Debate: Building a Country: Science or the Liberal Arts?


Aditya Mukherjee, Devesh Kapur, Matt Reed, Michael S. Roth, Sukrita Paul Kumar and Tarun Khanna, moderated by Shail Mayaram


Rahul Nair, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Blogger



The best debates are those in which the speakers agree before they start that the real solution to the problem will come from collective thinking. As such, the panel chose to build bridges between science and the arts instead, rather than descend into a sword fight of arguments.

Writer and academic Shail Mayaram opened the debate by posing a few questions to the speakers to make the ‘debate more provocative,’ since they had already settled on the fact that education couldn’t be divided. She enquired whether education was now decolonized in India, in the sense of removing the British influence on the national curriculum. Historian Aditya Mukherjee answered that colonization still exists but its form has changed. ‘The critical matter today is knowledge, and we are sending people off,’ he noted. 40% of the PhD students in American are non-Americans, and 90% of the Indians who go there to study never return home. Writer and curator Michael Roth countered that argument by stressing the need for greater knowledge-sharing between countries, rather than the discontinuation or discouragement of students studying abroad.

Tarun Khanna, an entrepreneur with over 30 years of teaching experience, felt science and the arts go hand in hand, describing how he unified them in his mathematics class, by inviting musicians, philosophers, artists and designers to illustrate his teaching: ‘Unless the developer of a gadget imagines its users’ experience, the gadget is fairly useless,’ he remarked.

‘It’s about time we brought outside reality into the classrooms,’ agreed poet and scholar Sukrita Paul Kumar, blaming a lack of education about the way the world actually works for distortions in students’ thinking. The ‘joy of working in the free space of imagination’ needs to exist, as it is these creative adventures that shape consciousness. Khanna supported her claim, asserting that one could effortlessly teach the laws of physics using Greek sculpture.

Matt Reed, who works for the Aga Khan Foundation, described how there needs to be a fine balance between localized and global education. He discussed the university that the foundation is setting up in Central Asia, which addresses the questions of Central Asia for Central Asia, while keeping in touch with the world. Kumar commented that we need to start exploring how to ‘promote contextual knowledge, creativity and critical thinking together.

Writer Devesh Kapur commented on the high levels of corruption that exist in the Indian education system. During 2000-2014, India opened five new colleges every day, and yet the quality of higher education only deteriorated, he claimed, holding politicians, bureaucrats and faculties responsible. He cited the example of Rajasthan University that went from having professors from all over India in 1950 to just Rajasthan today. Mukherjee said that the very fact that 75% of engineers from Indian colleges are unemployable (official government figure), is proof of the same.

The session concluded with the panelists’ consensus on the need for merging the bifurcated streams of arts and science. This is just the beginning of the debate for finding an alternative way, all of them agreed, adding that if we could have a Nalanda in the past, we could have many more in the future.


Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill



Share this Post:

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *