Wide but not deep? Ashoka’s 3-year liberal arts course dilemma

“Is toothpaste solid or liquid? When you squish it, it flows. On the brush, it holds shape like a solid. What are all the states of matter that lie in between? This is how I explore the field of soft condensed matter physics with my class. Materials are a disruptive area of research, but largely ignored by traditional undergraduate courses in physics,” says Gautam Menon, a professor at Ashoka, India’s first private liberal arts university.

Menon spent over two decades teaching at hardcore scientific research institutions like Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Ashoka, with its liberal arts wrapper, isn’t exactly the laboratory that Menon is used to.

But it’s the kind he was seeking. “Science is liberal arts. There’s no confusion about that in my mind,” says Menon. Ashoka’s given Menon a launchpad to prove that there’s a scientific way of thinking about life, which isn’t stilted or boring. “It’s not just toothpaste,” he grins, “there’s also LED crystals, shampoos and detergent to explain.”

With the autonomy to design his own courses at Ashoka, Menon weds theoretical Physics with Biology, History and mathematical concepts. And this interplay of different disciplines isn’t limited to his ‘Properties of Matter’ class at Ashoka. Quite the contrary.

Ashoka’s short but impactful five years have brought the conversation on liberal arts to the mainstream. Its administration claims proudly to have stolen a march on older liberal arts bastions in Delhi like St Stephens College, Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The traditional college system, says Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, is just preparation for an exam. “We wanted to break this mould. Students who are capable of thinking for themselves is what the job market requires.”

“History is not about dates, kings and empires. It’s about us. Once the students make that imaginative leap into the past, they can get a lot out of it. Not all students may become historians. But they will carry… tools of thoughts to understand their present better”

Aparna Vaidik, Ashoka University

Both in terms of content and form, Ashoka’s an outlier. It’s one of the few places in the country where one could major in political science and minor in Indian classical dance. But it isn’t just interdisciplinary for the sake of it. Ashoka wants to ground its graduates in critical thinking—from topics as diverse as 20th century Marxism to 18th century Urdu poetry to learning basic calculus, the three-year programme isn’t about choice, as much as it’s for exposure.

Ashoka’s promise comes at a complex, yet opportune time. The public university system, the original champion of the liberal arts, is in intellectual disrepair. While enrolments in the social sciences haven’t fallen, these courses themselves have changed in character. Superficial “job-oriented classes have dumbed-down” liberal disciplines, says Pankaj Jha, a History professor at LSR. “There’s an increasing pressure to turn autonomous and raise our own funds. As such, the social sciences become parasitic to colleges as their fund-raising capacity is limited,” he says. That’s why a History honours course at Stella Maris College, Chennai, now has ticketing and tourism courses to “professionalise” it. To add to this bushfire are fresh-out-of-school students, most of whom, say LSR’s teachers, are actively discouraged to think for themselves.

Historical decline

Between 2016 and 2017, the enrolment number of history majors in the US dropped by 1500. 2011-12 saw the biggest dip, even as the after effects of the 2008 recession were felt on the job market

But studying at Ashoka doesn’t come cheap. At an average fee of Rs 9.5 lakh ($13,232) per year, it’s close to 10x the cost of attending a publicly-funded college. Ashoka is, however, using its resources towards growing in academic stature: its rank-and-file has grown through its aggressive poaching from institutes like TIFR, Shiv Nadar University. There are also early plans afoot to rope in former Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian to open a new centre on economic thought and policy, two sources within Ashoka confirmed.

Regulations, though, have come in Ashoka’s way and halted its plans to roll out a 4-year undergraduate. “Overnight we had to scramble to cut down our programme to three years,” says Madhavi Menon, a member of the founding faculty. The axing has driven a stake through Ashoka’s academic endeavour. It’s also raised a pointed question about the rigour of its three-year liberal arts degree: is Ashoka sending well-read misfits into the real world?

Liberal, not light-hearted

Ashoka’s quest to grow from a year-long fellowship to a full-fledged degree was just as much about getting the academics right as it was to cobble together money and infrastructure for its world class facilities. It needed to build a strong and unique intellectual character if it wanted to be taken seriously by students and other academics.  

