Liberal Arts: Interview with Prof. Jonathan Gil Harris of Ashoka University
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Liberal Education is a way towards creating a reflective society, ready to engage with the world, surely leading to make good citizens who are free from dogma, from controls and constraints.


Careers360 brings you exclusive interview of Prof. Jonathan Gill Harris, Head of Department, Liberal Arts at Ashoka University where he speaks on the nuances of the novel programme of study.

Careers360: In India, Liberal Arts studies are in a nascent stage. How do you see the growth and impact of the programme in India? How do you look at the differences between how it is taught in India and abroad?

Prof. Harris: In fact Liberal Arts have existed in India for a long time, as evidenced by the multidisciplinary curricula of ancient universities such as Nalanda.  It was only under the British that higher education in the subcontinent moved to the single-subject, vocational training model that we now think of as “Indian.” Indian liberal education in the 21st century can build on this ancient foundation as well as borrowing best practices from the West.   


Careers360: Why does India lag in starting more Liberal Arts universities?

Prof. Harris: We are still locked in a mindset that, to succeed, one must gain training in a professional “stream” rather than by studying a broad ensemble of subjects that foster versatility, critical thinking, and effective communication. But these are the skills that are becoming increasingly in demand in the modern workplace. Our secondary school system doesn’t help things by forcing students to narrow rather than broaden their horizons.


Careers360: How can we make Liberal Arts programme more robust in India? 

Prof. Harris: We need to comprehensively rethink what education is. Right now, we have Board examinations that discourage creativity and innovation and reward parroting back what the teacher, or the textbook, says.  This works to inculcate an attitude of unthinking docility -- the aim of the British, of course! -- or, even worse, a desire to tame the system.  We need to comprehensively rethink what happens in the secondary school curriculum to make sure that students learn to ask questions and to be self-aware, ethical thinkers.


Careers360: Tell us about BA Liberal Arts programme at Ashoka University. What’s unique about the program? 

Prof. Harris: Let me first note that Liberal Arts need not be synonymous with a “BA.”  We offer a “BSc” too!  Liberal Arts is not just Fine Arts or Humanities.  It also includes Social Sciences and natural as well as Applied Sciences. The important thing is that a Liberal Arts student is exposed to “all” these subjects -- not as entrees to a specific disciplinary specialization, or training for a specific profession, but rather as foundations for thought itself, and for navigating life’s challenges.

I am seeing my students blossom in a way I have never seen before, because they are bringing to their studies a multiplicity of perspectives and a versatility of thought that is not normally available to Indian students

Careers360: Besides giving liberty to students to customize their programme, are we moving away from the specialized appeal of the subject? Your take…  

Prof. Harris: We still give students depth in a discipline through their choice of Major subject. But they also acquire breadth by studying other subjects.  And those other subjects greatly enrich their engagement with their Major. My English students, for example, come to classes having taken other courses in History, Philosophy, Politics, Maths, and Science -- and so they can do far more with the literary texts they read. I have been teaching at the university level for close to 30 years. I can safely say that, at Ashoka University, I am seeing my students blossom in a way I have never seen before, because they bring to their studies a multiplicity of perspectives and a versatility of thought that is not normally available to Indian students.  A colleague of mine who teaches at Stanford says that the second-year undergrads at Ashoka are every bit as smart, and perhaps even smarter, than his postgraduate students in the US. 


Careers360: What’s the kind of practical training that students get?

Prof. Harris: It depends what you mean by “practical.”  If you mean by that word “vocationally-oriented,” No, they don’t get that sort of training -- we deliberately do not have professional schools (Engineering, Medicine, Law, Business). But we do offer our students a very canny training for the real world.  In their last year, Ashoka students do a closely-mentored internship at the grass-roots level, one that takes them out of their campus bubble of comfort and puts them in an environment where they have to think about real-life problems and work with people on the ground in solving them. We also offer our students internships in the private, social, and government sectors during their summer vacations. And we have an active and capable placement office.


Careers360: What are the challenges, both academically and professionally?

Prof. Harris: For me, the biggest challenge is educating the parents! It is important for parents to recognize that their children do not lose anything by studying Liberal Arts rather than a “pre-professional” course of study. On the contrary, it empowers them as critical thinkers, effective communicators, and ethical decision-makers -- the precise skills that the workplace values.  


Careers360: What is better valued in the job world – an undergraduate or postgraduate  in Liberal Arts?

Prof. Harris: Look, I think what ultimately matters is not the letters after your name. It’s what you are capable of as a thinker and a human being.  The brain and the heart are muscles that need to be exercised, and a Master’s degree at Ashoka will give students even more opportunities to develop both.

Careers360: Typical queries posed by students are about the job prospects post Liberal Arts programme?  

Prof. Harris: Our postgraduate alumni -- and we have a 100% placement record! -- have taken up impressive positions in the private sector, the social sector, and top PhD programmes around the world.  And many of them are doing very well in terms of salary. But what I am proud of is that a significant number are interested less in how much they earn than in how much difference they can make in changing the conditions of life in India for the better; they are pro-active, thoughtful, ethically developed people.


Careers360: Your message to students who aspire to pursue the course...

Prof. Harris: Education comes from a Latin word that literally means “to lead out.”  Are you willing to be educated in this sense?  Do you want to expose yourself to new ideas, to new ways of thinking, to new ways of doing and being that will lead you out of your comfort zone? Are you wedded to your own convictions, or are you willing to expose them to critical scrutiny in the light of challenging counter-arguments?  Are you someone who reads voraciously, not because you are hoping to ace your exams but because you love the thrill of broadening your horizons?  If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then Ashoka may be the right fit for you. 


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