The prescription for a
distinguished human life, French philosopher Pascal felt, was to know
the advantage that the universe holds over us, and to turn it around to
our advantage. A liberal education is one way to do it — to defy the
universe in this Pascalian manner — because it places the human being
at the centre of the quest for knowledge. We seem to have forgotten this
with the triumph of the IIM/IIT culture and our understandable mania for
the computers and information technology. It is important, I think, to
remind ourselves about the place of the liberal arts in building future
leaders and citizens. Leaders of tomorrow
will need vision; hence
they will need to be familiar with the humanistic ideas of the great
books. Too many young people
I find — even CEOs of our best
companies — have a tunnel
vision, says Gurcharan Das.
A few years ago, I met a captivating teenager in Bombay. She was bright and attractive, but she disappointed me with her unthinking approach to her education. She was all set to embark on the IIT/IIM race, and I was so struck with what she said that I included the following conversation in my recent book, India Unbound:
"Have you thought of doing arts in college?" I asked. She looked at me as if I needed to have my head examined. "Arts is for duffers," she said. "It’s only for those who can’t get into science. Besides, what is the use of poetry?"
I gently suggested that business leaders of tomorrow needed to have vision. They had to build high performing organisations. In order to achieve global competitive advantage they had to recognise change and innovation, and promote sustained investment in human skills. The lessons of history and literature might better prepare a young person for those challenges.
"But Arts subjects aren’t high scoring," she said dismissively. "And I don’t want to spoil my CV." I mentioned to her that she would have to do a lot of science at IIT, and did she like science?
"All you have to do is to memorise a bunch of facts. I have good memory, fortunately."
The young lady was obviously confident and good at studies, but the meaning of education had completely escaped her. The fault lay, I expect, with her parents and her teachers. No one had told her that science was not about " a bunch of facts," but rather about learning to think more exactly. Scientific education meant the implanting of a rational, experimental habit of mind. As I was leaving her house that night,I felt ambivalent. She was self-assured and optimistic, and confident about the future, yet she looked at education as slogging work.
If it were up to me,I would require all Indian undergraduates to feast at least half a year on the great books of the East, and the other half-year of the West. I have found that it is not necessary to read them in the original. One can easily read them in translation, but read them as though one’s life depended on it. Our mandarins in the Ministry of Education and our experts at NCERT ought to be thinking about how to breathe life into the syllabus so that education is not merely memorising a bunch of facts. Our current system in producing too many with narrow minds. With our traditional middle class insecurity about jobs, too many are moving into information technology where jobs reside, but they do not possess the intellectual equipment to deal with the world.
Since there is little hope from the formal education system, my advice to the young lady in Bombay and to all our college-going young this summer is to draw the curtains, turn on the cooler, sit in a comfortable old cane chair and begin to read the classics. Feel your youth like a nimbus cloud, and start to create a self. You don’t inherit a self, you build it. One way to do it is with the great books. There is no royal road to nirvana but only the many roads large and small, with innumerable curving paths, and a thousand steps and turns leading to education.
Begin with Mahabharata, and feel the brute vitality of the air, the magnificence of chariots, wind, and fires; the raging battles, the plains charged with terrified warriors, the beasts unstrung and falling. Like the brilliant first scene in the Oscar-winning Gladiator, see the men flung facedown in the dust, the ravaged longing for home and family and the rituals of peace, as the two sets of cousins, bitter enemies descended from King Bharata, fall into rapt admiration of each other’s nobility and beauty. It is an apocalyptic war poem, with an excruciating vividness, an obsessive observation of horror that causes almost disbelief. Since you are unlikely to read it in the original Sanskrit, look for R.K. Narayan’s readable translation, and if that is not available try C.V. Narasimhan’s version.
Feast also on the great books of the West Begin with Homer’s IIiad and Odyssey in the Lattimore translation. Follow it up with the great tragedians-read Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Oedipus and Antigone in the Grene translation and Euripides’ Electra in the Vermeule translation. Then a bit of history — read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in Penguin classics. Finally, philosophy — read Plato’s Symposium, Apology, and The Republic in the Hackett translation, and end with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in the elegant Ross translation.