Menon, who was a professor of English Literature at Tufts University in Massachusetts, moved back to Delhi from the US, to help the founders build Ashoka’s curriculum. She credits the western liberal arts tradition of intensive reading, writing and class discussion for shaping her own pedagogy. “It’s not important for a student to like or dislike a particular text. It’s more important that they engage with it, no matter what. That’s the academic model we’re after,” she says.

Classes at Ashoka are usually 1.5 hours, of which a good chunk—almost 40 minutes—is reserved for open discussions and class presentations. Students are encouraged to debate concepts and texts in smaller groups, and even take these discussions outside the classroom. “These Socratic methods expose students to each other’s arguments, which broadens their thinking,” says Menon. Students are graded on their class participation. “You miss five discussion sessions, you could fail,” Chancellor Mukherjee says.

Diverse source material, immersive pedagogy. But is it all just classroom talk? 

Not for teachers like Gilles Verniers, from Ashoka’s political science department. Verniers uses real-life examples to bring theories alive. Ashoka’s location, between urban Delhi and rural Haryana, is a minefield for such experiences.  “Female wrestling is quite a phenomenon here, and there’s so much you can teach through it. I send my students to these cross-gender akharas (wrestling pits). There is politics, sociology and economics behind it. These are ports of entry to larger questions,” says Verniers.

Out-of-the-box education comes with its own challenges in India. “We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are a liberal arts university in an Indian context. Students are going to come with pre-determined tracks,” says Menon. 

Ashoka was lucky to have a primed set of undergrads in its very first year—students willing to let go of the boxed-in, traditional education system they’d graduated from. Others, not so much. For LSR’s teachers, the quality of recruits has been dipping year-on-year. “In schools, students are trained to think in “keywords” they use in exams. There’s only one right answer. This type of thinking takes time to break,” says Mitali Mishra, an English professor at LSR.

Mental models

Most students walk through Ashoka’s gates totally unprepared. 

Through a combination of foundation courses and critical thinking seminars, Ashoka’s curriculum targets development in two distinct, yet complementary, directions. Foundation courses give a wide flavour of disciplines that range from literature to mathematical thinking. Great Books, among the most popular of these courses, involves reading at least eight different texts in one semester, that connects authors and ideas across centuries, and languages. Alongside Great Books, students also have to take courses like Social and Political Formations, History of Indian Civilisation and Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. They are meant to expose students to key intellectual discourses within different disciplines. 

Science fair

Ashoka will soon add Chemistry as a discipline in addition to Physics. There are also nascent plans, says Gautham Menon, to start a Centre for Disease and Health. ‘Such multi-disciplinary research would be impossible to do elsewhere,’ he says

The critical thinking seminars, which students take in their second and third semesters, are designed to constantly build and break fixed mindsets.There’s even a dedicated centre for it—the Center for Creative Writing. “How do you arrange an argument? What comes first? What happens next? We teach that formally. That’s unique to Ashoka,” says Ali Imran, vice president of external engagement at Ashoka. It’s a skill set Imran readily leverages with potential employers.

Ashoka may have been the first, but by no means is it the only one to recognise the value of 21st century skills like critical thinking. According to a 2019 report by UNICEF, almost half of the 30 crore Indian students graduating in 2030 will lack any employable skills. At Ahmedabad University (AU), each new student must take courses like data science, communication, biology, constitution, and behaviour. Azim Premji University, which started an undergraduate degree in 2015, has three disciplines that are covered under Humanities—philosophy, literature, and history—with the aim of building a student’s “public reasoning and critical thinking capacities.”  

Class control

Ashoka’s pedagogy borrows from the Oxbridge tutorial system. Larger classes are broken down into smaller, 10-15 people seminars to facilitate deep discussion.With class sizes now peaking at 100, these tutorials have become even more critical. “It would be ideal to cap classes at 50. Till then, we’ll rely on tutorials,” says Madhavi Menon

However, Ashoka takes its foundational requirements up a few notches. Each student spends the first two semesters completing their nine compulsory foundational courses, and then declares their majors, which are a combination of gateway (introductory) courses to the subject and electives from a minor discipline. All said and done, students have only 1.5 years to really get into their selected area of study. That’s a stretch, given that students end up doing 8-10 courses each semester. 

