India’s higher education system is facing awe-inspiring challenges. With more than 600 million people aged below 25, estimates say that the country will need hundreds of new universities and about one million new faculty members to teach the desired numbers of students. The question of size, however, is overshadowed by that of quality: outside of a few elite institutions, research and teaching are in a very bad shape; even these elite institutions figure nowhere in the international rankings.

Two major absences are repeatedly noted in the Indian universities: that of a truly comprehensive education and that of research culture. These two appear to be interrelated. Without educational programmes that teach students to reason critically and become well-rounded and complete human beings, Indian graduates will never acquire the attitudes necessary for doing fundamental and original scientific research. In the words of Mortimer Adler:

“Liberal education, including all the traditional arts as well as the newer sciences, is essential for the development of top-flight scientists. Without it, we can train only technicians, who cannot understand the basic principles behind the motions they perform. We can hardly expect such skilled automatons to make new discoveries of any importance. A crash program of merely technical training would probably end in a crashup for basic science.
The connection of liberal education with scientific creativity is not mere speculation. It is a matter of historical fact that the great German scientists of the nineteenth century had a solid background in the liberal arts. They all went through a liberal education which embraced Greek, Latin, logic, philosophy, and history, in addition to mathematics, physics, and other sciences. Actually, this has been the educational preparation of European scientists down to the present time. Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, and other great modern scientists were developed not by technical schooling, but by liberal education.”

It seems self-evident then where India has to look for solutions. Still, it confronts this challenge at a time when the ideal of liberal education and the idea of the university are being hollowed out across our globe.

When the university emerged in Europe, it did so as a house of learning and a bridge between generations. At the most general level, its aim was to enable people to search for truth and knowledge and to transmit the results through teaching. In many parts of Europe, the university continues to play this role, or at least partly so: it is an institution that transmits knowledge from generation to generation, without looking for self-interest or gains, and that keeps a culture alive by doing so. Today, however, American elite universities serve as exemplars of excellence for higher education institutions in the rest of the world. Universities in India, Europe, and elsewhere look up to the Ivy League, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. In some parts of the world, the business and funding model of these universities is being hallowed as a panacea for decreasing public investment. In most continents, fads and fashions ruling the American social sciences and humanities percolate into the work of local scholars. Almost everywhere, management jargon appears to have penetrated the administration of higher education institutions and damaging evaluation systems are being introduced. Imitating such private universities, or inviting them to establish campuses on Indian soil, will not solve India’s problems but exacerbate them.

How could we instead revitalize the liberal education model in new ways adapted to the problem situation that India is facing today?