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Teaching liberal arts is essential to create thoughtful citizens

Engineers, doctors, lawyers, bankers, and teachers — all have one thing in common. They all happen to be citizens. Yet, I was able to sail through four years of an engineering course at a top technical university, without giving any significant thought to my citizenship and the intellectual burden it brings.

I questioned corruption, but only as an angry young man. I explored gender, only through experiments and self-study. I discovered lawmaking, only through newspaper explainers. I needed viral social media posts to truly realize what justice, equality and human rights mean. The state considered me good enough to vote, but it had no plan to equip me with what I needed to be a responsible citizen.

Choosing a professional course had robbed me of the far more fundamental study of the humanities, just as I was becoming an adult.

I caught up soon through the work I’ve done over the years. Millions of others, however, continue with lives that hardly challenge and stimulate their thoughts on human issues. Education remains just an investment into a labour market of human sheep.

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The impact is for us to see, today more than ever before. Empathy is rare, and decades of globalization have only opened up the profitable markets of prejudice, hatred, religion and egos. Did my state-run university not find it necessary to develop me as a thinking, philosophical being who could question and improve existence, life and society?

When high schools teach political history, civics and economics, the beneficiary is a child who is yet to vote or imagine herself as a helpful citizen. In doing so, schools are just overpaying bills that are due years later. Kids are neither really interested nor capable of applying it fully. History as a result becomes boring, civics gets torturous, and economics becomes a tool to lift scores.

Meanwhile, the lack of critical thinking at school and home means the existence of God and flying animals becomes obvious, respect for elders becomes a virtue, sexist expletives become normalized and masculine, and petty, nosy tradition such as wear-full-clothes and dare-not-have-pre-marital-sex become rules to abide.

When the society starts unleashing itself on these kids, they find themselves usually in an engineering or medical college, with no curriculum to make them even revise their school basics — let alone analyze, apply and debate. The Constitution, learnt first in sixth grade, is a puzzle and the Parliament is a wasteland. The Emergency and British Raj are strange nightmares that are thankfully over, the Holocaust is a subject of jest, and rape a word to be used for India beating Pakistan in a cricket match.

The world unleashed

Suddenly, a range of big problems starts becoming part of daily life and news cycle, without the tools for young adults to make sense of them if they’ve chosen a non-humanities professional course.

Some can bank on their upbringing, curiosity and reading habits, to see through political trickery, rapes, sexuality, potholes, graft, abuse, insurgency, terrorism, crime and religion. Most others carry on ignorantly and blissfully with their lives — unless they are the transgender being mocked, the Muslim being lynched, the sister being raped, the pedestrian being hit, the lover keen to express in a park, the disabled being allowed to fall the stairs, the untouchable being denied a seat, the north-east Indian being stared at, or the south Indian being mimicked.

Life can indeed be comfortable and rewarding even without liberal arts. In fact, most human beings — if not explicitly taught to hate — do indeed have natural empathy. Most of us help those who have tripped over, give water to the thirsty, and talk proudly of celebrating Eid with Hindus and Diwali with Muslims. That social contract is good enough for daily life, but what an institutional indifference to the humanities robs us of is a chance to think beyond all this.

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Students we thus produce may be great engineers and investment bankers, but they aren’t really smart. Daft curricula and small ambitions remain low on intellectual and philosophical massage — youngsters begin to find solace in social media validation, the ego boost of “being a man”, imitating film-stars, creating gossip, insulting the inferior, legitimizing stereotypes, and rationalizing superstitions and patriarchal festivals. Opinions are half-baked but the aggression to defend them is immense.

Often clueless about their own life

Lack of philosophy and humanities doesn’t only make us poor citizens, but unaware individuals. My engineering peers knew their own strengths and weaknesses only because they googled interview tips a day before they tried to get hired. After the interview, they had no clue “where they see themselves 10 years from now”.

Ireland introduced philosophy at schools in 2016. President Michael D. Higgins, a key force behind this, said once, “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected and uncertain world.” Philosophy in the classroom, he argued, could offer the path to “a humanistic and vibrant democratic culture”.

While philosophy is essential to citizenship and schools an ideal place to kick-start the art, undergraduate professional courses can no longer be oblivious to humanities. “Our continually changing world,” writes George Forsythe, formerly of Westminster College, “needs great thinkers and communicators who have the ability to reflect, analyze, and create effective solutions. A liberal arts education builds these qualities with a foundation of critical thinking and global awareness.”

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Every other young adult now ends up in college and thanks to social media, has more political currency than ever before. Colleges must become places to produce responsible citizens as much as professionals. Things taught at schools must be built upon to provide depth, quality, intellect, purpose, and humanity to our lives as people who can live for more than themselves.

When that doesn’t happen, chauvinism, political mischief, communalism, homophobia, xenophobia, subjugated women, and racism, all start making sense. Actions of even the most self-centred citizens inevitably impact other lives. This makes the state and civil society responsible to ensure that that impact better be constructive. Revising the curriculum seems to be the best way.

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