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Why studying liberal arts in college is not for losers
Rashmi Bansal
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July 16, 2007

'Commerce is in...'

'Biotech is hot!'

'Engineering is the rage now, medicine is out.'

Headlines like these jump out at you from the morning papers these days. It's the season of exam results, which means students are sweating out the big question: "Admission kahaan lein (Where should I take admission)?"

The buzz is that there are all kinds of new courses available. Vocational courses. Professional courses. Job-oriented courses. Many different names for the same thing: a course with some perceived 'value'. "Mera beta/ beti koi faltu ki padhai nahin karna chahta/ chahti (My son/ daughter does not want to study something that is useless)".

Yes, at the very bottom of this value chain, somewhere just above the four-week diploma in Feng Shui lie the dreaded `Bachelor in Some Pakau Subject with no Practical Application' degrees. In other words, sirf BA ya BSc.

Barring the attraction of attending a handful of hallowed institutions (LSR/ St Stephen's/ Presidency College), interest in taking up a BA or BSc is about as high as the demand for permanent residency status in Bangladesh.

But is studying the liberal arts such a terrible -- and useless -- thing after all? Let's take a look.

Invisible value

In a recent interview, Business Standard asked K V Kamath, CEO & MD, ICICI Bank [Get Quote], "Do you lack in any particular quality?"

Kamath replied (after a long pause): "I am probably too technical a person. By training, I am an engineer and also did my MBA, but I never had any exposure to liberal arts. I wonder sometimes, that if I had, probably I could have been a better person, better leader and achieved a little more than I have."

"Early on in my career I used to feel that technical education is the best education, but after 35 years of working I admit that I stand corrected."

Coming from a superachiever like K V Kamath, that is quite a statement. And it's something students should think about. There is merit in a 'broad-based' education which does not necessarily lead to anything. At least, not directly.

Yet, the argument of whether this subject or that one is more useful rages on. Even within arts. Economics, for example is more prized than English literature. Although there are Nobel Prizes awarded for both, the former is considered 'almost a science', while the latter is labelled faff. Eco students will favour 'hard' subjects like statistics and political science as side orders, making it the what-all-intelligent-students-opt-for combo.

But hey, who am I to preach? I'm one of the myriads who chickened out of a lit major in my third year of college, in favour of eco. The argument being that 'literature is something you can always pursue on your own'. After all, you can read books in your leisure time.

Unfortunately, you never read those kind of books. Or in that kind of way.

'Hard' vs 'soft' subjects

It did seem pointless -- at the time -- writing 3 foolscap sheets on the motivations and mental state of fictional characters. What a particular novel, or poet was trying to say about the social conditions prevailing in the 18th or 19th century.

But it was interesting. It made you think. It made you look for answers. Hidden meanings which may or may not have originally been there...

Of course, I was lucky to have some amazing teachers at Sophia College (Mumbai). Ms Colaco and Mrs Stevens, in particular, stretched our minds far beyond the syllabus. In the second year, they covered several works which were not prescribed. Simply because, without that exposure, we would not truly understand modern literature.

Now I can't say that I have, till date, 'understood' T S Eliot's 'Wasteland'. Or Samuel Beckett's'Waiting for Godot'. But, I am glad I was exposed to those thoughts and ideas.

Of course, liberal arts is more than just literature. It's history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, political science. In the US, Liberal Arts include music, art and even the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) -- what we refer to as 'science' in India and consider inferior to engineering.

The general perception is that losers go for arts. And this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where students with the least marks -- and no particular interest in the subjects -- take up a BA.

The craze for commerce

In education circles, hearsay has it that if you can't or don't wish to pursue science, the honourable alternative is commerce. This is especially true in the country's commercial capital: Mumbai.

Demand for the commerce stream rose to a new high this year. At prestigious colleges like Podar and HR, the cut-offs went up by 4 to 5 percent.

The truth, however, is that commerce is no better or worse than an Arts degree. The only door it shuts on Arts graduates is CA. And it gives no special advantage if you wish to pursue an MBA.

Yes, a mere 4 percent of IIM Ahmedabad's class of 2008 are from an arts background, compared to 12 percent from commerce. But that's more a reflection of the choices bright students make at the +2 level. After all, 75 percent of the class consists of engineers.

So there is no rational basis to accord the arts second class status. But human beings are driven more by perceptions. And those, once formed, are difficult to change. Although not impossible!

So, what's the answer?

What we need is a number of liberal arts colleges that set standards of excellence, which attract the brightest and the best. National Law School is a case in point. Because it exists, it attracts a breed of students who would otherwise never have considered taking up law.

St Stephen's is the one institution which carries offers liberal arts in India. You know that someone who graduated from there is a bright spark, who took up an arts course out of choice. And braving stiff competition.

Famous it may be, but St Xavier's in Mumbai is nowhere nearly as revered.

However one Stephen's is not enough. And, with the college deciding to give more and more weightage to minority status over merit, we don't know how long it will retain its mystique.

The point is, we have created no institutions of repute post-Independence, focussed on liberal arts. The term 'institutes of excellence' came to be associated with a new breed of colleges -- the IITs, IIMs, AIIMS. But these aren't multi-disciplinary colleges. Unlike a Harvard, a Wharton or a Stanford, all of which offer engineering, medical, management and liberal arts degrees on the same campus

Universities like Vedanta will possibly change that. Vedanta plans to set up a college of arts and sciences, professional schools (medicine, engineering, law etc) and cross disciplinary centres of excellence -- similar to America.

Reverse engineering

The other approach could be for existing institutions to become more broad-based.

The IITs, for example, already have humanities departments. Today, these departments don't offer full-fledged courses at the undergraduate level, except for the odd MSc Economics. The electives they do offer are seen as 'timepass' in the current scheme of things.

Now an IIT offering a non-technical degree to its graduates may seem heretical. But few of the students on an IIT campus today can claim to be there out of love for engineering. They're just a bunch of confused kids who want a secure future. A brand name degree.

So instead of a dal-roti-aloo engineering menu, why not a food court of subjects? A multi-cuisine, all-you-can-eat offer of mental stimulation. And ultimately, even a choice of degrees.

Perhaps too radical to ever really happen. But who knows?

The future of work -- and life -- will be more fluid and dynamic than ever before. Does an arts graduate have enough 'options'?

In an insightful article Jamienne Studley concludes: "The best education for an unpredictable future provides the capacity and the tools to gather, interpret, challenge and create knowledge; to combine ideas in new ways; and to communicate effectively."

A tall order? Yes. But that, my dear students, is the essence of the liberal arts.

"Grounding in the liberal arts offers a window on history, culture, and human beings, on methods of intellectual inquiry, that transcends any particular subject, problem, moment in time, or job."

Sounds like what any smart person would want from an education!

Rashmi Bansal is a graduate of IIM Ahmedabad and founder-editor of the popular youth magazine JAM. She can be reached at

Rashmi will be hosting a chat with Get Ahead readers on July 19 at 3 pm IST, discussing common misconceptions that we have when it comes to taking up arts in college, as compared to science or commerce.

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