The landslide victory of the BJP in the Gujarat assembly elections of mid-December was hardly a surprise for pundits of contemporary history. All over the world the far right has been making dramatic political gains in recent years, usually by pitting majority populations against minorities as Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi did so successfully. While countries like the US and Israel are led by dyed-in-the-wool right-wingers George Bush and Ariel Sharon respectively, a host of governments in Europe, including Italy, Denmark, Portugal, Netherlands, Norway, are being driven by anti-minorities right-wing political parties.

Ironically, France - the country credited with bestowing humankind the slogan liberty, equality and fraternity - shocked the world last year when rabid right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen emerged - by virtue of his unprecedented success in preliminary elections - as the run off challenger to incumbent President Jacques Chirac. Fortunately, Le Pen, who rode a wave of anti-immigrant xenophobia, suffered a crushing defeat in the final election. But while the far right may have lost the battle in France, extremist political parties continue to gain ground.

Somewhat belatedly educationists and intellectuals are becoming increasingly aware that the resurgence of anti-humanist right-wing extremism is intimately connected with the global phenomenon of declining interest in liberal arts education. In the new information technology driven technocratic age, soft liberal arts subjects - literature, economics, sociology, history, psychology, etc - are increasingly being bypassed by students eager to absorb hard, utilitarian sciences to qualify as masters of the universe in the new infotech age.

Confronted with the phenomenon of the rising tide of right-wing extremism and the bewildering complexities of contemporary life in perhaps the most plural societies in the world, a growing number of the more cerebral within Indian academia are groping for new answers. Many are beginning to believe that revival of liberal arts education with its humanist traditions is the panacea for the tide of political extremism and religious fundamentalism sweeping the world and, closer to home, the subcontinent.

To understand the complex currents which are sweeping and shaping society, the study - and understanding - of soft liberal arts sciences such as economics, sociology, history, literature etc is vitally necessary. "I find that there is a great yearning among young people to learn about and understand the political and socio-economic issues which are affect-ing their lives. But obsolete syllabuses and examination systems are big stumbling blocks," says L.C. Jain, the Bangalore-based veteran Gandhian, former member of the Planning Commission and former Indian ambassador to South Africa.

Nor is the popular belief that students aren't interested in the liberal arts and have migrated en masse to the science and engineering streams sustainable. According to statistics from the Union ministry of human resource develop-ment, of the 8 million students enrolled for study programmes in 250 univer-sities and 12,300 colleges across the country at the beginning of the 2001-02 academic year, 42 percent (3.4 million) enrolled in liberal arts faculties followed by commerce (21 percent), science (20 percent) with the rest in professional faculties.

Yet, academic and social attitudes towards the study of liberal arts subjects tend to be casual and cavalier. "The study of the liberal arts is in decline because public opinion favours job-oriented subjects," says Fr. J.M. Dias, principal of the 133-year-old highly-rated St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. "Unless a degree caters to discernible market demand and is utilitarian, people are skeptical about it and tend to devalue it."

This perception of liberal arts studies being synonymous with academic dilettantism arouses the wrath of liberal arts academics. "A liberal arts education is necessary as it draws from old traditions eastern and western, for the cultivation of mind and speech," argues Surendra Munshi, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta. "It is becoming increasingly important for making sense of the fast changing world in which we live characterised by a surfeit of information, but paucity of insights."

This holistic interpretation of qualitative liberal arts education is endorsed by Ashish Nandy, the well-known social scientist and director of the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Developing Societies. "The essential purpose of a liberal arts education is to educate and equip people for life while making them aware of values. In the mad scramble for technical utilitarian expertise in sciences of all kinds, liberal arts education is regarded as being too general. The social consequence is that we produce mechanically-minded, robotic individuals unable to take decisions on crucial socio-economic issues. I have had the misfortune to meet numerous doctors, scientists and IT professionals who talk absolute nonsense when discussing subjects outside their spheres of specialisation," says Nandy.

This rising tide of opinion within academia that the sorry state of the nation with its myriad and seemingly intractable social and economic problems is linked directly to the precipitous decline and interest in liberal arts education is finding many takers. Academics are beginning to accept that xenophobia, narrow mindedness and growing religious intolerance are linked to the collective failure of liberal education to build a good and responsible citizenry. The directive of the 1986 National Policy on Education which articulated that an important objective of higher education is to provide people with opportunities to reflect on the critical social, economic, cultural, moral and spiritual issues facing humanity has remained a dead letter and has prompted anguished soul-searching among liberal arts educators.

"The main constraint we face is the annual examination system," says Fr. Sebastian Thekkedathu, principal of Bangalore's Christ College. "The examination system designed decades ago doesn't provide any incentive to teachers or students to research, innovate or interpret." Typically students mug up passages in the weeks before the final examination and regurgitate the information in their answer sheets. There is little emphasis on student-led research, or on continual learning through discussions, symposia, etc which could lead to greater learning, understanding and knowledge generation.

