Understanding a Design-led Liberal Arts Education
There is much interest (and some confusion!) in a modern liberal arts curriculum at education institutions across the world. At its core, a liberal arts education aims to develop well-rounded individuals with knowledge of a wide range of subjects, and with an understanding of a range of transferable skills. The inter-connected world and the need for lifelong learning requires, it is suggested, the tools provided by a liberal arts curriculum.
The confusion arises from conflating the terms “Liberal”, “Liberalism” and “Liberal Arts”. The three terms have a common root in the word “liberal”, with its origins in the Latin liber (free man) and liberalis (worthy of a free person). However, that is where the similarity ends.
Being a “Liberal” means being willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own, being open to new ideas.
“Liberalism” is a belief in freedom and equal rights that was propagated by John Locke and Montesquieu, amongst others, and is a political philosophy based on ideas of liberty and equality.
The “Liberal Arts” (Latin: artes liberales) are those subjects or skills that in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free person to know to take an active part in civic life. In Ancient Greece, these included participating in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were the core liberal arts (the trivium), while arithmetic, geometry, the theory of music, and astronomy also played a part in education (the quadrivium).
An Education in the Liberal Arts
An education in the Liberal Arts has evolved in the modern age and it makes students think about questions that crossed subject boundaries, and encourages them to use critical tools from the humanities, the social and natural sciences, and fine arts to address these questions. A liberal arts degree allows students to study a wide range of subjects and to create an inter-disciplinary pathway through the degree.
While India’s traditional higher education system effectively prepared a cadre of leaders for the post-colonial period, the challenges facing today’s India require world-class universities for its leaders and far more education for a much larger proportion of its people. World class universities are those that offer (1) excellence in the education of their students; (2) research, development and dissemination of knowledge; and (3) activities that contribute to the cultural, scientific, and civic life of society.
Excellent education requires that students not only study and learn the specific content of the areas of their major interest, but also study ideas that influenced those areas as well as the cultures of the world that form the context for all knowledge. It is not enough for students to read texts and write examination papers that repeat what they read; students must develop through their university courses the habits of mind that enable them to succeed.
Design Thinking and Design Education
Curriculum planning has always had a role for design thinking in the art and craft curriculum. The justification has been mainly on psychological and on individualistic grounds. Creating or making something is of great educational significance. It gives students pride and confidence in their own achievement; it develops gross and fine motor skills; and it develops imagination and expressive skills. The process of craft and the artisan lifestyle, however, are played down in education. The skills and training of craft as a vocation, or as manual training, or as preparation for work, or as a toolkit for everyday life, are neglected.
There are traditions, dating back many centuries to the beginning of the Renaissance, that distinguish between ‘form’ and ‘function’ and between ‘aesthetic’ and ‘utilitarian’ aspects to art and craft. Some ‘crafts’ were regarded as purely utilitarian (for example, leather work, wood work, textiles), while others were more aesthetic and pleasing to the senses (such as painting, drawing, sculpture). The former was functional, while the latter gave opportunity for imagination, self-expression and intellectual stimulation. The mechanical and industrial developments of technology also contributed to wiping out many forms of craft.
Design thinking within the broader education system, therefore, took two distinct routes. Either the activities were for poorly-regarded vocational or household skills (carpentry for boys and sewing for girls), or they were for leisure and creative expression through the fine arts.
The last few years have seen three developments that require us to re-examine the way education perceives design and the arts and crafts. Firstly, there has been a revival of traditional handicrafts, in form and in function. Secondly, pluralism has emerged and highlighted that, in many cultures, there is no distinction the aesthetic and functional dimensions of design. Thirdly, educational thought has recognised that young children and adults have multiple intelligences and diverse learning styles, and this diversity is best addressed through diversity in forms of expression, which is best provided through design education.
A recent report by the British Council on The Future of Design Education in India, makes the case for a design-led liberal arts curriculum, stating:
“The middle class is critically aware that education is the only means to meet their aspirations for formal jobs, home ownership, and economic security. The rise of middle class in India has been a phenomenon driving the overall economic growth and consumption in India. A large section of the Indian population is upwardly mobile and moving from lower income category to middle class, from middle class to upper middle class and so on. The size of the middle class is expected to be more than one billion by 2025. Given the positive demographics, rising awareness about the importance of education, openness to explore and pursue alternate careers and the propensity to spend more on higher education, the design education sector in India will be extremely attractive in the coming years.
Moving beyond the limited scope of design graduates being employed as designers in consultancies, companies and organizations, there is a world of opportunities opening up for designers to work in functions, like marketing, business strategy, innovation, human resource management and so on. These new opportunities have become possible because of the implicit nature of design process that all design graduates master through their respective programmes.”
Schools Need a Formal Interdisciplinary Design Curriculum
The need for a design-led liberal arts curriculum is not important only at the university level. Formal education in design, which would include the curriculum, examinations systems and resource materials, provides children with an excellent opportunity to increase their academic success and develop important skills.
There are at least five important reasons to encourage design education in schools.
Constructivist philosophy urges us to root the learning of children in their experiences. The feel, colour, texture, shape and other characteristics of materials and objects around them stimulate even the youngest children. Art and craft activities are designed to engage children with these properties of materials. The benefits can be interdisciplinary. It is easy to build concept lines that take children progressively from shapes, colours, objects and materials to the complexities of atomic theory.
Cognitive development and stimulation
Art and craft have been linked to advanced cognitive development in children, including language and motor skills. Neural research has shown that brain scans indicate that all parts of the cerebral cortex are active while musicians are playing.
Students who take art classes develop an increased capacity to learn because they expand their learning styles beyond linguistic and mathematical reasoning in their traditional classes. This is supported by education philosophy (Multiple Intelligences) as well as results on standardised tests. Many students involved in art and craft classes perform better in school than those who were not exposed to art education.
Art and craft education lead to three major gains that are lifelong. Cultural linkages and a sense of identity are created by an education in the arts. Furthermore, several job skills such as problem solving, creative thinking, an ability to communicate symbolically and general communication are part of the fabric of an art and craft education. Finally, students pick up important life skills from their education in art and craft.
The global movement towards sustainable living and the green agenda have brought back craft that dominated rural India into the mainstream of political and social life in urban areas. Children can develop the values of voluntarism in handwork, value education and ten-finger education through immersion in the artisan lifestyle. Pilot projects have been conducted where teacher status has been given to artisan trainers, and school children learnt basic crafts through an artisan-centred participative process.
Author: Shashank Vira
The author is a partner at The Hearth Education Advisors, a specialised advisory firm focussed on improving the delivery of education.