Correcting Course

Promising changes in Delhi University’s pedagogical philosophy

01 February, 2013

ON 24 DECEMBER 2012, Delhi University’s highest academic body, the Academic Council, passed a resolution to convert its existing three-year undergraduate degree into a four-year program, thereby taking perhaps the first strides towards adopting a broad inter-disciplinary pedagogy.

Under the current system, students, on the basis of their high school marks, secure admission to a particular discipline—Economics, Commerce, History and so on—which they then specialise in over the next three years. In the new, proposed structure, which will be somewhat similar to the American undergraduate system, students will be required to take a set of compulsory courses drawn from different fields, while they will also design their own degree by selecting courses of their choice.

Although the university is yet to release the details of the proposed structure, it has been announced that, during the first two years, there will be 11 compulsory foundation courses for all students. According to the Indian Express, these will include papers in science, history, environmental and public health, psychology, information technology, business and entrepreneurship, governance and citizenship, geography, social development and mathematics. Apart from these foundation courses, students will choose a major and a minor field of specialisation.

The registrar of the university, in a tersely worded press release, described this as a “historic decision”, one that was passed almost unanimously (80 to 6). It’s perhaps natural that the Academic Council would beat its own drum; but the council’s back-patting notwithstanding, this could indeed signal a landmark change in India’s one-track university system.

At present, Indian students are forced to choose their area of specialisation at an age when they have hardly been exposed to the merits and wonders of a variety of disciplines. As a result, they miss out on what is most valuable in a rich undergraduate education: the freedom to undertake an intellectual journey that explores a wealth of mutually illuminating approaches to understanding the world. Although facilitating the development of technical skills and capabilities, and acquiring specialised knowledge in one’s areas of interest are important, it is equally if not more important to go through the humbling and eye-opening process of academic discovery itself. A well-rounded inter-disciplinary education helps develop interpretative and creative thinking abilities, allowing one to draw from systems of knowledge in various disciplines. This fosters critical thinking, problem-solving and research abilities that are important not only in any professional field, but also for responsible citizenship.

American universities have always had a far more liberal approach, wherein students are encouraged to dabble in different fields and gain broad knowledge across disciplines, before focusing on any one area of study. Some leading universities even engage in a periodic soul-searching exercise to assess whether their approach has in any manner deviated from the goal of imparting a truly liberal education.

Last year, Ken Auletta, a staff writer at the New Yorker, highlighted just such a deviation. In his article ‘Is Stanford too close to Silicon Valley’, he wrote, “Stanford’s entrepreneurial culture has also turned it into a place where many faculty and students have a gold-rush mentality and where the distinction between faculty and student may blur as, together, they seek both invention and fortune.”

Many students were essentially taking up admission to Stanford because of its proximity (physical as well as professional) to Silicon Valley; they dreamt of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg or Eric Schmidt. Auletta observed that almost a quarter of all undergraduate students at Stanford were engineering majors, as compared to four percent at Harvard and five at Yale. This, he notes, was acknowledged as a “weakness” by the university; in order to address it, the university commissioned a comprehensive review of its undergraduate education, the report of which was released in early 2012.

The report corroborated anecdotal evidence that there was cause for concern: “The long-term value of an education is to be found not merely in the accumulation of knowledge or skills but in the capacity to forge fresh connections between them … Yet we were struck by how little attention most departments and programs have given to cultivating this essential capacity … For all their extraordinary energy and range, many of the students we encountered lead curiously compartmentalized lives.” The report then went on to make a strong case for a more holistic liberal education: “By venturing beyond their specialized fields of study, students develop knowledge and skills that are different from, but complementary to, those emphasized in their majors ... They discover new possibilities for combining and creatively deploying their developing knowledge and skills, enabling them to transcend traditional fields and look beyond what is thought and taught today.”

The Indian university system, with its rigidly unidimensional curriculum structure, does even more to compartmentalise students within the bounds of their selected fields of study, allowing little opportunity to transcend traditional fields and develop cross-disciplinary linkages. Delhi University’s initiative to break this mould may be rudimentary, but it’s a much-needed step towards evolving our undergraduate education to a more liberally oriented system, one that fosters creativity, innovation, and cross-disciplinary fluency.

Anant Nath