That curriculums and the examination system are obsolete is acknowledged even in the highest reaches of government in New Delhi. Four years ago, speaking at the UNESCO-sponsored World Conference on Higher Education held in Paris, Union HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi said: "There is also a programme for reforms in the examination system, and various experiments have been conducted to ensure that students are freed from the burden of annual examinations and are encouraged to continue to study throughout the entire period of study. Further thought is being given to broaden these experiments." Inevitably since then there is no discernible evidence of progress in that direction.

"The syllabus, unfortunately, has become a prescriptive document instead of an enabling one," says Anil Wilson, principal of Delhi's famous St. Stephen's College. "We are circumscribed by the tyranny of examinations to the extent that students are even advised to study particular chapters rather than a prescribed textbook. If a Shakespearean text is prescribed they will read only that one play and none other. Since the time the British established the practice of colleges following the syllabuses prescribed by universities, which also act as examining and degree awarding institutions, the system has remained substantially unchanged. Therefore there is very little college teachers can do in terms of curriculum development."

Though Wilson is inclined to blame the rigid higher education system which stifles teacher initiatives, some academics are not inclined to be as soft on the academic community. "The breed of committed teachers is dying out," says Ram Narain Mehra retired history professor of Lucknow University who currently serves on Jawaharlal Nehru University's expert committee for selection of professors. "Senior teachers have neither administrative nor moral control over their subordinates, and even heads of departments hesitate to take action against unionised erring teachers. These are disciplinary problems plaguing the teaching community and they are more pronounced within the community of arts teachers as science teachers, no matter how uninterested, still have to show up for practicals, demonstrations etc."

That the teachers' community which numbers two million across the country has badly let down the nation's 110 million students and society in general is commonly acknowledged. Protected by militant trade unions and kith and kinship ties to grassroot politicians, the great majority within the academic community are mere time servers, content to repeat obsolete syllabuses with mechanical monotony. This is particularly true of liberal arts teachers at the tertiary level. "The manner in which liberal arts subjects are taught leaves a lot to be desired. Professors stick to old methods and seldom make any attempt to innovate problem-oriented teaching," admits Fr. V. Joseph Xavier, principal of Chennai's reputed Loyola College.

Confronted with growing criticism of obsolete curriculums and the problem of societal devaluation of liberal arts degrees, some college managements have attempted to broaden the field of study in liberal arts to include subjects beyond the university-prescribed syllabus. For example in Bangalore, the well-known St. Joseph's College of Arts and Science has introduced 100-hour certificate programmes in peace studies, legal literacy, American studies, etc which are open to not just arts students, but also to students from science and commerce streams. Similar courses are also offered by Bangalore's Christ College which in a notable endeavour to provide holistic education has introduced study courses in spiritual development, empathy and responsiveness to the environment. But the managements of both these colleges admit that student interest in co-curricular programmes beyond the university examination system is minimal.

However all academics are not persuaded that supplementing or jazzing up dreary obsolete curricula by contemporising them is the appropriate solution. "Current events are frequently introduced into the syllabus by teachers even into subjects where they may not be directly relevant. Put off by the usual dreary routine of lecturing, some bright teachers attempt to enliven study courses by making syllabuses 'relevant' and/or 'fun' for students," says Sukanta Chaudhuri of Jadavpur University. "But I believe that traditional approaches which arouse and stimulate students to appreciate the depth and ramifications of liberal arts subjects work best. This does not preclude contemporising syllabuses. But the teachers' community should not encourage the attitude that it's important to study something only if it is utilitarian and concerns us in a very direct way."

But while the major share of the blame for the precipitous decline in standards of liberal arts education in post-independence India must be laid at the doors of teachers who cannot agree on curriculum and syllabus revision and who teach liberal arts subjects in a dull and routine manner, the student and parental communities are hardly blameless. A significant number of students who take to arts do so as the last resort, after failing to gain admission in science and professional study programmes. This influences the quality of their participation in lectures and classrooms and even in identifying their career interests. "Our final year BA class of 85 students was recently asked at a career counselling session about their postgraduation plans. Only ten students had thought about the subject," says a Bangalore-based political science student.

The drift and aimlessness which is a dominant characteristic of liberal arts students is reflected in the disinterest in discussions, debate, co-curricular activities and student interaction which is the very essence of a liberal arts education. "The intensity of co-curricular activity and student interaction twenty years ago was greater and of far superior quality," rues Jerome Nirmal Raj, professor of political science at St. Joseph's College of Arts and Science, Bangalore. "An important reason for that could be the precipitous decline in the reading habit among students."

