Dear 21st century - an open letter from a liberal learner

14 May 2021 — Written by Arpit Chhikara

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Dear 21st century,

Let me introduce myself: I am a liberal learner, currently free from the pressures of rigid pedagogical learning. If there’s one thing you and I can agree upon, it would be that the past 20 years have been unpredictable. Not as unpredictable as the weather forecasts are but well beyond what my grandparents could have imagined. We went from expensive call prices to high-speed data transfer via optical fibres. From Bharat-3 engines, we’ve come to electric cars. Everything you wish to buy can be bought at your fingertips. No matter where you are, you can go to a virtual office. Infant mortality rates have rapidly declined and nuclear energy will soon become mainstream. Remember grandpa’s life where he cycled to his school and bought books from the neighbouring district? Well, I read on Kindle these days. My library moves with me. But why am I telling you this? To let you know what the 21st century has evolved into and the ways I am adapting to it. How? By pursuing liberal education.

Let me first define this term. Liberal, in a simplistic sense, means broad-minded and free-thinking. Combine it with education and what you get is a system of learning where students learn to think, question and challenge the norms. Okay. But what is it that makes liberal education different from what we presently have? Three major points, actually. Let me break them down.

Multi-disciplinary wisdom

First, the present system of school and college makes you focus on specialisation. Which is good in itself if you happen to pursue medicine, law or engineering. But there are plenty of people whose interests lie in different fields. People like me, you see. So, instead of learning only psychology, I study it along with literature and economics. Which gives me a multi-disciplinary outlook. Now you’ll say how can psychologists make use of literature? Carl Jung very well did. You may ask how psychology correlates with economics? Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for combining these two fields. In today’s fast growing world, we need people in the workforce to look at problems from various angles. If all that you have is a hammer, everything is a nail. So why not have multiple tools, or better put, skills?

Career readiness from the start

Second, a lot of school and college graduates are receiving the right training to become employable. The goal of education is two-fold. To make you curious and to enable you to make a living. Liberal education does exactly this. How does this happen? I’ll tell you. We study our subjects - majors and minors. Parallelly, we acquire universal skills such as public speaking, writing, non-violent communication and critical thinking. Plus, while studying, my peers and I also work at internships. This gives us a chance to test our classroom knowledge in real-world scenarios. You could say that a lot of college students do internships during college? That’s true. But how many young kids do you know who do the same while still being in school? In the liberal education domain, the motto is learning by doing. No matter the age.

Collaboration over competition

Third, the current model of success is zero-sum type. This means that if I have to succeed, someone else has to lose. Where does this mindset come from? It is an unintended consequence of the excessive competition we have created to secure admission and jobs. Healthy competition is good but excess of it corrodes the spirit of a student. On the other hand, I live in an environment where self-reflection and teamwork get prioritised over rat-racing. Self-reflection helps in being aware of your growth, obstacles and inner self. While teamwork makes you manage conflicts, follow a vision and learn from your peers. Both these skills, in a way, help a student focus on the inside. To become better than who you were a year ago. Contrast this to how comparison happens in traditional education between high and low achievers.

Need more proof of why you need me? Here’s more!

Even the latest National Education Policy has endorsed the multi-disciplinary approach to learning. But we still are far from leading students to be independent and creative. Why? Because a multitude of learners and their families find it hard to comprehend modern careers. So my point here is: when the nature of work in the 21st century is not the same as that of our previous generations, then why should the nature of our education remain the same?

When we examine pedagogy and heutagogy side by side, the former is a checklist method to encourage sameness while the latter is a learner-centric method to encourage uniqueness. I know people who tell animated stories on YouTube to the whole world from their own homes. I also know designers who build products based on a customer’s psychology. For such a diverse job market, liberal education is a more appropriate choice. Unless, you wish to specialise in a field you have no interest in. By the way, do you know who else does that? Insects. They have a very high capacity to mindlessly specialise. Humans can do better than that.

Yours truly,

A proud liberal learner

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