Friday, December 01, 2006

The Value of Liberal Arts

Business Standard asks K V Kamath, CEO & MD, ICICI Bank : Do you lack in any particular quality?

Kamath replies (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 an exposure to liberal arts. I wonder sometime that if I had an exposure to liberal arts, probably I could have been a better person, better leader and achieved a little more than what I have (done).

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

Kamath was recently named BS 'Banker of the Year' and is widely credited with taking ICICI to new heights. So I'm not sure what 'more' he would or could have achieved. But I agree with his point on liberal arts. More of us should get that kind of 'broad based' education which does not necessarily lead to anything. At least, not directly.

I for one wish I had majored in English literature. Nope, I opted for Economics, the 'almost-a-science'. That's because switching to Arts after being the school topper type was itself a big thing. And in the end I chickened out of a lit major, accepting the argument that 'literature is something you can always pursue on your own'. In that you can read books on your own.

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

It did seem pointless - at the time - writing 3 foolscap sheets on what 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, and look for answers. Hidden meanings which may or may not have originally been there.

I guess I was also lucky in that we had some amazing teachers at Sophia College. 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 Waiting for Godot. But, I am glad I was exposed to those thoughts and ideas.

Similarly, the one year I spent in America as a senior in high school entailed a course in American literature. It was a requirement for graduation, so I had no choice. But I would have taken it, if I had one. John Steinbeck, Willa Cather and most of all The Great Gatsby. Just some of what I remember...

Also the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, which is an American classic, but unheard of in our part of the world.

Anyhow, liberal arts is not just literature. It's history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, political science. I find that in India, even Arts has a 'caste system'.

The 'Eco' student will take a combination like Eco-Stats-Pol Science or Eco-Stats-Socio. In many cases, that's what the college offers - you have no choice. The 'soft' subjects are in a separate category and generally the two are not mixed up.

However, at Sophia, they actually forced you to opt for a mix. So if you wanted Eco and Stats you would have to choose one subject from the 'other group' - "English lit, French lit, History or Philosophy'. I think, partly, it was so that those departments.. would not become extinct. But whatever the reason, I am very glad!

Getting back to K V Kamath's statement, sadly, the class profile at bs schools is getting skewed more and more away from Arts. IIMA's class of 2006 had only 3% Arts students. And I bet almost all of them would be Economics graduates.

It's a similar story, practically everywhere.

I know, it's the old 'engineers fare better at CAT' argument. The point is most intelligent young people in India still opt for technical education at the class 12 stage itself. So changing the exam is not the answer.

What we need is liberal arts colleges which set standards of excellence which attract the brightest and the best. One Stephen's, an LSR and a Xavier's here and there is not enough.

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!

Lastly, if you plan to enter the media, a good liberal arts education is worth a lot more than a Bachelors in Mass Media. Journalism or film making are not subjects to study in a class. The projects you guys do by cutting and pasting from google are of no value.

Focus is not everything in life. As Prof Robert Allen notes "A liberal arts degree gives students general skills to go on to become lifelong learners... They pick up what they need along the way."

Another article on the subject notes:

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's exactly what liberal arts can provide a student. This type of education is called liberal arts, because it liberates the mind. The "liberal" comes from the Latin, liber, meaning free--free from ignorance and intolerance and cultural isolation.

Of course, their definition of liberal arts includes music, art and even the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology). What we refer to as "Science" and is again, in India, considered far inferior to Engineering.

The bottomline is:
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 I would want from an education!


  1. Anonymous7:36 PM

    Very true and the story of opting for more conventional majors must be quite common to many..
    Anyway, did u hear about FLAME ( the insti being captioned by Prof. Indira Parikh? They offer a course in liberal arts, communication and management. Should be interesting!


  2. We have the discussion in our humanities (HSS) courses often here in IITB. During a discussion in an HSS elective I took this time, the Prof. pointed out that MIT has around 25% of humanities courses all through out while IIT's have only around 10%, roughly 1 per semester. I am not sure about the credibility of that statistic but if it is true then it really says something.

