It has been twelve months of my monthly book report project. Twelve months of doing something which I never imagined I was going to do, which nothing in my education and professional experience or training specifically covered.
It is fitting then that the last book I review this year is also about breaking education out of its confines of arts versus science, general versus specialised, and liberal humanist versus vocational. College – Pathways to Possibilty is a book that is a thoughtful, studied reflection on the past, present and future nature of education and careers.
This is a book that is calling out to be read, discussed and debated. Young people in school, parents, policy makers, college students and teachers, sociologists, college counselors, educational consultants, researchers, professionals and anyone with an interest in theories of knowledge and the future of work and education would enjoy the many nuances and tangents of thought in this slim yet substantive book. It is a book which could, and which should lead to much more work in this area. I hope it is the spark that lights many more.
It is a call for change, a manifesto of new pathways to doing things differently, and an idealist hope for the future of college education. For many in our country today, a college degree in the arts or sciences is a dead weight of no particular practical application or use in the evolving market place, or in terms of life skills. On the other hand, the narrow deep dive into specialisation of professional/vocational courses leaves out a world of general learning from its scope, and is not usually any better in imparting lifeskills like critical thinking, analytical ability or creative ideation. Too much fragmentation. Too little integration. Silos that do not talk to each other. And there is history and sociology and ways of engaging with the world behind all of this.
“The liberal arts are sometimes imagined to be in opposition to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine. But this opposition is a confused one, as the foundational S of STEM, science, occupies a pride of place in the liberal arts. The “liberal arts” are not synonymous with the arts and humanities; the archaic term is the surviving legacy of a time when the sciences were arts too.In fact, it is perhaps not generally remembered today that the word “scientist” was coined on the analogy of the word “artist”. This happened, as the cultural critic Marjorie Garber reminds us, in the 1830s, when the members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science felt the acute absence of a term to describe the practitioner of science: “Philosophers was felt to be too wide and too lofty…savans was rather assuming…; some ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist*=.” ”
Written by a novelist, critic and scholar who is currently a professor at India’s first liberal arts University, this book is many things – it is the author’s professional stock taking exercise, a thoughtful reflection on the state of post secondary education, and a manifesto for change of mindsets and systems .
Saikat Majumdar’s pitch is for a broad humanist college education that is not straightjacketed into narrow walls of cramming and regurgitation, consumption and reinforcement of the status quo. And he makes the pitch in a mix of serious scholarship, anecdotal vignettes and flights of literary fancy. This is a book that talks to the reader about the souls of different disciplines, when talking of their epistemology. It argues in favor of the souls over the bodies, i.e, the content of the syllabus. It is book that is inspired and takes off from a lot of educational and psychological theory I have been long familiar with but hadn’t found put together in context of college education in the Indian setting. It is a book that has made me think about my own educational and career journey, and my children’s education and career plans. It has made me more determined to follow through with certain ideas I have in the realm of preparing high school students for college and beyond, back in the rural communities I am involved with.
A strongly idealistic vision and deep philosophical and historical enquiry mark the writing across eight chapters and 111 pages. From how different models of modern college education arose across the Western world, and then travelled to India, and where we are now at. Saikat juxtaposes his own experience with his college education in a premiere college and leading University in India with his experience in the American university system as both a student and a teacher.
The familiar story (it is what most of us have gone through, after all) of contrast between a narrow, body of content led coverage model of the former with the broader, more general epistemic approach of the latter is explained in novel frames.
Most interesting is how the author then moves into the exploration of the nature of intelligence itself, with a strong focus on Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Linking types of intelligences to different professions and the skills suited best to them, he makes an emphatic case for an education that acknowledges and nurtures the broad, humanistic learning potential of human minds without the restrictions of vocational exclusiveness too early in the college years.
“…it is intriguing how often disciplines are curricularised and taught in ways that are incompatible with a liberal artscience education. It is especially ironic with subjects that are considered to be at the heart of the liberal arts. If the economics major in the US university system begins to feel the suffocation of relentless research training, a very different story has been scripted for humanistic fields under the colonial university system in India. Let me pause here at my own discipline, English literature.
The whir in my head started when I received an email last year from my then six year old daughter. With a sunburst of smileys and emoticons impossible to replicate, it asked:
“Papa, have you written any future-fiction stories? Stories, which are now fiction but can become true later? Take lizards, which are teenage dinosaurs. If you live too long you will be in the future where they will be dinosaurs again. Please die on time!”
…..that the idea of literature as fiction, as made up, untrue stories emerged at a certain historical moment was something that I never received during my college education in English literature. These are questions that embody what Gardner calls disciplinary ways of thinking: the fundamental spirit and methodology of disciplines that lie deep inside the maze of facts and information that make up their bodies.”
All through the book, with progressively linked argument and examples and references, a case is made for a generally accessible, liberal artscience education – education that is both deeply immersed in one specific discipline while also covering a broad range of general education topic, along with a focus on skills of critical thinking, analysis and creative originality, as the base of all post school education.
While I enjoyed the book, and am definitely going to go back to its pages and my notes on it many times in the future, I found it a little rushed or curtailed overall, like a project that stopped short of becoming all that it could have been. And I wish the title did not quite highlight the College part so strongly, since it is much more than a college admissions guide book. The heavy duty theories could have been illuminated with more examples, more real life stories, more personal anecdote. Nevertheless, in every way this is an important and timely work.