18 January, 2021

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Teaching Liberal Arts: In The Time Of Corona & The “Job Market”

By Liyanage Amarakeerthi

Prof. Liyanage Amarakeerthi

At universities, we are busy teaching online. And it is heartbreaking to find many students are lacking in required facilities. Teaching on Zoom, for example, takes smart phones and personal computers for granted. And we have to assume that Internet access is as ubiquitous as air. Reality is totally different. Attendance to live Zoom classes can be as low as 40 percent in faculty of arts where students from underprivileged backgrounds make the majority. Therefore, we need to record our lectures and make them available through other means. I myself have WhatsApp groups for all my classes in order to transmit important course content with a minimal cost. The university and the faculty take admirable care, with extremely limited resources, to make sure that no student is left behind. But the situation is far from satisfactory. 

In addition to Corona, our political authorities routinely tell us that what we teach at the faculties of arts has become irrelevant and obsolete. They regularly ask us to produce employable graduates.  Recently, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was caught in a video clip telling a graduate that she should have studied ‘something technical.’ While it is wrong to produce an endless number of external graduates merely with degree certificates to wave at media cameras at Lipton circle learning something ‘technical’ signifies much poorer understanding of university Education.

  In this speech, I want to reflect on the true meaning of education at the faculties of Arts. At our faculties we teach courses in the humanities and the social sciences. As a scholar in literature and language, I am at the most pressured end of the spectrum: Learning literature is the most removed from ‘something technical.’ Therefore, we, the humanities scholars at universities, routinely have to justify what we are doing in teaching and research. These reflections are made in that context.

Vision of the founding fathers

The founding fathers (There were only ‘fathers’ those early days) of the University of Ceylon, never have imagined future scholars in the Humanities would have to face the particular challenged mentioned above. In the inaugural address of the Ceylon University movement Ponnambalam Arunachalam, the president of the movement, had elaborate plans for a University of our own. Out of thirteen professorships they had imagined to create in the University of Ceylon, eight were for the humanities. They wanted professorships for vernacular languages such as Sinhala and Tamil, and when the university was established in 1942 the curriculum had considerable focus on local language and traditions. Indeed there were professorships for natural sciences, and many science-based subjects were to enter within the first decade of the university.  

 In addition, those founding fathers had much larger and grander ideals for education; here are the words of Arunachalam: 

“University will be a powerful instrument for forming character, for giving us men and women armed with reason and self-control, braced by knowledge, clothed with steadfastness and courage and inspired by public spirit and public virtue.” “A Plea for a Ceylon University” (A. T. Alwis. Peradeniya: The Founding of a University).

 Those beautifully profound words demonstrate that Arunachalam’s vision for education was much more than teaching ‘something technical.’ 

Liberal Arts

In order to rediscover the true meaning of the Humanities education, one may look into what is meant by the liberal arts in contemporary international universities. ‘Liberal arts’ is a bit more inclusive than what we call ‘arts subjects’ since they (liberal arts) include natural sciences, basic mathematics and the like. A rich liberal arts degree program exposes students to a wide range of subjects: Languages, literature, philosophy, religion, natural sciences, mathematics, Fine Arts, citizenship education, Social Sciences (at least key concepts of them) and so on. Since there is nothing strictly prohibited from the domain of liberal arts one could add numerous other things to the curriculum. 

The word ‘liberal’ in liberal arts a loaded one: It includes knowledge required to liberate human beings from socio-cultural bonds they are trapped in producing hierarchy, inequality and injustice. Rousseau famously claimed that chains that bind human beings are human-made’ and the hammers to break them are also made in earth not in heaven.  A high quality education in liberal arts should help us see those chains and to forge the hammers that can break them. In other words, liberal arts teach us the significance of working towards a just society. For that goal, there are many sources of wisdom. Unlike political parties and rigid ideologues, universities believe that there are multiples ways to reach that goal. That goal may be always at the horizon resisting our reaching it. Still, a society that has given up on that goal is perhaps so much poor even with endless affluence. Teaching liberal arts at universities is one important way societies holding onto a richer dream even in the midst of relative economic hardship. A country can be poor but yet not philistine. 

‘Liberation’ in liberal arts includes internal liberation as well, and it could include several modes of refining oneself within. When modernity was an unquestioned project, liberation from the Nature was one goal of humanity. But now we know better. While we have to keep Nature at bay, we also have to realize that we are also part of Nature. Time of Corona is a good time to reflect on that. Moreover, our nature itself is something needs refinement and taming while it is very much a part of big Nature. So, in recent times a diverse set of courses related to environmentalism has made its way into our liberal arts curriculum. As Professor Spencer McWilliams aptly put “a liberal arts education can help us develop a more comprehensive understanding of the universe and ourselves”(Liberal Arts Education: What does it mean? What is it worth?).  

Our political authorities may ask for graduates with a certain set of limited technical skills to be productive in the narrow roles assigned to them in contemporary economy. For us in universities a human being is not just a worker. His or her life at the world of work is only one small segment of their lives. For us as in the Humanities, questions such as what human beings do, what they reflect on, and what they do during their non-working hours matter as much as(if not more than) the ‘job skills’ they are supposed to have honed. To make matters even more complicated, the liberal arts is interested even in the dreams that occur to human beings during their sleeping hours. To put it simply, for liberal arts human self is much more than a human worker. 

