Print Edition - 2014-10-16  |  Oped

Wind of change

  • Political changes have to be accompanied by changes in curriculum that prepare people for new realities
- Pramod Mishra
Wind of change

Oct 15, 2014-All across the United States, a wind of change is blowing across college campuses. While graduate studies (Masters and Doctorate curriculums) follow the logic of disciplinary argumentation, undergraduate colleges and universities are constantly looking for new ways to both enlighten the students’ minds and souls and prepare them for the ever-changing world of the 21st century.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, with 1,300 member institutions and a focus on improving undergraduate education and advancing liberal education, issued its own ideas of what undergraduate education should look like in the 21st century. In contrast to the 20th century, when liberal education was only for the fortunate, such an education is now deemed to be “essential for all students” for “success in a global economy and for informed citizenship.”

A liberal education

Influenced by 19th century educationists such as John Henry Newman in his The Idea of a University, in the 20th century liberal education was meant for the sole enlightenment of the mind and soul with no thought about a direct use for a career. It was only in the 21st century that education took up some utilitarian objectives. Challenged by a wholesale embrace of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement to boost the economy in a globally competitive world (read: technology and industrial competition from China), goals of liberal education, too, adapted themselves.

Liberal Arts education, otherwise, was reserved for the fortunate few who received it at colleges of the arts and sciences, and those fortunate few with college degrees then became the leaders of the economy, industry, politics, and other professions.

But now, there is the pressures of the global economy and a growing threat of the uncritical consumption of ubiquitous popular culture and technology that produce apathy toward the running of state and society, as well as a blinding influence of the absolutist ideologies of splinter groups and cults. Liberal education is thus deemed essential for everyone everywhere, from school and community colleges to four-year colleges and universities. That is why there is much emphasis on critical thinking, global awareness, and civic engagement at all levels of the undergraduate curriculum.

Out of Plato’s cave

Training in critical thinking occurs through an enhanced emphasis on persuasive writing, not only in the traditionally first-year rhetoric and composition classes, but all across the curriculum at all levels through WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum) programmes. What is college-level writing? It’s nothing but training in evidence-based thinking and argumentation. Moreover, it’s also training in information literacy, evidence- and reasoning-based analysis, and judgment formation, integrating multiple sources and perspectives. Global awareness goes along with reliable critical knowledge about world cultures and traditions while civic engagement includes political awareness and respect for a multicultural society.

It’s not just the curriculum but also its delivery that is under scrutiny and transformation. Whereas before its exposure to liberal arts, undergraduate education was just expected to have a course content that was delivered with weekly assignments of essays, quizzes, and exams, now there is much more emphasis on measurable outcomes.

As the society and the world change, so does the curriculum, which has to ensure that young people are prepared for the emerging world and its new realities.

In a sense, this means following the lines of what Plato said through Socrates in The Republic: that education is like bringing a prisoner from a dark cave up to the reality of sunlight, so that he is freed from the “leaden weight of birth and becoming.” Adapted to this day and age, this means freeing young people from the limitations of birth in a particular caste, class, creed, race, and parentage as well as from the prejudices that are instilled in their minds during upbringing.

Despite such an education in a democracy, there is still a risk even for educated people to get blinded by prejudice and power in a society with a colonial legacy and capitalism as a countervailing force. As we can see, violence, the homicide rate, and the prison population refuse to go down.

Now, those societies and countries that once went through a long experience of colonialism, dictatorship, and feudalism now aspire to have individual rights, a government existing by the consent of the governed, a justice system based on universal human rights and, above all—and everyone wants this—economic prosperity. How can such a society undergo desirable external changes without concomitant changes in the thought processes within its people?

A tradition of discussion

People say that India is a burning example showing that, despite 800 years of Muslim and British rule, and high illiteracy in a state like Bihar whose population remains steeped in the loyalties of caste and clan, democracy can flourish. Yes, I know what I’m talking about, because I was witness to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. Back then, I was a first-year college student on the banks of the Ganges in Bihar. Those young men who opposed the Emergency and forced us to boycott classes were hoodlums from specific castes. They had little to do with either higher thinking or lofty political goals, as far as we could tell.

It was not just Bihar but the extreme diversity of India and a balance of linguistic and ethnic power among various communities and states that have helped India retain its plurality and democracy. Furthermore, I think that the tradition of debate and discussion as part of daily life, among what Amartya Sen calls the argumentative Indian, has also played a crucial role to fostering critical thinking, even among uneducated voters.

It seems that education and the cultivation of critical thinking through whatever means are the only ways to align the peoples’ internal selves with the fast-changing outer political landscape.

And this alignment is indispensable for avoiding mayhem and producing peaceful changes and a democratic polity in a heterogeneous society.

Published: 16-10-2014 09:19

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