Changing Face of Liberal Arts Today


Prof. (Dr) Udaya Narayana Singh
Amity University Gurugram

Today’s ‘Liberal Arts’ programmes have grown out of the ancient Greek concept ofartes liberales,or studia liberaliawhere the quadrivium of astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music dominated. Even when three other areas were added to the famous-four, Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic, the catch of seven liberal arts did not capture the entire gamut of freedom or liberation that man sought through knowledge.

Long ago, Marcus Cicero (born 106 BC, assassinated 43 BC) had raised an issue in his de Oratore (55 BC) which is still reflected in the American universities in their division of ‘Gen-Ed’ and ‘Specialized’ Major programmes. The rote learning often pushes us towards a lack of interest as well as a gap in knowledge regarding some of the most basic aspects of human life that would get reflected some day or the other. Many western universities claim to provide a good mix of Liberal Arts with Professional Programmes, but the controversy as to what comes under its fold is still not resolved.

In India, we often take the foundational courses we receive in History, Geography, Social Sciences, Ethics (or Moral Science), Logic and Economics in our schools as the bases of liberal arts, and one is not surprised to see that even the best these days often decide to pursue History or Politics in college education, rather than join the mad rush to technology or management.

But if someone asks me about what constitutes the centre of Liberal Arts today, I would say that its characteristics of ‘Logocentrism’ is what defines and describes it best. Let me elaborate on this idea. If one wants to be a Psychologist, one would have to delve deep into human mind and study how it manages to comprehend, store, retrieve and rephrase ideas or concepts, and for all these one would have to deal with a text, or a set of definitions, or a conceptualization that is essentially verbal. How could you do anthropology or culture studies without looking at the commonest manifestations of an ethnic group – in its song, folklore, myths, theatre, debates or discussions – all of which employ human language. Unfortunately, all records in the field of History are in some ancient or medieval forms of language. Today’s fashionable studies in Oral History has to depend so much on semantic and pragmatic analysis of what is spoken as evidences.

Let’s turn to other areas now. Sociology revolves around language so much that both Sociology of Language and Sociolinguistics now welcome a lot of researchers from the neighbouring disciplines. The whole field of Communication and Journalism must teach us how to handle language to be able to ‘sell’ our stories through print, television, radio or online or new media. All Law has to do is to interpret rules, regulations and principles coded in a particular language, and here to the centrality of language is undeniable. In Film Studies, which is a popular course in some universities, or in Comparative Literature, how could you get rid of the ‘language’ tag? Politics would often tell us ways of managing public perceptions, and means of convincing your opponents into believing that your interpretation and argumentation are invincible.

All literature does, whether it is English, French, Japanese or Indian languages, is to show us how best to use human language for creative and emotive purposes, and how that has been accomplished by great writers. We could easily notice how the study of languages – best known as ‘Linguistics’ has penetrated into the entire sphere of Liberal Arts disciplines, and that is exactly what is called the ‘Logo-centralism’.

Liberal Arts today has a very different face. You cannot hope to go far without a proper training in one or the other fields along with your specialization. The whole field of AI, or Artificial Intelligence and Computer Science has to do so much with syntax and grammar of natural languages to come out with new products. Behind the best search engines like Google or Outlook or Safari, there are generations of research in Semantics, Lexicon and Syntax. The change is not only in realizing the power of language, but also in understanding how every discipline in Liberal Arts is tied up almost invisibly with the other discipline. The ease of moving over from one area to another makes our challenges of study much more interesting.

So, welcome to the world that is Free, Liberal, Resilient and Compassionate – the basic values that would take us to greater heights. Welcome to Liberal Arts!

Amity School of Liberal Arts