Arthur Dudney in Outlook. More HereLord Curzon, the newly appointed Viceroy of India, was on the defensive in 1899. “I read in many newspapers,” he told graduates at the University of Calcutta, “that our system of higher education in India is a failure, that it has sacrificed the formation of character upon the altar of Cram.”
More than a century later, “the altar of Cram” still demands worship from students. Rote learning, fossilised curricula and arbitrary examinations are the norm even at India’s top colleges. Despite the growth in higher education and the much-vaunted success of the outsourcing and IT economy, the system can neither keep up with the rising demand nor can it, in many cases, provide a solid education. But change may be coming soon as about a dozen education-related bills are debated in Parliament. As India attempts to expand both the quality and capacity of its universities, a key question must be what role the liberal arts should play.
Many societies, including India’s, have recognisably liberal educational philosophies. Both traditional streams of Indian education, Sanskrit and Persian, valued broad-based knowledge and argumentation. In the West, the idea of a liberal education goes back at least twenty centuries to the Roman philosopher Seneca, who defined the liberal arts as the general education worthy of free men as opposed to the practical training required by slaves. Translating for our modern sensibilities, Professor Grant Cornwell, president of the College of Wooster, a top US liberal arts college, suggests that a liberal education develops “habits of mind and character that will equip young people as problem-solvers, independent thinkers and innovators”.