Thursday, 3 April 2014

Towards Liberal Education...

Dr. Gayathri Deepak is the Director of Centre for holistic Empowerment of Teachers, Children and Adolescents, [CHETANA] which is CHILD's school mental health wing. She has successfully led International Schools in India and abroad and is now executing revolutionary training protocols with educators to usher in the practice of emotionally literate pedagogy in mainstream education.

     It is that time of the year again…time for the scramble for college admissions. Despite the huge variety of jobs available now, what are still the most popular courses? Engineering, Medicine, Commerce… has anything changed in the past few decades?
Why should we think that the sole goal of school education is to prepare students to enter University? And in particular, with emphasis being placed mainly on Mathematics and Sciences, the jar of gold at the end of the rainbow seems to be that much coveted seat into an Engineering college or Medical college. 

     As the Principal of an international school in India, I was often questioned by parents who sought admission to Kindergarten, whether our school   and the curriculum prepare their child to face entrance exams to join IIT. Well, quite frankly, it didn’t. We could not give such promises because we did not believe that is what education should be all about. And we ran a school, not a coaching centre for entrance examinations! And it baffles me no end that there are several parents out there who think that certainly Kindergarten is the gateway to University, particularly a foundation for a  career in Engineering or Medicine!

     Let’s take a few moments to ponder about the status we in general give to subjects other than Mathematics and Sciences…
We as a nation celebrate the achievements of our cinema stars, and deify them. We celebrate the achievements of our authors, classical dancers and musicians too. We are justifiably proud to belong to a nation that produced such all-time greats as M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ravi Shankar, Padma Subramanyam, AllaRakha, Rabindranath Tagore, to name just very few of the stalwarts.  It seems such a paradox that we as a nation celebrate performers in the classical or modern arts, perhaps more so than any other country, and yet fail to give due place for the performing arts or literature in our school curriculum.

     Time and again research has proven the immense benefits and powerful impact of Drama or Theatre in the curriculum, but we steadfastly choose to ignore it and refuse to bring it into mainstream curriculum. Even in schools which do offer Drama, it is offered usually only up to Middle School. In schools where it might be offered in High school, it might get about 2 periods a week, compared with 5 to 8 each for  English, Math and Science.
In fact, we seem to have regressed rather than progressed in providing holistic education. In my grandfather’s days, schooling placed emphasis on areas like Languages and Literature and Philosophy, apart from Math and Science. They even had to learn Greek and Latin, apart from English!

     How can we now claim to have progressed in providing education when our focus has largely become narrowed to the Math and Sciences alone?The general perception amongst some schools, parents and larger society is smart children are only those who excel in these subjects! The only “other” stream available in most Chennai schools is the Commerce or Business stream. How many schools are actually offering courses that prepare students to seriously pursue streams like Design, Geology, Sociology, Sports, Drama, Music, Media, Hotel Management?

     And all schools actually claim that they cater to “holistic development” or “wholesome” development! Most modern schools in our country today claim to base their pedagogical practices on the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Are schools really justified in making such claims when they totally neglect the Arts, Humanities, Languages and Physical Education?

    Let us for a moment consider simple facts…Drama and Dance come naturally to little kids. Even a kid left alone enacts little scenes by herself or stands in front of the mirror imitating her mother or teacher. When a group of kids get together, it is perfectly natural for them to enact scenes in a school or home setting. It is a natural way of expressing themselves and making better sense of their worlds. When we see toddlers or  young children, the natural grace with which they move fascinates us. Children love to move – it is normal for them to break into a skip even as they are walking. It is natural for them to spontaneously tap to music or dance. Their whole body seems to be happy when we see them move, act, sing, run or play.
Research has proven the value of the Performing and Creative Artstowards emotional development. Literature and the Humanities kindle the finer aspects of human nature and make us the social beings that we are.

     So, why do schools feel compelled to allot little or no time to physical education and the performing arts? It is sad and actually dangerous that it is increasingly becoming the trend to allot these important areas of learning to “after-school activities”.

     Given that Universities set almost impossible “cut-off” marks for admission, schools and parents blame them for fostering the “rat race” for top scores. Statistics year on year show that stress levels during Standards 10 and 12 are just so high, causing serious mental health problems like depression, anxiety and even leading to suicide. It is time for Universities and Colleges to base admissions on the overall achievements and talents of aspirants and not merely on their marks/grades in their qualifying and entrance examinations.

     It is time we wake up to the importance of encouraging inter-disciplinary learning and providing a liberal education in schools, colleges and Universities.


  1. Shallow as it might sound the main reason parents are anxious to secure an engineering or medicine seat for their children is , they provide for more financially secure careers when compared to arts or sports. Extra curricular passions are dismissed as hobbies that should only be taken up when the maths exam is over :)

  2. Hi Vidhya,

    It is understandable how parents and indeed the students themselves may assume arts, language and sports are not remuneratively attractive. But it is just that- an assumption, an inaccurate one at that. Moreover, the very line of reasoning that success and satisfaction equates directly to monetary compensation is the very failing of aspiration that is talked about in this article. The case that is made is even if a child chooses to study mainstream professional courses (we are most definitely not against it if the decision is driven by genuine interest and passion), an equal opportunity to stimulate appreciation of the arts, languages and sports must be offered to the students so they may receive a holistic education without being made to wear blinders that narrows their focus and indeed fosters a prejudicial attitude against the arts and social sciences as early on in formal education as is the case now.
    Thank you for your comment!