India’s 2019 draft National Education Policy puts unprecedented emphasis on liberal arts in higher education. I was surprised by how much the NEP reminded me of China’s approach to liberal arts education.
China began discussing liberal arts education or, as they called it, “cultural quality education”, in the early 1990s. In 1995, the Chinese Ministry of Education held its first national conference on Cultural Quality Education, which stressed the need for education to enhance innovation, critical thinking, and moral reasoning. The goal was to marry professional degrees with liberal arts education and called for liberal arts to be built on a foundation of Chinese history, culture, and values.
India’s draft NEP sounds uncannily similar. But India’s goal should not be the same as China’s. The NEP aims to transform higher education to include liberal arts and marry it with professional degrees. The NEP also proposes that liberal arts should emphasise India’s history and culture. As India debates the NEP, it is worthwhile trying to understand China’s experience in implementing liberal arts education as well as the challenges in outlining the goals for this form of education.
Resistance in China
Over the last two decades, China has faced stiff opposition to implementing liberal arts education. Liberal arts may be thriving in numerical terms, with more than 50 public universities in the country, including prestigious ones like Peking University and Tsinghua University, running programmes. But these efforts are still small-scale. Unlike India’s NEP proposal, China didn’t overhaul its higher education system to include liberal arts for all students. A combination of cautiousness from the Chinese Ministry of Education and resistance from the faculties at universities have held back large-scale reforms.
China, like India, has a highly specialised higher education system and the faculties have resented taking time out from their regular routine to teach non-specialised students. At Tsinghua University, it took more than eight years of lobbying before liberal arts was introduced; it was completely integrated only when the politically ascendant Chen Jining was appointed president of the university.
For India, there are lessons to be learnt from China’s implementation challenges. Making liberal arts the cornerstone of Indian higher education is a massive endeavour, and it will face resistance. In India, the introduction of a semester system, credit-based evaluation, and internal assessment, prevalent in some premier Indian and international universities, was resisted by faculty at major universities such as Delhi University for many years.
India needs to be wary of launching experimental pilot colleges that limit liberal arts to a small group of elite students. Instead, a liberal arts core curriculum should be introduced for all students, regardless of whether they are studying engineering or history.
Lessons for India
Involving the teaching faculty from the beginning and ‘socialising’ the proposal to gain feedback, ideas, and eventually consensus are key to successful implementation. Training the faculties on teaching liberal arts courses is imperative. Otherwise, India may end up with an elite liberal arts system – with only a few high-quality liberal arts institutions. Or, it will end up with a massive higher education transformation but with poor quality of teaching and a curriculum that is subpar. Both would be a disservice to the country’s young people.
The second learning from China’s experience is more philosophical. It is to answer the question – what is the goal of a liberal arts education? Historically, from ancient Greece to Harvard’s Red Book – the goal of liberal arts has been to prepare individuals to be active citizens and to engage in critical thinking.
In China, the goal isn’t necessarily to build ‘active citizenship’ or critical thinking skills. China’s focus on liberal arts, based on Chinese history, culture, and values, seems to harken back to a Confucian scholar tradition. The dean of Xinya College, Tsinghua University, Gan Yang mentioned in a conversation that the idea behind promoting liberal arts wasn’t to critique politics, but to develop well-rounded, humanist individuals who are well versed in Chinese culture. In the Confucian scholar tradition, learning to cultivate one’s character and make ethical commitments to society was the central purpose of education. As China expands its growing influence in the world, the goal of liberal arts education in China appears to be this – to create a group of elites who think innovatively but play it safe politically. The idea is to define this effort as being in sync with Chinese history and tradition.
This should not be India’s goal. Liberal arts education shouldn’t become an excuse for teaching an uncritical version of Indian history, culture, and values. Professor Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College, argues in his book, Excellence Without a Soul, that one of the goals of liberal arts is also to provide the students with common unifying values and an understanding of their heritage.
The concern in India is that the foundation of history and culture for liberal education will be taught as dogma. Liberal arts in India should help students critique and analyse the country’s history, culture and values so that they can understand their past and prepare for the future. Democracy and active citizenship depend on this.
The NEP’s goal of transforming higher education to produce a well-rounded citizenry is commendable. This is a difficult transformation. Learning from the experience of others is of critical importance – to ensure that we can do this, and that we have the right reasons for trying.
The author is a Schwarzman Scholar who worked for India’s first liberal arts university, Ashoka University. Views are personal.