Renewing Liberal Arts: A Response to Vinod Khosla

I don’t think Vinod Khosla’s essay on the need for “liberal sciences” to replace the “liberal arts” is necessarily dismissive of the goals of liberal arts. Unlike the stereotypical skeptic (or cynic) who sees no value for any major other than STEM or business management, Khosla does see a value for things which liberal arts advocates believe their field offers; critical thinking, an ability to lead society in a humane direction, and so on.

His concern, it seems, is with what he thinks is the inability of liberal arts in their present form to equip students and citizens with the intellectual tools to actually accomplish these goals.

There are two major points on which liberal arts have failed, according to him:

a) the failure of curricula to keep up with the changing needs of modern society

b) the relatively “easy” nature of liberal arts compared to STEM subjects.

And the solution for this failure lies in moving away from “easy” liberal arts like literature and history towards broadening the reach of subjects like genetics, computer science, econometrics, behavioral economics and so on. This is slightly different from Steven Pinker’s prescription that he quotes. Pinker calls for the widespread dissemination of certain elements of knowledge like the prehistory of the world, a timeline of human history, diversity, aesthetics, and such, all towards the lofty goal of improving the human condition.

The nuance in Khosla’s proposal is that “liberal sciences” would move students towards an understanding of methods and principles underlying various subjects, equipping them to learn how to think up models. For example, in college history, students would learn some sort of an underlying principle for thinking about history, while the actual “content” could come later in grad school.

These are innovative ideas and it is commendable that someone occupied with the “real world” concerns of technology and business is thinking about them. There are, however, some absences in Khosla’s understanding of what is actually happening in our side of the academy. The curricula have certainly moved from what they used to be in ancient Greece, or even, say, the 1950s, to reflect the “changing needs of modern society.” There has been a response to diversity, immigration, and globalization in the liberal arts curriculum, and I am not sure how much, if at all, these concerns could have been reflected and addressed in say, a physics classroom. These are concerns that belong in the human subjects, whether university administrators call them “arts,” “humanities,” or “social sciences.” It may be the case, now that there has been a certain amount of acknowledgment of diversity in the university, that in the future we might have classes on physics or math that could somehow imaginatively integrate discussions of diversity into them beyond the token use of “exotic” names or characters in test questions.

But could we afford to discourage the pursuit of liberal arts altogether, hoping that somehow the “liberal sciences” would help create some kind of universal “method”, or even a “meta-method” for solving all our human problems?

Traditional Knowledge and the Family

I would like to offer a somewhat different sort of proposal in response to the concern about college curricula keeping up with the “changing needs of modern society” (as for the “easiness” criticism, it is sometimes relevant, but I am sure Vinod Khosla has seen movies like Tare Zameen Par, or at least knows that not all children or teenagers can be hammered into becoming scientists given their intellectual, sensory, and indeed biological and existential realities). Like Khosla, I too don’t reduce this question to one of economic or vocational issues, and I will not presume to comment here about the “needs of modern society” in terms of job prospects.

Instead, the college curriculum should look at “meaning” as one of the main “needs” of a world undergoing rapid modernization and change. Society needs to equip itself with knowledge about how it came to be, what its present from means for different members, and where it is going. Education would need to include knowledge about one’s self, one’s place in the world, one’s relations to others, starting from parents and elders and moving on to children, and ultimately, to the living world of nature itself. I think that the liberal arts have done a good job in moving the debate from where it was say three or four decades ago . However, there is a lot more that should be taken into account too.

If we look at knowledge and its inter-generational transmission in a broad enough context, we can see several trends that liberal arts could help address. The biggest change we see with globalization and modernization around the world is the decline or at least change in the family as a source of knowledge for the next generation. We have witnessed in the last half a century, in India alone, for example, the disappearance of many traditional forms of knowledge that were cultivated within communities; singers, artists, puppeteers, craftsmen, and the like. Languages are vanishing, traditional forms of medicine and care are probably vanishing too. The children or grandchildren of people who held onto several local and indigenous forms of knowledge are probably in some college learning whatever they can to get a job to survive in the modern world, and no more. That is one form of decline in terms of the role of families.

A more widespread challenge in terms of changes in the family or the elder generations’ role as a source of knowledge for children and young adults has to do not so much with specific forms of traditional knowledge, but with the ability to formulate a moral vision for an individual in the modern world. For at least two or three generations now, the world has seen the rise of an educated class that has got its ideas about itself and how to live one’s life from commercial mass media and popular culture. These ideas may not always be good for the individual or the planet. One may argue that it is not the job of college to replace mothers or grandfathers. But where else in the modern world but college would a young adult find the intellectual resources to help him or her understand their place in the world and live a meaningful life? The college curriculum, especially in liberal arts, still remains a relatively un-colonized area of life. There are no commercial sponsors pushing one narrative or curriculum over another. Teachers in liberal arts largely believe in what they do, and can play a role in more personalized teaching and mentoring as well. The challenge, however, is to go beyond the present and the past (which is what an uncritical belief in universal method might end up taking us into, unless the ‘liberal sciences’ really are more liberal than early 20th century ‘human sciences’ like eugenics have been!)

