New perspective on education

Print edition : September 28, 2018
A nuanced argument for a progressive and modern approach to education, which is still in the shadow of the colonial legacy.

SAIKAT MAJUMDAR’S College: Pathways of Possibility is a fascinating sociological take on the higher education system in India. Writing in an elegant anecdotal fashion, the author explores not only the reasons behind the diminishing preference of students for a liberal art-science education over professional education courses such as engineering and medicine but also the historical and social reasons behind this trend.

The book presents a learned and logical argument for a progressive and modern approach to education.

“Is it possible to imagine education today without it being linked to a particular profession? Or does it have something to do with the state of our universities—something that is in turn rooted in their longer histories,” he writes.

The book tries to find answers to these questions and, at the same time, presents newer avenues for arts-science education in the country. It challenges the age-old, well-entrenched notion of education as being nothing more than a means of social mobility and the over-emphasis on professional institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and medical colleges.

The writer says: “Getting into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—the fabled MIT—is an incredibly cool affair, and yet would anyone claim that it is way ahead of a seat at Princeton or Yale?”

While delving into the changing and complex world of higher education in the country, Majumdar depicts its impact on the world outside the classroom. Citing the example of the change of demand in books in the famed College Street book market in Kolkata—where over the years Marcel Proust, Lawrence Durrell, Jorge Luis Borges, and other literary greats have made way for coaching manuals and test prep volumes guaranteeing success in the joint entrance examinations for engineering and medicine—Majumdar observes: “Few things record the drastic change in the self-fashioning of young India as the seismic shift in the book-scape of College Street.”

He asks if it is possible for a student, just out of high school, to decide with certainty what she/he wants to do for the rest of his/her life. He says: “Art-science education in the general streams seems like a sad back-up, good only for those not smart enough to be chosen for the professions right out of high school.”

However, a good arts-science education, he feels, will give the necessary foundation for students to pursue professional training if he/she so wishes. “The magical thing about liberal art-science education is that it does not—and cannot—assume that the student is headed in a particular direction after college, and hence it does not exclude other possibilities,” the author says.

Science and liberal arts

The book is an argument against the rigid compartmentalisation of disciplines that often encourage the idea that the liberal arts are in opposition to STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine). This, the author feels, is a fallacy and counterproductive to imparting a progressive, well-rounded education, as “the foundational S of STEM, science, occupies pride of place in the liberal arts”. He points out that in September 2014, the computer science department of Stanford University, United States, introduced a pilot programme of two dual majors—computer science and English, and computer science and music.

“The sharpening of specialisation and the erection of walls around the disciplines have brought us way too far away from the memory of times when everything was part of one large (artistic) family… The old art-science education is also the brave new one,” he writes.

Interestingly, recent media reports show that quite a few of India’s top engineering colleges, including some of the IITs, are including music in their core engineering courses to impart a holistic education.

Contra-disciplinarity

The book forays into different directions effortlessly, but the crux of the matter rests in what lies ahead in a rapidly changing society. The author explores the best possible kind of education for the generations to come. Referring to the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Majumdar says that it “outlines the full spectrum of human faculty that not only forms the scaffolding of the academic disciplines, but also navigates skilfully between the disciplines and realities of life”. (Gardner in his books, Frames of Mind and Intelligence Reframed spoke of several kinds of intelligences—linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, existential and interpersonal.)

He believes that the best possible thing that can happen to a student is to be drawn with equal intensity to disparate disciplines. “Here is my key advice to the smart and ambitious young people in 21st century India: If you are attracted to different disciplines, don’t choose between them. Go for them,” he says.

From this rises Majumdar’s radical new idea of “contra-disciplinarity”, that is, the pursuit of a discipline that is different to the point of being even incompatible with one’s primary interest or subject—such as the programme of dual majors of music and computer science as introduced in Stanford.

This contra-disciplinarity, Majumdar asserts, is the best model of liberal art-science education, and also its exciting future. “Contra-disciplinarity is a liberal arts principle, since the liberal arts are less about immersion in a specific discipline (though it is about that too) and more about mastering a key set of life skills that do not come exclusively from any one discipline or even from a neighbouring set of disciplines. A liberal arts-science education involves something of an intellectual democracy where different epistemic forms, backed by the different intelligences, live and thrive,” he elucidates.

The need of the hour, he feels, is a “disruptive” rather than an “integrative” model of college education, which juxtaposes disparate intelligences and does not try to integrate them into a single narrative.

Research and teaching

The author points to a critical flaw in the Indian education system, that is, “consumption of knowledge” does not culminate in “production of knowledge”. The purpose of academic higher education is to gradually shift from being a consumer of knowledge to emerge as a producer of knowledge through original research. In the Indian educational system, he says, consumption and production of knowledge “are more or less unrelated affairs”.

A good research university is one that builds its faculty “on a certain assumption of inseparability between research and teaching”.

The primary reason for the existence of a gulf between learning and production of knowledge in India is the colonial legacy of education that the country has inherited and preserved. “How is it that the arts came to develop in such an inartistic manner at so many leading Indian universities? How did English literature, considered a cornerstone of the liberal arts, become the shadow of a competitive exam subject, complete with question banks, coaching manuals, and endless cycles of rote-learning?” he asks. The answer lies in the university system established by the colonial masters to facilitate administrative work. It was an education system “meant to be an effective factory of government clerks and bureaucrats”, Majumdar says.

The book deals with abstract theories and ground realities of the present scenario in the field of higher education and the historical factors that brought this about.

Majumdar's scholarship and experience as an academic have enriched the content of the book, but if it does not sound like a drab policy document or a forbidding academic book, it is because Majumdar the novelist keeps the narrative lucid, witty and sometimes playful, even as he analyses serious issues. He draws upon his personal experiences, stories from history and fables, which along with his vast knowledge of the subject, help establish a point in a manner that everyone can understand.

It is a book that talks at once to academics, education councillors, policymakers, students and parents, and, indeed, anyone interested in knowing the status of higher education not just in India but abroad as well.

In that sense, the book serves as a guide of sorts to the student community as well as policymakers and educationists.

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