The importance of a liberal arts education

The importance of a liberal arts education

Liberal arts, one of the oldest streams of education, focus on the study of the humanities (art, literature, linguistics, music, theatre, ethics, philosophy), social sciences (anthropology, geography, gender studies, history, economics, political science, demography and sociology), natural sci ences and formal sciences (statistics, maths). They play an important role in the enhancement of one's understanding of the world.

Indian scenario

The liberal arts have been offered in India but the programmes are different from what is seen in countries such as the US. India's traditional universities have always taught a number of liberal arts courses under the humanities and social sciences faculties, says Supriya Chaud huri, professor, Jadavpur University, Kolkata and chairperson of the committee that submitted a concept note on Tagore University for Liberal Arts to the then HRD minister Kapil Sibal in 2012. (The proposed university hasn't taken off so far.) Meanwhile, “however, a number of new private universities have been set up with the mandate of offering liberal arts courses.“

Explaining how liberal arts degrees are different from Indian arts programmes in general, Chaudhuri notes, at Indian universities, you are required to declare your major early on during the course, unlike the American liberal arts model that does not emphasise specialisation in one subject but offers students an option to choose from a wide range of subjects and not declare a major until she is clear about the subject.

Why it matters

The world of higher education has been entangled in a clash between “concept-con strained“ syllabi and “liberal arts“ syllabi. The former limit the learner's engagement to ideas and theories of the concerned and at most, allied disciplines only, while the latter are aimed at the development of the learner's general intellectual capacities and positive human traits. Today, “concept-constrained“ learning has the upper hand as it is inherently employment-oriented, given the marks andor grades criteria. However, such criteria can be acquired through rote and uncritical learning processes, says Agnelo Menezes, principal, St Xavier's College, Mumbai. Realising this shortcoming, institutions now bundle their written entrance tests with group discussions andor per sonal interviews, says Menezes. The loss of employers'institutions' faith in the outcomes of conventional pen-and-paper exams has to be attributed to the absence of an adequate quantum of the liberal arts in the current curricula, he adds.

Traditionally, liberal arts included the humanities and an array of social sciences.However, in contemporary times, the spectrum has widened to include all disciplines, provided the pedagogical processes are experiential and inquiry-based.(Though this may not be so visible in the Indian context in general.) “The liberal arts challenge learn ers to develop a critical mindset to become conscientious citizens and active participants in civic and work life.Since concept-constrained syllabi inform learners while liberal arts curricula form learners, a number of students now opt for the latter,“ adds Menezes.

­ With inputs from Charu Narula in Delhi


Liberal studies let students organise a study programme that is interesting and gives professional exposure through industry visits and individual projects. They offer exposure to lifelong skills that enable professionals to adapt to new challenges and juggle diverse professional responsibilities effectively. Students are trained in analytical, communication and problem-solving skills necessary in a constantly changing work sphere. PR Venkitaraman, a career counsellor based in Kochi, explains, “These skills and critical thinking allow modernday liberal arts professionals to work in sectors ranging from accounting to retail. Another emerging area in this field witnesses professionals making a career in forensic archaeology. One can also build a career in business, government, or social service agencies like adult and family services, criminal justice, and health and welfare. While some liberal studies majors combine this study with teacher training programmes at the undergraduate or graduate level to become K-12 educators, others find the multidisciplinary programme appropriate for graduate studies in law.“

The career options for liberal arts graduates are those of an economist, journalist, research professional, policy and financial analyst, sociologist and psychologist, etc.Depending on the chosen major, one can also look for jobs such as that of an archivist, curator, museum technician, counsellor, interpreter and translator, medical assistant, public relations specialist, social and human service assistant, social worker and technical writer, among others.