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How to rescue democracy: Liberal education will teach us to do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason

Another series of elections has come and gone. Like an imminent surgery, an election has a way of crowding out all thoughts from the mind and turning the focus of politicians to populism and free giveaways, forgetting the difficult job of economic and governance reform. The results of the latest state elections have reminded us that Indians are by nature sceptical and not shy to change their leaders. The grand certainties of 2014 have suddenly become the grand doubts of 2019.
From earliest times, the Indian temper has been comfortable with uncertainty, beginning with ambiguity over how the cosmos was born in the famous Nasadiya verse in the Rig Veda and the doubting neti, neti (‘not this, not that’) method of Advaita. I believe our questioning nature is a strength in building citizenship and democracy. Unfortunately, our educational system, instead of nourishing inquiry, does everything possible to kill it through a rote learning system. The ascendance of technology, engineering and ‘useful subjects’ has displaced the old-style liberal education that promoted inquisitiveness. A few excellent private liberal arts and sciences institutions are coming up, and they offer some hope for the future. Most of the older ones have faded into mediocrity.
In these times when ‘liberal’ has acquired a bad odour, it is worth reminding ourselves that it shares a root with ‘liberty’. Liberal education is a method of learning rather than mastery of specific content, teaching one to reason and providing the confidence to judge for oneself. A liberal education befits a free human being, one who is capable of governing himself and participating in collective self-government. This ability translates at election time in distinguishing a charlatan from a sensible and sincere candidate. In the recent elections, it would have exposed the disastrous idea of farm loan waivers which rewards defaulters and punishes honest farmers, aside from bankrupting the states’ treasuries, leaving no money for real agricultural reform.
If a liberal education is not only about book learning but an approach to learning, any subject – even manual labour – could be part of the curriculum, and help shrink some of our caste prejudice against working with our hands. When we study something for its own sake, it reinforces our early curiosity as children and builds upon our civilisation’s ancient sceptical temper. Indeed, an interrogation of the Upanishads and the epics with a modern mind can be as valuable as reading Homer, Shakespeare and Marx.
A liberal education can also help to raise the tone of our political discourse that has plunged to great depths in recent years. All parties were responsible for the shameful lack of civility in the recent elections. Rahul Gandhi contributed to it with his persistent ‘chowkidar chor hai’ with regard to the Rafale fighter deal. He did not censure his functionaries who made obnoxious remarks about Modi’s mother’s age or cast aspersions on his father. It is to Rahul’s credit that he apologised for a former minister’s insulting reference to Modi’s occupational caste. Earlier references to ‘maut ka saudagar’ by Sonia Gandhi were equally ‘uncivil’.
BJP is no better. Modi has been guilty of uncivil language about the dynasty. A Gujarat minister falsely accused the late Verghese Kurien of diverting funds from Amul to Christian missionaries. Modi did not repudiate this aspersion on a bureaucrat who has made India the world’s largest milk producer. All parties, especially AAP and Shiv Sena repeatedly abuse opponents – for example, “son of Khilji” is a sickening reference to Rahul’s foreign origins.
A liberal education is beneficial in cultivating the habit of respectful engagement in a community, dedicated to finding workable answers rather than resorting to insulting innuendos about the ethnic identity of opponents. It also leads generally to a centrist position in politics, eschewing the extreme right and left. The political centre is accommodative, tends to harmonise social and cultural contradictions and appeals to the average voter, especially the minorities. Hence, most elections in India since Independence have been won by moderate candidates. Even the Modi wave in 2014 was the result of Modi adopting a centrist promise of vikas and jobs, which attracted the aspirational, young voter. It is quite another matter that the promise has not been fulfilled and Modi is a worried man today.
Finally, approaching education in a liberal manner can also make us better human beings. By freeing us from the demands of getting a job and making a living, it offers the freedom to reflect upon existential questions of who we are and why we are here. It turns our attention away from ourselves to our place in the world, making us see that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This ‘self-forgetting’ is always good for building character. When combined with action and experience, it leads to prudence (phronesis) as Aristotle suggested – to do the right thing to the right person, at the right time, in the right manner, and for the right reason.
But how can a poor or middle class Indian family afford the luxury of not preparing its children for a job? Surely, a four-year undergraduate American liberal education is a luxury that most Indians cannot afford. Indeed it can, if you view liberal education not as content but as an approach to learning; it should begin in primary school and go right through postgraduate education. Liberal education is not an end but a means to prepare a young person to become a thoughtful member of society. It does not exist in isolation from making a living or becoming a good citizen. It merely reminds us that there is more to life than consumption and production.
Gurcharan Das, December 28th 2018

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