Beyond Technicism, Ethnocentrism, and Relativism

The biggest need that college education can fill in our changing world, in my view, is in equipping students to create meanings in the face of changes in the living world that individuals inhabit, the family, generally speaking (I do not mean it in any normative or judgmental way; just the fact that after millennia of living as largely communal beings, we are all now moving into life-journeys that are more individualized, atomized, and relationally unstable). The key question is this: can a college education, whether in STEM or other subjects, inspire a student to take charge of his or her life and actions, and say, this knowledge has made me who I am today, and not just in terms of a career, but as a human being, a part of this planet’s journey? I think that’s the sort of goal we must aim for, and of course, for that we must also recognize the challenges in today’s curriculum.

From inside the academy, it seems to me that there have been two major limitations to the intellectual imagination. The first trend, which was dominant from the earliest days of the social sciences till about the 1970s or so, was a combination of ethnocentrism and technicism (a belief that with just the right technique or method, anything can be known, which might still be okay, except when you decide to bully living people into your theories because your method said so — imperialism at its worst!) Born in the shadow of the seeming triumph of science over nature in the early 20th century, American social sciences were full of ambition about applying scientific method to the human world. By the 1960s, it was clear that what had been widely accepted as rigorously and scientifically demonstrated facts about people were just racist, sexist, and colonialist myths. A certain kind of skepticism has remained ever since in the liberal arts about grand claims when it comes to human subjects, and even more so about methods being anointed as answers in themselves.

So even if we grant that intellectual rigor is always welcome, and can indeed be learned respectfully from the sciences, it might not be the sweeping solution that Khosla seems to think it is. We cannot, for example, understand The Economist from cover to cover, as he says, without understanding the history, politics, and even the religious and cultural assumptions underlying its past and present. Much of social science and modern thinking is being increasingly examined by scholars such as S.N. Balagangadhara, Jakob de Roover, and Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee, to name a few, as remnants of essentially a superficially secularized religiosity. We have to know the history of the world as a story about the encounters between different groups, and we have to know our selves, as nothing more and nothing less than moments in the flow of that history. It is extremely important, because in spite of several decades of what might be called critical approaches in liberal arts that have opened up multiple points of view on what were once deemed to be universal and ‘scientific’ accounts of history, ethnocentrism still remains widespread, and powerful.

Read this piece called “Is Humanity Getting Better?” in the New York Times, for example, about how the world is supposedly now more peaceful because from World War 1 to World War 2 to Iraq the casualties have declined from tens of millions to “just” hundreds of thousands. The principal ethnocentric assumption here is evident right in the beginning. The author talks about superstitions in pre-modern Europe and how the whole world was sweating to just about survive (before Europe had its enlightenment/colonialism began, implicitly), and naturalizes the colonial-era myth that the whole world was also steeped in pre-modern superstition until Europe suddenly one day brought it science (this sort of ethnocentrism and presumptiveness about global violence is also deeply embedded in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature). Some other recent best-sellers about world history too have gone back to this sort of opaqueness about the relatively advanced state of science, commerce, and indeed, civilization, in the rest of world, attributing the rise of Europe to merely internal brilliance and natural advantages rather than seeing it as a shift away from already existing globally connected civilizations and economic centers like India and China.

There is however, also a problem in the way the liberal arts have become ossified, and on that note self-criticism and change is very much in order. The critique of ethnocentrism and technicism has ended up in some quarters with an astounding lack of respect for reason, logic, and evidence. Driven by political passion, and protected by identity-based turfs, the new liberal arts have behaved rather illiberally towards those people deemed to be on the wrong side of its identity-correctness charts. What you say and how you say somehow seems less important “who you are saying it as,” and there is a need to find a new line between the old seemingly identity-blind ethnocentrism, and the present identity-obsessed relativism. Without a universal story, the present trend in liberal arts can only lead to naivety in the face of global violence and oppression at best, and even complicity in the same forces of violence and oppression in some cases, as the recent tragedy and turmoil in various universities in India has shown us.

A Story for the Modern Self

Is there a way beyond these traps? If we can avoid falling into the “liberal arts is a waste” line that some STEM advocates sometimes take, perhaps we could indeed envision a new liberal arts/science curriculum that gains from the rigor and excitement of new fields of study in the sciences such as genetics, and a more meaningful narrative for each person in college about what it means to live at this time and place in history. One example comes to mind. I have heard terrifying stories from a scientist friend in India about the brazenness with which customers who come for prenatal genetic screening go about making life and death decisions. Without a space for nurturing understanding, feeling, and conscience in classes on history, culture, and sociology (and for that the teachers in these fields also need to get beyond identity as difference to something more inclusive and less militant), the greatest leaps of science could well become tools for machine like leaders and followers without vision or heart.

One way that colleges could perhaps address the core curriculum issue is by encouraging faculty to work across disciplines in redesigning the liberal arts curriculum to address life stages and situations, rather than discrete subjects. College years are always full of difficult choices for students between demands for success and desires for fun, freedom and pleasure. If the curriculum could make them relate their own lives to what scholars have studied before, it might prove a lot more meaningful. For example, there could be courses on Relationships, Marriage, Work, Parenting, Diets, and other parts of everyday life that are taught jointly by liberal arts and science faculty, rather than as totally different units. Professors of law, health, biology, statistics, cultural studies, could all come up with innovative ways of turning the liberal arts experience into a source of meaning and action for the young.

Science, with all its rigor, and all its achievements ultimately needs to fit into a meaningful and helpful story for humanity, rather than the other way around.

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