The problem is compounded by over-anxious parents driven by consumerism and keen on pushing their children in vocational - albeit white collar - professional study programmes such as medicine, engineering and business management. Broad-based liberal arts education which isn't career specific is way down at the bottom of parental wish lists. "There was a lot of parental pressure on me to study science," says Anant Kamat, a Bangalore-based arts student, explaining why he chose science at the Plus Two stage before enrolling for an arts undergraduate degree. With subsidies for higher education being pared down, households which are unable to afford professional education tend to sign up their wards in an arts college, where fees are embarrassingly modest. Against this backdrop, given that arts faculties are the last choice of parents as well, there is little pressure being exerted on students, teachers or the education system to improve the quality of liberal arts education.

To their credit the managements of several top-rung liberal arts colleges have attempted to energise moribund university syllabuses by attempting to supplement prescribed course content with career-oriented study programmes (as recently recommended by the University Grants Commission) with the objective of making it more valuable to students and parents. "In Loyola College, our history students for example are offered elective subjects like museumology, tourism, travel or catering to make their education more career-oriented. Likewise, English language students can also study journalism, public speaking and other media courses," says Fr. Joseph Xavier principal of the college. Similarly in Christ College, Bangalore, combinations which include job-oriented subjects like communicative English and journalism are more popular than traditional combinations such as history, economics and political science.

Progressive educationists believe that this process of enriching plain vanilla liberal arts study programmes need to be taken further across the rigidly stratified higher education system. "Only if we diversify conventional liberal arts programmes will there be interest in the study of the arts. We have to permit integration of subjects from the science and commerce streams into liberal arts courses. For example, the study of languages and the humanities could be enriched by combining them with computer sciences," says V.N. Rajasekharan Pillai, director of the Bangalore-based National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC). Currently NAAC (est.1994) is in the process of assessing and grading every college across the country.

Within Indian industry where the stirrings of a revolt against narrowly specialised technocrats rising to apex-level general managements positions is being experienced, efforts to make arts education more career-oriented are receiving widespread approval. "In today's work environment there are ample opportunities for liberal arts graduates in the fields of corporate communications, customer care, media, advertising, graphic arts and languages," says Richa Pande, head of human resources at the Chennai-based Pentamedia Graphics Ltd. Likewise Shalu Mehrotra, a counsellor with the Mumbai-based Competitive Edge Education Pvt Ltd believes that opportunities for students with a liberal arts background to get jobs and rise within corporate hierarchies is far greater than what it was five years ago. "Soft and general management skills are increasingly being appreciated and valued in corporate India. This bodes well for liberal arts graduates," says Mehrotra.

However, purists within Indian academia express reservations about the dilution of liberal arts education by making it prematurely career-oriented. "The study of the liberal arts should not be overtaken by the expediency of careerism by which the whole education system is governed," says Fr. Beni Ekka, director of the Ranchi-based Xavier Institute of Social Service. "At the under-graduate level, there is a strong case for liberal arts education remaining general. Thereafter at the postgraduate level the emphasis should be to train arts students to work with people and organisations on real projects and in academics. For a long time students of the humanities didn't have employment opportunities except in the civil services. Now non-governmental organisations, successful cooperatives and a thriving agro and village industry have redefined the role of the liberal arts graduate."

According to L.C.Jain (quoted earlier) an important step that could be taken to improve the quality of arts education is to reduce the classroom teaching component of syllabuses and increase the space for self-learning as is the tradition in western academia. The examination system, he says, should be modified to provide for only 50 percent of marks being alloted to "testing the ignorance of students" through set questions, with the remaining 50 percent of marks being awarded on thorough self study of subjects or issues that appeal to students. "This to some extent could take care of the problem of arts students not knowing what area of study to pursue once they complete their undergraduate programme. It could also relieve the burden on teachers under the present system who are required to spoonfeed information to classrooms of 80-100 students as is common in many colleges."

Prof. Surendra Munshi of IIM-Calcutta agrees. "Liberal arts education has to be made relevant, not in the narrow utilitarian sense, but in the sense of broadening of students horizons and perspectives. We need not only competent technologists, but also capable social scientists and responsible citizens," says Munshi.

It is this quest for moulding responsible citizens that prompts some experts to suggest that even among science and commerce students there should be greater exposure to the liberal arts. Typically an engineering graduate will use his engineering degree for no more than five-10 years of his working life, after which it is the soft skills like ability to communicate effectively, get along with people, etc that will determine his success both as a manager and a citizen.

Social engineering is too important and complicated a task to be permitted to devolve upon the new tribe of techno-geeks. Far too many of them suffer from narrow tunnel vision and inadequate understanding of the nuances of the socio-economic issues which characterise perhaps the world's most pluralistic society. The resurgence of political and religious fundamentalism within the subcontinent is a timely wake up call to liberals within Indian society, and to lackadaisical intellectuals within academia in particular, to get their act together to halt the dangerous decline of liberal arts education. Their failure to read the writing on the wall could well set Indian society and the nation on the road to social implosion.