Indigenous models of liberal arts should beware of ethnic chauvinism

As the Indian and the US examples both show, openness and flexibility is easily limited by parochialism and provincialism, says Saikat Majumdar

July 29, 2022
Padlocked books, symbolising restrictions on liberal arts
Source: iStock

During a very interesting conversation I took part in at the recent Times Higher Education Forum on the Liberal Arts in Asia, Leonard K. Cheng, the president of Lingnan University Hong Kong, made the striking argument that liberal arts education must go beyond its traditional rootedness in Western liberal democracy. Non-Western models, particularly when relevant to local contexts, must blaze new trails, he suggested.

Lingnan University has taken a liberal arts approach since the 1990s, and, according to Godwin’s Global Liberal Education Inventory, Asia accounts for 37 per cent of liberal education initiatives outside the US, of which three-quarters are in China, India and Japan. Yuanpei College at Peking University, launched in 2001, is another example, as is Taiwan’s Tunghai University. But Cheng’s examples were Effat University in the United Arab Emirates, which models its vision on Arabic principles of reading and writing, and Soka University, which, although located in California, draws its inspiration from Japanese Buddhism.

Indeed, while for most people, the phrase “liberal arts education” invokes an American model, it is arguable that liberal arts long predates the establishment of the US. A 2016 article by Boston College’s Kara Godwin and Philip Altbach cites three examples. One is China’s Confucian tradition, which sought broad education in the making of a whole person. Another is the ancient Nalanda University, which used both Hindu and Buddhist traditions to nurture “self-realisation” in India. And a third is Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest continuously operating university in the world, which drew not only on Islamic theology and sharia law, but philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and, from the 1870s , natural sciences, on the grounds that an educated individual needed a comprehensive range of knowledge.

China was also a modern pioneer. In the late 1990s, its government turned away from its specialised, Soviet-style system, particularly devoted to professional training in engineering and medicine, towards “cultural quality education”, or whole-person development. A large number of specialised colleges were developed into comprehensive universities with broad programmes incorporating previously ignored “soft” disciplines.

In response to Cheng’s argument about the need for non-Western sources of liberal education, however, I could not help but ask him about the dangers of ethnic chauvinism. My question arose out of my own experience of consulting on the liberal arts with the committee of India’s new National Education Policy, which also articulates a strategic vision to transform colleges of specialised training into multidisciplinary universities. 

The policy, unveiled in 2020, is a vast and ambitious mixture of various sometimes contradictory aspirations. But as someone who primarily focuses on the liberal arts, it was startling to see the policy imagine an American model of multidisciplinary liberal education through what is unmistakably a rhetoric of Hindu nationalism.

“Ancient Indian literary works,” the policy states, “such as Banabhatta’s Kadambari described a good education as knowledge of the 64 Kalaas or arts; and among these 64 ‘arts’ were not only subjects, such as singing and painting, but also ‘scientific’ fields, such as chemistry and mathematics, ‘vocational’ fields, such as carpentry and clothes-making, ‘professional’ fields, such as medicine and engineering, as well as ‘soft skills’ such as communication, discussion, and debate.” But the policy’s repeated invocation of “ancient” India cannot but be a refusal to acknowledge the country’s “medieval” period of Muslim rule, from around the end of the first millennium to the advent of British rule in the 18th century, which included periods of great prosperity, development and relative communal harmony.

One might say that the narrative of majority religion is primarily a rhetorical gloss on what is essentially modern, interdisciplinary liberal arts education. But the omission from the narrative of educational practices rooted in other cultural traditions – not just Islam and Christianity, but also tribal and indigenous practices – remains glaring to anyone who imagines India not as a Hindu nation but as one made by multiple traditions.

It may be hard to admit it, but the openness and flexibility of liberal arts practices get rather easily limited by various forms of parochialism and provincialism. I have experienced this, too, through my years of studying and teaching in the US, where the cultural canon at the heart of liberal arts curricula has petrified over the decades through the severe constrictions of white parochialism. And even while calls to decolonise the curriculum – familiar to scholars of colonial and minority cultures since the 1960s – become ever louder, ethnic and nationalistic chauvinism remains undefeated.

As shown by Asia’s pre-modern centres of religious education, such as Nalanda and Al-Azhar, the values we associate with a liberal arts education – freedom, tolerance, plurality, openness – are not exclusively rooted in Western liberal democracies or the European Enlightenment. And there is no doubt that institutions of liberal arts education must draw from models beyond the easily available American one. But as higher education policy in contemporary India makes equally clear, it is undeniable that the political ideology of governments will determine the manner in which local or indigenous models of liberal arts will be adopted.

In the end, what matters more than history is historiography: our documentation and presentation of history. And, whether we like it or not, educational policy will always try to foreground certain political and ideological interests.

Saikat Majumdar is professor of English and creative writing at Ashoka University. He thanks Harshita Tripathi for research assistance.

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