The magic of an American undergraduate education is that it breathes life into the humanistic classics. Whether your field is chemistry or engineering, you are required to read the great books and learn that life and literature are inseparable. With a good teacher like Edward Tayler at Columbia you learn to read as though your life depended on it, and you are carried along on the crest of excitement and high adventure of ideas that will resonate throughout your life.
Indian students are not so lucky, alas. Not only does our traditional insecurity for jobs push our youth early into careers, our silo-like curriculum does not permit cross fertilisation of disciplines. Now, isn’t this what our mandarins in the Ministry of Education ought to be thinking about? Instead of only dabbling in the dubious mysteries of astrology, let us make our students immeasurably richer by breathing life into the great books of the East and the West.
To experience the romance of a liberal education, I recommend David Denby’s Great Books: My Adventure with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. In 1991, thirty years after graduating from Columbia University, Denby went back to college and sat with eighteen-year-olds and read the same books that they read. Not just the ancient classics that I have mentioned, but also modern ones. Together they read Goethe, Kant, Milton, Cervantes, Marx, Conrad, Woolf and others. Denby was certainly a most unlikely student: forty-eight years old, film critic of New York magazine, a husband and father, a settled man who was nevertheless unsettled in some way. Was it just knowledge he wanted? He had read many of the books before. Yet nothing in life seemed more important to him than reading these books and sitting in on those discussions.
Denby’s book is an account of his journey, sometimes perilous, sometimes serene, through the momentous ideas he consumed with such hunger in middle age. He took the two required "great books" courses, devised earlier in the century at Columbia, which spread to the University of Chicago, and in the 1940s to other colleges in America. I must also confess that I am biased in favour of a liberal education partly because I had the opportunity to experience one, and it changed me forever.
Perhaps because I am Indian, I was always drawn to our own classics. The only way to read them, I decided was to enrol in a Sanskrit course when I was an undergraduate. Along with a dozen hardy souls we read in one year, original selections from the Mahabharata, The Laws of Manu animal stories from the Hitopadesha, the Rajtarangini, hymns from the Rig Veda and Kalidas’ marvellous play, Shakunatalam. Since we read in the original Sanskrit, it was a slow process, but not inefficient. In six weeks, we had acquired the rudimentary ability to deal with Panini’s grammar rules via Perry’s Primer. Then, with help of Lanman’s reader, Whitney’s grammar, and Apte’s dictionary, we moved courageously forward to "build a self."
With the loss of Gandhi’s and Nehru’s ideologies, which had guided us for so long, Indians today feel forlorn and seek a new vision, something more relevant to our times. In the absence of another comprehensive ideology in this post-modern, post-reform age, I want to suggest that a return to the old fashioned liberal creed as a guide to live our day-to-day life may not be such a bad idea. I am not sure that one can ever really return to anything as one is always evolving. The liberal values of the Enlightenment may have come from the West, but they are really universal. Remember, they also served our 19th century thinkers well. It is also worth remembering that our quest for ideology is not so very different from that of Ram Mohan Roy, Bankim Chander Gopal Krishna Ghokhale and others. And since communism’s collapse, ours is part of a worldwide quest for a guiding ideology. Meanwhile, we could do worse than to have the classic liberal and humane values inform our lives.
Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher paid the greatest compliment to humanity when he characterised man as a feeble, thinking reed. "Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water could kill him. But man knows that he will die, and he knows the advantage that the universe has over him, the universe, however, knows nothing of his."
The prescription for a
distinguished human life, Pascal felt, was to know the advantage that
the universe holds over us, and to turn it around to our advantage. A
liberal education is one way to do it — to defy the universe in this
Pascalian manner — because it places the human being at the centre of
the quest for knowledge. We seem to have forgotten this with the triumph
of the IIM/IIT culture and our understandable mania for the computers
and information technology. It is important, I think, to remind
ourselves about the place of the liberal arts in building future leaders
and citizens. Leaders of tomorrow will need vision; hence they will need
to be familiar with the humanistic ideas of the great books. Too many
young people I find — even CEOs of our best companies — have a