A liberal society, it has to be understood, needs enlightened citizens, not just 'technical experts'. To be enlightened means to be aware of the civilisational history — its symbols, mythologies and cultural heritage, the dynamics of human relationships, and the way power is possessed, disseminated and exercised. Imagine the meaning of studying Yajnavalkya's discourses on the nature of 'Self' — the mediation between the temporal and the eternal — in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad; feel the intensity of pain in Manto's Partition stories; look at Monalisa's eyes and wonder at the power of Sigmund Freud's interpretation of Leonardo's childhood; cherish a meaningful engagement with Marx and Foucault; and experience the philosophic depth of a remarkably insightful conversation between Tagore and Einstein. These are just illustrations at random that indicate what liberal education does to us. It gives us reflexivity, criticality and politico-ethical sensibilities. It humanises us. Its worth cannot be measured through what Marx regarded as 'callous cash payment'. 

The problem is that if we emphasise primarily on market-driven/technological knowledge, we end up creating a society without solid foundations: a society filled with aesthetically/politically impoverished technical experts incapable of relating their 'skills' to the organic needs of a living community. So you have the 'skilled' MBAs selling and promoting junk food; you have the IT professionals engaged in cyber crime; or, for that matter, you have the 'IIT/IIM generation' — pampered by the corporate lobby and ambitious middle class society — working for 16 hours a day, finding no moment of contemplation for an engagement with the self, and thereby becoming reckless consumers of all sorts of 'false needs' constructed by the 'hidden persuaders'. 

To use Frankfurt School Marxist Herbert Marcuse's language, we find technically skilled, yet 'one-dimensional' men. This leads to totalitarian thinking. The spectacular culture industry promoting consumerism and projecting narcissistic political personalities as 'hyper-masculine' saviours of the nation becomes the order of the day.  In the absence of liberal values, even the 'educated' class fails to utter the language of resistance. Yes, new forms of authoritarianism emerge out of smartphones, television soap operas, seductive malls, capitation fees and mushrooming growth of 'education shops'. 

To love is to resist

This must change. And this requires the restoration of life-affirming liberal education. In this 'risk society' crumbling because of technological violence, non-sustainable development, the utilitarianism of the market, and the decline in the moral fabric of what Jurgen Habermas would have regarded as a shared 'public sphere' because of increasing atomisation, we need to rethink education, visualise 'ecological universities' that connect diverse branches of knowledge for social harmony and construction of integrated selves, and re-establish the significance of dialogic communication. 

This is possible only with liberal education: the education that helps us to appreciate why, for Walt Whitman, 'every inch of space', far from being reduced into a 'resource' for technological greed, 'is a miracle', the education that empowers us to understand why, as Michel Foucault indicated, real freedom is at stake as the technologies of 'surveillance' surround our existence, the education that opens our eyes to see what Mahatma Gandhi saw — the danger of 'brute force' implicit in a techno-capitalist civilisation. This is the time to acquire the courage to say: 'Enough of life-killing coaching centres, 'success mantras', commodification of education. Celebrate liberal education for creating a sane society.' 

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