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!