For the founding faculty, the foundation courses are still the true north of the entire academic exercise. That’s why the pull back from 12 compulsory courses to 9 has hurt the rigour of the liberal arts degree, says Menon. “People think a liberal arts degree is about choice. That’s incorrect. It’s about being exposed to a certain number of things before making a choice,” she says. 

Ashoka’s curriculum opens windows to multiple disciplines. But does it open doors to multiple jobs?

Island of misfit toys

Aditya Shetty didn’t want to become an engineer. So he interviewed for Ashoka’s very first undergraduate batch and made the journey from Navi Mumbai to Ashoka’s campus in a dusty, remote corner of Haryana. The only one from his group of friends to not pursue an engineering or medical degree, he ultimately majored in psychology, and now works for a development consulting firm in Gurugram. “It would’ve been impossible to make the leap from engineering to psychology otherwise,” says Shetty. 

But this breathing space—allowing students to declare a major in their second year— comes with its downsides. Well into their final year, Shetty and his batchmates were nervous about fitting into the real world. “We didn’t even know what jobs we’d be eligible for,” says Shetty.  Almost 90% of the founding batch stayed on for a fourth year, though, according to the university, those numbers are now down to 50-60%. “The faculty convinced most students that we needed to stick on for a fourth year. For some, it became a strategic pathway to a masters degree,” says Shetty. But for most others, he says, it was just uncertainty.

It’s not hard to see why students choose to stay back when faced with the world outside. The Ashoka campus is a self-contained universe. Its red-brick aesthetic is reminiscent of Delhi’s elite cultural hubs. Soft strains of students practicing the piano waft through corridors; the campus is dotted with green spaces and artsy sculptures. It’s quite a few worlds removed from the industrial township right outside its walls. Or even the campuses in neighbouring Delhi.

The bubble is temporary. And under pressure from regulatory challenges.

Ashoka had to shave an entire year from its degree, and almost instantly, the administration figured out a workaround—a fourth year diploma. But not every student can afford to stay on and the current, truncated three-year course comes with its own set of challenges.

Given the number of courses, there’s an inevitable trade-off between subject speciality and broad knowledge, says Shruthisagar R, an ex-student from Ashoka’s first batch. Shruthisagar majored in Economics, and minored in Psychology. But beyond the ability to communicate effectively and write well, he doesn’t think Ashoka contributed deeply to any specific domain knowledge. 

There’s a tug in the system. While some of the older faculty are pulling in the direction of foundation courses, newer faculty members want to focus more on major disciplines. “Logistically it’s very difficult to complete a liberal arts major in three years. It works in a four-year major because the first year then is just experimentation,” says Kathryn Hardy, an anthropology professor at Ashoka.

Gautham Menon shares Hardy’s concerns. In a limited span of three years, a Physics student at Ashoka may not do as much their counterparts outside. That’s why the fourth year is to focus on the major. “If you try and straightjacket the course into a three-year schedule, then the experience is not going to be the same,” admits Menon, though he doesn’t quite agree that Ashoka students are at an academic disadvantage.

The bubble vs real life

The three-year degree is more a sprint than a leisurely tour of liberal disciplines. Especially for technical courses like computer science (CS), says Vineet Nandkishore, where learning advanced mathematical concepts were essential to build a solid foundation. Nandkishore graduated from Ashoka with a dual degree in computer science and entrepreneurial leadership and now works at an Artificial Intelligence firm. He was just as keen on majoring in Literature, but chose otherwise. “I figured it was a skill I couldn’t pick up later,” he says. 

Nandkishore is still confused about what he gained at Ashoka vis-a-vis the job market. He doesn’t necessarily think this confusion is a bad thing. His peer Shruthisagar is more outright about Ashoka’s depth-versus-breadth problem. Within the bubble, he claims, students have learned to game the liberal arts system, and have optimised the three-year degree to score high GPAs (grade point averages) and land cushy jobs. “Ashoka’s increasingly become that kind of place. It goes against the very liberal ethos it stood for,” claims Shruthisagar. He also disagrees with Nandkishore’s claims that his CS degree would hold water in front of an Indian Institute of Technology graduate.

