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Who is Liberal Arts a Good Choice for?

The reason that Apple is able to create products like iPad is because we always try to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, to be able to get the best of both. –Steve Jobs




If your child is unsure of what to do after 12th, consider Liberal Arts


This post by GenWise mentor, Navin Kabra, is in his own words “a work in progress, possibly incomplete, and might have some inaccuracies”. The full original version of the post is available here. If you have additions or improvements to suggest, please leave a comment or write to navin@smriti.com.

Liberal Arts degree, which in the west is one of the more common routes to higher education, is relatively new and mostly unknown in India. The defining aspect of most of Indian higher education is the early specialization- students choose a stream (Science, Commerce, Arts) after 10th, and a branch (Computer Engineering, Mechanical, English, Psychology) immediately after 12th. Liberal Arts colleges are springing up in India to fix this.

What is a Liberal Arts degree?

The idea is simple- students get admitted to the college after 12th not only without having to specify which branch they want to specialize in, but also without having to specify the “stream”. In the first year, they can choose to do any courses they find interesting out of a wide variety of courses from all the traditional streams, and more. Only after having spent the year sampling various subjects do they have to declare their specialization. This is their “major” and they spend the remaining 3 years focusing on that. And depending on the major, they can end up with a B.Sc., B.Com., or B.A. degree. In addition to their major, they can also declare 1 or 2 “minors”, which don’t have to be from the same stream. So, for example, a B.A. (Psychology) student could do a minor in Entrepreneurship, or Biology, and a B.Sc. (Computer Science) student could do a double minor in Economics and Entrepreneurship.

Unlike traditional B.A., B.Sc., or B.Com. courses, most Liberal Arts colleges offer students the option of getting a 4-year degree, so they have enough time to explore multiple areas of study through the minors and electives.

Why Liberal Arts?

Liberal Arts degrees have two advantages over more conventional courses.

First, if your child is unsure of what they want to do after 12th, then this is a great way to decide, as opposed to picking something that the parents like. Second, lots of people feel that in the fast-changing world of the future, where AI is going to automate more and more tasks from traditional jobs, it is dangerous to be too specialized unless you’re one of the best at that.

In other words, it’s fine to do a traditional engineering/medical degree from one of the top colleges, but if you can’t get into one of those, then a Liberal Arts degree better prepares you to succeed in an uncertain world. Engineering might be better for the short-term, Liberal Arts might be better for the long-term.. One third of the CEOs of the 500 largest companies (Fortune 500) are Liberal Arts graduates. (see the section on the disadvantages of early specialization here).


Dheeraj Sanghi, professor at IIT-Kanpur, ex-dean at IIIT Delhi, ex-director of PEC Chandigarh, JEE almost-topper, and someone who’s been closely studying the higher education system in India, says that if he was a student today and could choose to be in any college/degree in India, he would pick Liberal Arts in Ashoka.


Liberal Arts in India


Ashoka, FLAME, Azim Premji University and recent entrant Krea are some of the top liberal arts colleges in India. For a more detailed listing of liberal arts colleges in India and my view on some of these colleges, see this post.


What about jobs?


What do students do after a Liberal Arts degree? What kind of jobs do they get?

Frankly, I don’t have an answer to that. Most of the Liberal Arts colleges in India are quite new and there isn’t much data about what the students end up doing afterwards, especially in the long-term (which is where liberal arts is supposed to shine). Many of them (60% for example in the case of Ashoka) end up going for further higher education, usually abroad. Some of the top companies are also recruiting these students from campus. Anecdotally, I know that a lot of these students are doing really interesting work afterwards.


But it would be safe to say that the answer to the question of “What to do after the degree?” is much less clear for Liberal Arts than for conventional degrees. This is a new frontier, and nobody knows the long-term value, so I would say this is a high-risk-high-reward situation. If your background isn’t privileged enough that you can handle some uncertainty for some years, I wouldn’t recommend this option. (Speaking of privilege, the fees at these colleges tend to be high, for example, approximately ₹10L per year at Ashoka. But most of them also have financial aid programs that can help in case someone can’t afford it.)


Next Steps

If your child is in 10th or 11th std, both Ashoka and FLAME have a short residential summer camp for 10th and 11th std students to get some exposure to what is Liberal Arts, the various subjects, the faculty, and the teaching styles. I would highly recommend it. Let your child experience what world-class teaching looks like.

My son, who hated history as a subject until 10th came back a huge fan of history after doing Ashoka’s Young Scholar program, and it is now one of his favorite subjects. He joined Ashoka last year and is very happy with his choice. Details of these summer programs can be found Ashoka University: Leading Liberal Arts and Sciences University

If your child is in 12th, and my description above sounds interesting, you should start applying. The application procedures of most of the schools I mentioned above starts in November-December, and continues in multiple rounds until the summer.



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