UPES School of Liberal Studies Wants Students To Be Critical Thinkers
Why Liberal Studies: An Interview with Prof. Shubhashis Gangopadhyay, Dean, UPES School of Liberal Studies
1. Liberal Studies in India is relatively young but gaining steady acceptance. What is the importance of Liberal Studies and why do you think students should opt for it?
For the skills one requires to solve the problems their society faces, we look at the social and physical sciences that lend themselves to policymaking and the creation of techniques and technologies. Liberal studies will teach students to draw upon history, literature, arts, cinema and other similar branches of human knowledge and creativity to bring clarity to the (perhaps unsolvable) moral issues a society may face in making its policy and technological choices.
For example, digitization is changing almost everything we have been accustomed to, the way we do business, the way governments function as well as the way citizens interact with each other. While this has the potential for improving our lives, it also throws up new challenges. Digitalization and big data are helping us address issues more effectively and efficiently while the digital divide is creating deep fissures and disparities in the opportunities an individual faces. So, in this given context, liberal studies is a field which will encourage a student to use digital technology as a tool for creative thinking and also develop a growing awareness of the challenges that digital media may produce. Liberal studies is gaining importance because today it is imperative for young adults to be well prepared to meet the challenges that will be thrown up by
a fast-transforming society and be in a position to provide solutions to those challenges.
2. School of Liberal Studies at UPES takes the Transdisciplinary Learning approach. What does it mean? And do you feel that there is a need for universities to change the approach in designing the curriculum for students?
Young adults trained at UPES will be able to identify, formulate and solve the problems in the society they live in. In addition, they will be trained to anticipate problems such that they can be prevented wherever possible. The school’s objective is not only the pursuit of knowledge. The curriculum fosters an awareness and deep understanding of the issues faced by the society around them and strives towards this objective by concentrating on the importance that individuals have with the State and Society as citizens.
There will be three distinct parts in all the programmes under UPES School of Liberal Studies:
a) Classroom lectures (both theoretical and practical)- which is basically the disciplinary training of the core subjects
b) Application of whatever is taught in the classroom to live issues in the neighbourhood- This will enable students to directly connect the classroom theory to the world around them and put their existing knowledge under question. This will also train students in fieldwork and the use of both qualitative and quantitative data.
c) Each course ending with a list of open and topical questions- This is to encourage students to conduct research towards a deeper understanding of specific aspects of the society they are in so that they are better placed to anticipate and tackle future challenges.
3. Liberal Studies is said to focus more on ‘How to think’ rather than ‘What to think’. How does this encourage students to be critical and think differently with a creative mindset?
One of the main aspects of Liberal Studies is that it encourages students to apply their knowledge, thinking and understanding to a situation rather than giving them a planned answer to problems. It creates a habit among students to exercise their minds and find solutions. One of the requirements for anticipating problems and, hence, preventing them or reducing their impact, is the ability to build alternate realities of how things could turn out in the future. If we cannot do this, we will always be reacting to problems. We will always be firefighting rather than preventing fires. The ability to think in the abstract, to understand the relationship between things and visualize the context within which things will play out are all brought together through critical thinking. And that is not all. Imagining alternate realities requires creativity!
4. The world today needs more of problem solvers for a sustainable society. What are the training and skills that the coming generation need to become global leaders capable of solving real world problems?
The world is connected and so are societies. What happens locally can be scaled up globally and what is happening globally could have serious implications for the local. So, our students must be trained as global citizens; they will have to be connected to their immediate neighbourhood as well as the world at large. Local and global are not mutually exclusive choices. Instead, they feed from and impact each other.
Let us take a problem we face today --- the quality of air in Indian cities. It is an environmental issue and a health issue. How does one solve this? It depends on the way the city has been planned or developed organically. It depends on the economic activities in and around the city --- brick kilns, stubble burning, tree cover, movement of goods and people within the city, growth of slums and various other factors. Is it possible for one type of expertise to solve these many factors that all lead to the problem we are facing? We need economists, city planners, logistics experts, architects, sociologists and behaviour scientists and then, of course, scientists, engineers and technologists. It is impossible for any one person to have expertise in all of these. So, we need different experts to work together in a team. And, for that, each team member must have an appreciation of the perspectives the other team members bring to the problem discussion. And that is what we are trying to do at UPES. We are trying to break down the silos within which we have been training our students.
5. What can a student find himself/herself learning under Liberal Studies and how is it going to help them build successful careers?
The things we observe around us are outcomes of the interplay among various factors in a complex system. These factors include human behaviour, nature, technology, regulation and norms among others. A student of liberal studies is trained to understand this system. A student graduating from this programme can, therefore, work with business, government and non-profit organisations or civil societies. Careers include journalism, law, politics, economics, social work, behaviour management and public policy. Some can also go on to higher studies in any of the specific specializations.
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