    Infact the issue of the purpose of having HSS courses (non eco) here is so often debated that we had a faculty member from the HSS department to write an article "Why HSS?" in a recent issue of InsIghT; our insti newsletter. (If interested you can find it here on page 6)

  3. Anonymous9:23 PM

    studying liberal arts is a waste of time...says not me but ...Thorstein Veblen in his epic The Theory of the Leisure Class.

    "He defined conspicuous leisure as the waste of time by people to give themselves higher status. As examples, he noted that to be a "gentleman", a man must study such things as philosophy and the fine arts, which have no economic value in themselves."

    so in india any bright young student who wants to earn a decent living for himself wont exactly be looking at arts. i also remember Jerry Rao saying something like this that Mphasis should have more poets. but the main point is can poets code ? :P

  4. Anonymous1:01 AM

    I like the post, but I am sorry that I don't quite agree to it. In India education is not about nurturing the intellect with in. It is about being employed. Education is not about pursuasuion of interest in this country of ours for majority of people, it is ensuring employability at the start of life. It is very easy to say that liberal arts are very nurturing and things but the fact is even 10 years down the line when children now would start getting some sense would realize, that all the upcity flats belong to most of the MBAs, Engineer not to their teachers. They will drift towards the same technical eductaion. Because nurturing of intellect can be done at any stage of life. Even the maslows hierarchy puts the physiological & security needs well below the other needs.

    As a matter of fact even in the technological side of study people are prefering to better employability (Read MBA) than Research in the country (Read M. Techs) because the scenario of Masters in the technology field in India is grim and doesn't provides enough value add in employability in general.

  5. I could not agree more. Why is our education system a zero-sum game? Either you take the arts or sciences. There is hardly any scope for mixing-and-matching in most of our universities. In the US, you can major in physics and minor in something else, even earn a dual degree in English literature and, say, statistics. Some people look upon the Arts as lazy ways to spend time, meant only for upper class people. But, have they really thought about what it is that makes a 'civilized, cultured' populace? If taken with due intellectual rigour, the humanities train you to think about the human psyche, about social problems, their whys and hows. Leaders have to understand people as much or even more than they understand machines. And, here is a great post by
    Kathy Sierra
    , one of the co-creators of the Sun Certification exams. Imagine, if they are complaining about the state of American higher education, I don't know what we should say about ours:).
    My Hindi teacher once said,
    "Sahitya, sangeet, kala viheena,
    ...." (it meant something like this, a person without literature, music and art is like an animal without a tail. A tail may not be important to humans but it is to animals:) ).

  6. Anonymous8:45 AM

    Dear Rashmi

    Mr Kamat did say what I always thought about our education system, that it lacks the ability to provide well rounded education with an ability and capacity to inovate.

    Well i stated blogging recently and wrote about splitting mumbai university into 2 pieces (don't be alarmed). Please read through.


  7. Anonymous12:00 PM

    sorry forgot the link


  8. Since liberal arts are not encouraged here, Indians only provide services and make commodities. The products which are really difficult to replicate (and where the real money is) are sold by others. Many Westerners wonder why Indians will be happy to spend a few days coding software for just $200 and then many copies of the same software can be sold for a much higher amount. They conclude it is "cultural" issue.

  9. Anonymous11:07 AM

    hey rashmi... a very nice post...
    am an engineer & MBA who somehow managed to get into media( into advertising), i wish i had not succumbed to parental and peer pressure and spent more time on Arts rather than the sciences...I miss the exposure to literature...

    Now there is less time...and so much more to catch up...and half a lifetime gone:-)

    Your blog is as always so refreshing! cheers

  10. It all depends on what stage of evolution a country is in. A developing country sure does require a lot of Engineers. The US did graduate a lot of Engineers during the 50's and 60's when their economy needed it. The current generation in the US can therefore afford to study liberal arts leaving what little technology work remains to be done in their country to Indians & Chinese immigrants.
    I firmly believe in a strong liberal arts education and I am sure as the country moves from a developing country to a developed one, more and more of them would opt for liberal arts rather than science and engineering.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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Disqus for Youth Curry - Insight on Indian Youth