In this section:

  1. The concern for creativity
  2. Past attempts


The concern for creativity

All around Asia, there is a growing concern about the role of creativity in higher education.1  Even though technological developments have been on the rise for quite some time, major breakthroughs in science and technology rarely occur here. In India, both educators and employers point out that graduates excel in taking tests and performing specific tasks but lack imagination when it comes to developing new ideas and inventions. Why do our higher education institutions not succeed at bringing forth creative minds? How should we change our universities and colleges to succeed?

Even though these questions are raised with increasing urgency, the available answers are limited. First, they note that higher education in India is ‘one-dimensional’: most Indian universities and colleges impart their students with specialist knowledge and technical skills oriented towards the job market. Next, they point out that most Indian parents expect their children’s education to result in well-paid jobs offering them socio-economic status and a comfortable life. Bright students end up going to engineering colleges, even when they would prefer to study philosophy or psychology. A degree in the humanities and social sciences is considered the last resort. Finally, the method of rote learning and the traditional respect for authority are blamed for the fact that students are not taught to think for themselves. What is missing, the diagnosis concludes, is the idea that the university should create independent thinkers with the ability to reason logically and reflect critically.

The remedy then seems self-evident: to introduce genuine liberal education into the Indian higher education landscape so that students ‘learn to think for themselves’ and parents realize that the humanities can contribute to a successful career. This route has given rise to several kinds of initiatives and experiments in India. The IITs introduced humanities courses into their curricula and engineering colleges added ‘soft skills’ training. A series of institutions try to copy the Ivy League universities and American liberal arts colleges by combining courses in the natural and applied sciences with courses in the humanities and social sciences. They invite American and European professors to give lectures to their students. To take into account the local cultural context, they add courses in Indian philosophy or arts. By taking these steps, they hope to produce more creative thinkers, scientists, and engineers.

Past attempts

The growing number of initiatives shows how prominent these concerns about higher education have become. Yet, they appear to lack a sustained analysis of past attempts to introduce liberal education into India. Why did these fail and where did they succeed? How can we learn from earlier attempts and contemporary experiments?

The risk in formulating these questions in such a general way is that we end up with the well-known complaints about one-dimensional education, job-oriented parents, and rote learning. In any developing society, parents will want their children to pursue an education that offers them a successful career and comfortable life. This is something that will not change anytime soon. Yes, Indian education is often one-dimensional in content and pedagogy, but, one could argue, that is precisely because comprehensive and liberal education models have not yet found roots here.

Such answers lead us in circles, instead of providing a way out. In fact, some of the past attempts began from the very same diagnosis. When colonial officials tried to implement a British educational system in India, they expressed similar frustrations. In the early 20th century, Rabindranath Tagore pointed out that “the moral man, the complete man, is more and more giving way, almost without knowing it, to make room for the ... commercial man, the man of limited purpose.”2 To change this, he advocated a holistic education that was oriented towards self-realization and established the Visva-Bharati University as an embodiment of his ideas. Today, to the regret of Tagore’s admirers, this institution has become just another state university.3

We should not trivialize these attempts and assume that we would do better today. People like Tagore devoted decades of their lives to such educational experiments. It is unclear where our generation has made any headway, if we have at all. Instead of assuming that we would do better, we should find out why we confront the same obstacles and dead-ends. What are the cognitive and institutional constraints that have consistently prevented these experiments and initiatives from succeeding?

Consider what some thinkers from the past said. One of the intuitions they expressed is that the dominant educational system is ‘western’ in some significant sense. In simple terms: the university and its liberal education programme originally emerged in Europe and cannot just be transplanted to India, since its cultural context is different. As Tagore puts it:

“ The mischief is that as soon as the idea of University enters our mind, the idea of a Cambridge, Oxford University and a host of other European Universities, rushes in at the same time and fills the space. We then imagine our salvation lies in a selection of the best points of each patched together in an eclectic perfection. We forget that the European Universities are living organic parts of the life of Europe, where each found its natural birth.Patching up noses, and other small missing fractions of our features, withskins from foreign limbs is allowed in modern surgery; but to build up a whole man by piecing together foreign fragments is beyond the resources of science,not only for the present time, but let us hope for all time to come.”4

This analogy remains as pregnant today as it was in Tagore’s time. To try and instil creativity in Indian higher education, the only available route still seems to be to patch together the best parts of education programmes from American and European institutions. But, much like universities, liberal education programmes were living organic parts of the life of western societies, where they found their natural birth.

Of course, it would be unwise to suggest that an idea or institution can not work in India, because it has its origin in the West. After all, the banking system and the natural sciences have been quite successful in India. Rather than embodying any anti-western agenda, our concerns are different: Which aspects of the relation between the liberal education model and its cultural context have prevented it from succeeding in India? Which are the particular cultural constraints of the current humanities and social sciences, which we have to overcome in order to develop a model of comprehensive education that can flourish in 21st-century India?



1 For some typical illustrations from different parts of Asia, see Karin Fischer, “Bucking Cultural Norms, Asia Tries Liberal Arts,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 5, 2012; at URL: <>; Jing-Jyi Wu and Dale Albanese, “Asian creativity, chapter one: Creativity across three Chinese societies,” Thinking Skills and Creativity, 2 November 2010.  

2 Tagore, “ Nationalism in the West,” in Nationalism (London and New York: MacMillan, 1921), 16.
3 Martha Nussbaum, “Democracy, Education, and the Liberal Arts: Two Asian Models,” University of California at Davis Law Review, 44(2011), 750.

4 Rabindranath Tagore, The Oxford India Tagore: Selected Writings on Education and Nationalism (2009), 150.