A holistic development of the ‘whole person’ is the goal of liberal arts. It includes eight interrelated aspects: intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, vocational, ethical, personal, and social.  Intellectual development requires acquiring broad-based knowledge, learning how to learn, and learning how to think critically. Emotional development includes understanding, managing and expressing emotions. Developing high quality relationships with other people is the basis of social development while ethical development aims at providing students with a clear value system that enables them to make sound decisions. Physical development concerns the understanding of one’s own body and taking care of it. Spiritual development may be the most culture-sensitive as each culture may have its own take on what is ‘spiritual. ‘Vocational’ is indeed a form of development that must be a part of contemporary education. But is only one among eight. It includes exploring career possibilities and developing skills required for a career. As university teachers we do want our graduates to find jobs and achieve some sort of financial independence to pursue other goals of life articulated here. Personal development, the last of the eight, stays the last because it is the bottom line. For personal development one needs to cultivate a strong sense of self-identity and agility of stepping out of that identity in being considerate and responsible of others around. 

The Role of Peradeniya: Whole Person, Whole Campus

A fully developed university must have all the facilities needed to address at least those eight-fold areas. Holistic education believes that curriculum and co-curriculum must make use of whole campus for that purpose. Founding fathers of University of Peradeniya seem to have endowed with a concept of holistic education in the early twentieth century. For example, just to give only a few examples, for those who argue for making use of the whole campus for holistic education claims that for one’s intellectual development, a university has to utilize learning centers, library, academic advising services, tutoring services, information technology centers, invited talks on various topics, workshops, theater halls, art shows and so on. This list, though not comprehensive, demonstrates that the intellectual development of a graduate is much more than following time tables and attending formal lectures. At Peradeniya, we may not have all these facilities. But when the university was founded a considerable attention has been given to these aspects. Taking a long walk through the beautiful University Park can be a lesson in itself if one is rightly attuned to the lessons of natural beauty. I have learned those lessons at stunning campus parks at Wisconsin and Cornell. 

To save time, let me randomly jump into ‘spiritual development.’ In addition to formal instructions on subjects such a philosophy and arts that concern one’s spiritual life, there should be co-curricular involvements with campus religious communities. Programs such as inter-religious dialogue could be part of these activities. Perhaps it was for such holistic education that places for all religions have been established within the University of Peradeniya.  

Instead of cutting down funding on ‘liberal arts’ education, government must invest more on the kind of education explained above. Even without enough financial resources some of us have been working hard to promote such holistic education. Yes, just some of us. There are people who do not have an iota of idea as to what they should be doing at campuses. Among them, there are academics who believe that training students to write exams that lead to a certificate is university education. Yes that is the education often found at private tuition classes. But university education is much more. If our holistic education is only partially done, it is normal that authorities ask out graduates to learn ‘something technical.’

  On-going pandemic has destroyed nearly all co-curricular activities at campus. An education that does not include library, playground, gymnasium, Sarachchandra Open Air theater, E.O.E. Pereira theater, heated discussions with invited speakers, and, even some trips to the lovers-lane or other ‘lanes’ that kind, is not the education that can achieve eight developmental goals of holistic education. Corona has corroded that education. But the threat to holistic education is much more persistent than corona. Demand to teach just for the job market will be a virus likely to linger longer after corona has gone. True academics must do everything possible to prevent that philistine virus making inroads into the body of our higher education institutions. Only those who are qualified and skilled enough to hold onto the true meaning of holistic education envisioned in the Humanities and liberal arts can stand up to such philistine invasions. Those are the ones who really deserve being hired and promoted. 

*This is based on a short presentation made at a promotion interview at the University of Peradeniya on November 19th, 2020. Author thanks Professors KNO Dharmadasa, Wimal Wijayarathne and OG Dayarathna Banda, Dean/Arts who encouraged him to publish this speech.

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Latest comments

  • 3
    0

    I think the main problem is that the government keeps handing out pensionable jobs to all “graduates” , whatever their stream.Most schools have poor or non-existent science streams in spite of the much-touted “free” education. Prospective students have realised this, and most aim for an Arts degree, which doesn’t require as much effort as others.
    This is a political problem as well as educational. No government wants another JVP style uprising, which could very well succeed this time.
    However,
    “A holistic development of the ‘whole person’ is the goal of liberal arts. It includes eight interrelated aspects: intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, vocational, ethical, personal, and social. Intellectual development requires acquiring broad-based knowledge, learning how to learn, and learning how to think critically.”
    I very much doubt that anything like the above is happening in our campuses. Colonial civil servants were mostly Humanities graduates. The present lot are the same, with a few more technical grads . But their performance is miserable compared to the colonial generation. Is the problem in the Universities or in the students?

  • 2
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    Old Codger.

    Is the problem in our Universities or in the students?
    Million Dollar question. Very doubtful that this question would be answered by our erstwhile Academics: After all they are also part of the Problem.
    I say this with no malice towards the Prof: who has presented this altruistic essay.

  • 1
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    You can be regarded as educated even if you studied only the humanities and know nothing about pulling a tooth, building a bridge, or designing an electrical system. But the converse is not true. Some basic understanding of science and technological literacy are of course necessary for anyone to successfully navigate today’s world.

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