Where mind is without fear, knowledge is free – a walk around Jindal international liberal arts school in Sonepat

India-Education/Arts/Culture 

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Sonepat (Haryana)
Madhusree Chatterjee

Arts and humanities education in India is still confined to parochial modules of subject-oriented study that does not allow cross-academic exchanges or liberal osmosis of multi-disciplines in the curriculum for students to develop a holistic intellectual grounding in the sphere of higher education, C. Raj Kumar, the founding vice-chancellor of the OP Jindal Global University said.

“First of all, our academic programmes and degrees (in India) forcing a single discipline need for specialization that was built early on affects holistic education. Education patterns have changed. Institutes of arts and humanities must learn to engage with society – past, present and the future — sociology, history, science and math into one holistic knowledge system. Liberal arts tries to help develop the innate qualities of the human minds – gives a sense of identity to people and an inkling of the role they are expected to play in the society,” C. Raj Kumar told this writer at a seminar on higher liberal arts education at the university’s JIndal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities in Sonepat in Haryana. The university is a social corporate responsibility initiative by the Jindal industrial conglomerate together with foreign education partners.  

Built as an international centre for learning, the liberal arts school will offer dual degree to students in collaboration with the Rollins College in Florida in US. It will open its first academic session in August 2014 for an inter-disciplinary undergraduate degree programme. Students will spend two years at Rollins after a beginner’s tenure at the university in Haryana, the vice-chancellor said.

The vice-chancellor said the aim of the liberal arts school was to break down disciplinary boundaries in education and “redefine what it means to study what it means to study the arts and humanities in the international context”. Placements for students across the continents may be the primary motivation of the university, but the greater objective is to equip the students with tools of free-thinking intellectual progress in a globalised knowledge milieu.

The liberal arts learning centre claims that it trains students in “intellectual mastery, democratic participation, self-expression and advanced life-long learning”— notions that transcend conventional education.

A good liberal arts education should not only promote knowledge and holistic intellectual growth, “it engages with skills relating to advocacy and communication skills, “ C. Raj Kumar said. In our country, education is still very subjective and often ends up “promoting mediocrity” and “rote knowledge of a discipline”. “An effective liberal arts education tries to put together all round knowledge for students to become enlightened individuals – who are integrated into the broader societal intellect,” C. Raj Kumar, an alumnus of Harvard School in US and Oxford University in UK, explained.

Liberal arts do not bracket students into disciplines so that students find clarity of thought in their choices of professions later in life to suit “their community’s and personal goals- and aspirations”, the vice-chancellor said. The university affirms its commitment to its objective of “free intellectual growth” in all its five schools of learning that include law, business, governance and public policy and liberal arts in its campus amenities.

A guided tour by C. Raj Kumar around the campus last week to a select group of academics, professionals and journalists threw up surprises in lay out, smart class rooms with hi-tech study networks (fitted with individual monitors, consoles, hearing aid and screening facilities), a moot court for debates, sprawling libraries – both physical and digital — and an international study room that doubles as a world flag room. National flags of all the countries around the globe with which India shares diplomatic ties flutter in a riot of colours in the big airy hall. The flag room is the brainchild of founder-director of the university Navin Jindal, an industrialist and young politico, who fought a court battle to victory over the right to unfurl the national flag in a public place, the vice-chancellor said.

The vice-chancellor said the university works on four vital premises — inter-disciplinary education, transnational humanity framework, skill development framework and professional development network. “If you do not have all these, as a university, you remain inadequately equipped,” C. Raj Kumar said. “We try to leverage the 125-year-old history of the Rollins College in US and harness its strengths for our students,” he pointed out — suggesting that “collaborative higher education with international partners was the future of advance learning in India”.

He explained that technology and Internet had made it easy for students and faculty to exchange with partners abroad.

The opulent university— with language learning rooms, international lounges, a 100-acre landscaped campus and futuristic buildings nestled in the green countryside of Sonepat — brings the a silent debate in the educational fraternity in India to the fore. Is higher education becoming a private enterprise like all other industries in India, drifting from the monolithic government run “edifices” of learning like temples to smart universities sponsored by powerful private players. Private universities have their upsides and underbellies— but in an increasingly cash-flush nation like India, where disposable incomes have climbed steadily post globalization, private universities are good options. Student space and resources in government-run institutes are straining at the seams as they rely on government doles. More Indians can afford to send their children or avail of exclusive private education at steeper prices.

The vice-chancellor says the founder-director earmarked Rs 500 crore as capital investment when the foundation of the university was laid in 2007-2008- and became operational with the law school in 2009. “We face a revenue deficit of nearly Rs 10 crore every year. Nearly 70 per cent of our students study on scholarship. We do not make it an enterprise for profit,” the vice-chancellor said— citing examples of the Shiv Nader and Azim Premji centres of higher learning. The university has a little more than 3,000 students- with an official faculty and student ratio of 1: 15.

Professors for Yale and Harvard sit on the university board to “mobilize international admission”. A private university cannot work on quality, experiment with learning modules and innovate – because “it has independence of operation”, the vice-chancellor hinted with a smile ushering this writer to a spicy Harayanvi (native fare of the northern Indian state of Haryana) lunch at the spacious students’ dining room.

 

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