Last week I visited India to talk about liberal education and talk with Wesleyan folks. We’ve seen a sharp increase in applications from India, and it was exciting to talk with high school guidance counselors from several international schools in Mumbai as well as to a group of high school students. One was especially excited to meet the president of the school that graduated the creators of Hamilton! We had over 40 people at a reception in Mumbai, a city I was visiting for the first time.
After a couple of days in Mumbai I was off to the literary festival in Jaipur. This is known as the “Woodstock of Books”—a free festival that attracts hundreds of thousands to hear authors, filmmakers and musicians talk about poetry, fiction, and all manner of non-fiction work. My panel was discussing (you guessed it) liberal education, this time in the context of STEM and nation building in the global south. A few thousand people crowded under a beautiful tent to hear us discuss how a broad, contextual education can benefit all students.
While I was in India, the Times of India talked to me about American higher education. Given it was Inauguration week, they framed this in more political terms. Here’s the article:
MUMBAI: The morning after the world woke up to Donald Trump‘s shock win, student protests and an open denial of 45th President-elect of the United States, the first thing that Michael S Roth, president of the Wesleyan University in Connecticut, did was send out a public message to his students and colleagues. “This election has heightened feelings of alienation and vulnerability. The pain of targeted groups is real, and we must acknowledge it and work to mitigate its effects. But we will be alright because we will continue to strive to build the inclusive community that rejects white supremacy, bigotry and fear…” he wrote.
Roth is not afraid to speak his mind, even as the countdown to the presidential inauguration ticks. What worries him instead is the impending politics of exclusivity that might prove “antithetical to education”, he said on his recent visit to Mumbai. “Over these years, I have seen Presidents from different parties but never spoken out publicly. What Trump was saying on his campaign trail was horrendous—scapegoating Muslims, denigrating scientists, rejecting fact-based inquiry—as educators we have to stand up for the values of inclusion, equity, free speech and the right to do research of a certain kind that may challenge assumptions of people in power,” stressed Roth.
A Princeton scholar who has authored six books, Roth was the second in his family to attend college. “My father was a coat-maker and my mother, a singer. They’d be quite puzzled seeing me study all the time!” An advocate for liberal arts education that combines humanities and basic sciences, Roth emphasized why “pragmatic” liberal education that allows a multiplicity of perspectives matters now more than ever. But in India where specialized education still remains the focus, Roth sees the British system weigh heavy and belie its history of holistic education propagated by the Tagore school. “It’s important to recognize that jobs today need one to think outside their narrow areas. My friends in Stanford, Google and Ideo tell me that they’re looking for more engineers with liberal arts education to find innovative solutions to old problems,” he said, busting the popular “left brain versus right brain” myth.
While liberal arts is yet to be mainstreamed in India, there is a surge in interest among Indians pursuing studies in the US. “In the last two years, Wesleyan has received double the number of applications from India, running into a few hundreds.”