Ashoka’s entrepreneurship centre is called ‘The Big Idea’. Students incubate ideas here, inspired by Ashoka’s founder-entrepreneurs (Picture credit: Olina Banerji/The Ken)

The dust is settling though. Newer faculty members are tightening the screws on the majors, and creating more space for disciplinary depth. Also, getting top-notch academics like Subramanian to head a center at Ashoka is likely to increase the opportunity for research for students. Menon has already hired her first postdoctoral student to conduct India-based research on gender and sexuality. 

This is all a bonus because, as ex-student Shetty claims, students don’t really join Ashoka expecting conventional placements or jobs.

In comparison, Varuni Bhatia, a History professor at APU’s humanities programme, is clear that employability and engagement is just as much a concern as being steeped in a particular discipline. “We’re not just teaching future doctorate students. We want students to actively think about the jobs they’re going to apply to and how they will give back to society,” says Bhatia. 

The “core curriculum” at APU ensures that students are grounded in both hard skills, like different research methodologies and soft skills, like working in diverse teams. Bhatia cites the example of the media studies interdisciplinary track, where students are encouraged to take up relevant projects specifically on the role of media in a democracy. “Social media now plays as important a role as film and television. Humanities needs to keep up with the times,” says Bhatia.

Ecosystem effect

Ashoka graduates are often lent a helping hand by the University founders like Pramath Sinha and Ashish Dhawan. Sinha’s 9.9 Group and Dhawan’s Central Square Foundation hire directly from the Ashoka talent pool

Similarly, at AU, securing students a job is front and centre. As Vice Chancellor Pankaj Chandra says, “It’s our duty to address parents’ anxiety on job prospects. We do it upfront, via open houses at the time of admissions. Equally, it’s our duty to make an effort to change the employers’ mind. In my mind, the economic environment will force the employers to change.”

At about 100 graduates, APU can still experiment with finding the right balance. So can the elite Ashoka, where the dust is yet to settle on the 3+1 degree.

For 97-year-old Delhi University (DU) though, changing engines mid-flight was nothing short of disastrous. The shifts—from a three-year annual degree system to a failed four-year undergraduate programme and then back to a three-year degree with sizeable tweaks—have wreaked havoc on the integrity of the liberal arts courses.

DU’s now trying to settle into a half-baked Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), where a three-year annual course structure has been arbitrarily hacked into semesters. “We were meant to teach certain courses together. Now that interdisciplinarity has gone out the window,” says Mishra of LSR. Worse yet, the CBCS mandates that every student must take ‘ability enhancement courses’ like Business Communication. “It’s basically a school level course on how to draft letters. Even if I wanted to teach poetry or drama to a History student, I can’t because the new syllabus doesn’t allow for it,” adds Mishra.

“We are clearly teaching for the semester exams now. That’s not what the liberal arts agenda is,” says an unhappy Mishra.

Public universities have been severely curtailed in providing the best social sciences education to students. In this backdrop, Ashoka stands a chance, where teachers have full control over their syllabus. It’s not a luxury that can be taken lightly.

“In the rush to align our education system to the west, we’ve subjected our institutions to a series of superficial systems like the four-year undergraduare programme and the Choice Based Credit System, without even stopping to review these”

Pankaj Jha, LSR

Even with a three-year constraint, Ashoka’s trying to inject as much real-world flavour in its classes as possible. In partnership with the Haryana state government, Ashoka has designed the Chief Minister’s Good Governance Programme that trains selected students for two weeks and places them in various Haryana districts to grapple with real-life problems of access and inequality. The result? These associates have achieved a 78% complaint resolution rate for the Chief Minister’s office, and unified access to all essential citizen services on one portal. 

In the larger regulatory context, Ashoka’s faculty is ardently waiting for the National Education Policy to drop. To formalise the four-year programme. Four years could help iron out the current discomfort with a rushed three-year undergrad, and strike the right balance between depth in discipline and width of exposure. 

“As a new liberal arts university in a country obsessed with engineering and management courses, we need to send good output. Or else, it will be too easy to dismiss us as just a “humanities place”,” says Ashoka’s Imran.

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