Civilisations can hardly exist amidst the turbulence of speed. They require time to wonder, think, engage and nourish. Hence, the question arises, what role can a liberal arts education play in a world that is rampantly shaped and often manipulated by agendas of speedy digital cultures?
At a time when life has become increasingly digital, discipline-specific study widely popular and job-oriented courses deeply appealing, one needs to relook at an education model that holds the potential to expose the hidden challenges and lurking threats of a technologically-driven digital world. The robust push for technology advancement and efficiency must not ignore the furtive threats that underpin it – lest they become a Frankenstein’s monster.
While not undermining the case of STEM education in the digital age, it is imperative to point out that the digital world requires assemblages of information, numbers and speed for its functioning. That said, information without interpretation can spell doom for human civilisation. Both the sciences and liberal arts have a key role to play to offer models of sustainability for Earth. While a STEM education essentially provides provisions for human life, a degree in liberal arts is expected to render vision to learners, making them realise the importance to distinguish between knowledge and wisdom.
We know that the knowledge of science can produce atomic bombs. In opposition to it, the ethical wisdom rendered by a liberal arts education can play a crucial role to decide whether to use the atomic bomb – if at all. This is not to claim that science is deprived of wisdom or liberal arts of knowledge. However, what makes this division between knowledge and wisdom more discernible is our shared history of vulnerability rendered by technology. History has plenty to suggest how devastating the thoughtless application of technology can be for human civilisation. Many a crisis can be resolved if education models realise that knowledge divorced from wisdom will keep creating a new crisis for us.
This is where a liberal arts education assumes a key role since it brings back these life skills of thinking and harmonising to the centre of students’ learning process. While the digital age requires a rampant extraction, proliferation, and consumption of data, pointing to its marketing aspect, liberal arts education focuses on the democratic ethos of life, providing frameworks for care-mentality and experiential learning, diametrically opposed to the marketing principles, and increasingly necessary for leadership quality.
The transdisciplinary nature of liberal arts education helps learners to see the relationships amongst diverse subjects, thus broadening their vision. What makes liberal arts a convincing education model is its democratic approach to use the wide-ranging content to approach and solve a particular problem. This is exactly what leaders in any organisation, even political parties require – a broad yet inclusive vision, the ability to bring together seemingly opposite ideologies and people, and to engage with them harmonisingly.
Through this inclusive pedagogy, a liberal arts education make elements of creativity, social intelligence, ethical decision-making and entrepreneurship skills possible. For example, a student of liberal arts can apply the social intelligence gathered from a range of subjects to study economics, environment, computer science, so on and forth.
This advantage of civic engagement that remains deeply embedded within the pedagogy of liberal arts is another reason that makes learners use digital technology in a way that is enabling, even liberating. Technological advancement has complicated human existence, leading to burnout syndromes. No wonder then, that the rise of the internet and the spread of technology has eventually led to a greater number of anxiety cases across the world since the 1990s, which remains unprecedented in human history. The primary reason is the turn from society to a more narcissistic self since the 1990s with a concomitant rise of consumerism. The digital culture has created a space where relationships are more often like bubbles, and this applies to both people and things.
Thanks to the idea of updates, which has ensured that there is always an impending desire, a sense of dissatisfaction. The focus on speed diverts our attention from a more conventional sense of interaction with others. There is a paucity of time to listen, read, or engage with anyone due to the abundance of information and distractions. Hence, the digital space is also a space of ‘likes’, ‘share’, ‘scroll’, without bothering to delve deeper into the basic acts of existence: seeing, listening, speaking, reading, and of course, thinking. What is compromised in this game of speed are the foundational aspects of human life – thinking and harmonising – both are to be found not through acceleration, but in rhythmic patterns.
This leads us to see the intervention that liberal arts education provides in the form of interpretative skills to its learners. With its emphasis on stories, case studies, and democratic ethos, drawn from a range of diametrically opposed courses, it requires students to be good listeners, enabling them to interpret things, ask questions, and respond to questions to understand different facets of life, marking a step forward from ignorance to wisdom. Questions are the seeds of life, essential to examine the societal problems and challenges, creating pathways for collective growth. A society without a questioning mind will continue to face denial of rights, justice and empowerment.
Put simply, one can say that this dialogic education model can cultivate the ability to read between gaps and silences, to go beyond what is visible, bridging the gap between knowledge and wisdom. This thinking through crisis skill can be vital to deal with the rapidly changing contours of the digital world, to understand its pros and cons. It further negates the chances of getting manipulated by hidden agendas of the digital world. Our vision needs to be sharpened and broadened if we are thinking of creating future leaders.
Given the emphasis on speed, it is certain that the future world will change more rapidly; changes mostly create a vacuum. Hence, the importance of maintaining the balance of life and work will be of immense importance in the coming years. Liberal arts education can perform this role since it encourages its learners to seek multiple meanings through its transdisciplinary pedagogy and methodology, pointing to the fact that life cannot be seen through a singular lens.
Life is to be found not in isolation but in conversation with others. This sense of interconnectedness that drives human life and this planet remains integral to the pedagogy of a true liberal arts education. It liberates the mind and provides learners stories of love, empathy, harmony, hope, wisdom. If the ancient civilisations of India and Greeks thrived it was because of these multiple lenses and visions that education provided. Hence, to counter the unforeseen dangers rendered by digital culture, it is time that we turn to such creative models offered by liberal arts pedagogy, which highlights the importance of empathy and sharpens the questioning and interpretive skills of our future generations.
Om Prakash Dwivedi is Associate Professor of English Literature, Head, School of Liberal Arts, at Bennett University, Greater Noida.