Illustration by Harshita Bandodkar
What is liberal education, and why should we have it at IIT Bombay?
This was considered by the Committee on the Liberal Arts, Sciences and Engineering (LASE) Program appointed for the purpose in April 2019. The multi-departmental Committee submitted its initial report in September 2019 and after several meetings and Institute-wide consultations, the Senate gave the go-ahead for this new undergraduate program this past April to start with 30 students from Autumn 2022. We outline the structure below.
“The liberal arts” are often confused with the humanities per se, but liberal education is actually a form of delivering a particular curriculum. It is in fact the core of American undergraduate education whether at MIT or Harvard or Stanford. Liberal education has the following two key attributes, both of which elements are missing from the IITs:
- Broad “foundational” exposure to several disciplines
- Choice of “major” field of study or “branch” in IIT Bombay terminology
Rogers’ Vision: Breadth Makes Better Engineers
But why should broad exposure to other disciplines including the humanities and social sciences form part of the undergraduate curriculum at an engineering institute? Consider MIT, established in 1861, whose founder William Barton Rogers was animated by three core principles: industrial society needs useful knowledge; this knowledge was best imparted through learning-by-doing, and professional education should be thoroughly integrated with a liberal education. As MIT’s Committee on Educational Survey (the so-called Lewis Report) observed in 1949:
“[Rogers] believed in introducing professional education at the undergraduate level, and in combining with it the basic elements of a liberal education. The development of technical proficiency was not enough; higher education ought to enable a man to take part effectively in what Rogers called “the humane culture of the community,” (MIT, 1949, p.8).”
Whereas contemporary Indian common sense fears that breadth of exposure leads somehow to dilettantism, the founder of MIT thought it was essential, (a view that was mirrored by the founders of the IITs). Indeed, Rogers feared that an emphasis on “useful knowledge” would mean that people would confuse professional education with mere vocational training. He wanted engineers who were at once rooted in their concrete situations but could bring their knowledge of abstract scientific principles to bear on concrete experience.
“Thus, Rogers believed strongly that the accumulation of facts about science and technology is secondary to the mastery of a scientific method of thinking (ibid., p.9, emphasis added).”
This ability to link abstract principles with concrete reality goes far beyond vocational training. To foster this ability, Rogers wanted to integrate both professional and liberal education into the undergraduate engineering curriculum. The breadth of exposure was not simply a virtue: it was good for engineering.
The Lewis Committee feared that by 1949, MIT had drifted away from its founding vision. Years of substantial post-war sponsored research meant MIT had become dangerously rigidified into precisely the vocational structure that Rogers wanted to avoid. They sought a “return to earlier ideals” which meant hard-coding liberal education into the professional undergraduate curriculum.
The liberal arts” are often confused with the humanities per se, but liberal education is actually a format of delivering a particular curriculum.
This philosophy continues to anchor MIT to this day: its admissions page proudly cites the Lewis Report as defining its educational philosophy.
This liberal-professional vision of undergraduate engineering education defined an American view (Akera & Seely, 2015). This, of course, was imported to India. It is, therefore, no surprise that we find an echo of Rogers’ vision in the Sarkar Committee of 1948 under its “General Principles in the Design of Under-Graduate Course of Study”:
“The course of study in an institution should hence to provide a combination of a fundamental scientific training with a broad human outlook which will afford the students the type of collegiate education endorsed by leading engineers — one which avoids on the one hand the narrowness common among students in technical colleges and, on the other, the superficiality and lack of purpose noticeable in many of those taking academic college courses, (Sarkar Committee Report, 1948, Appendix 1, §2, emphasis added).”
IIT Bombay’s LASE Program
To drive the point home, IIT Bombay’s LASE Committee cited the National Science Foundation data on the “baccalaureate origins of doctoral recipients” in science and engineering from 2005 to 2014. What was the nature of the undergraduate education (“baccalaureate origin”) received by those who pursued Phds in STEM disciplines in American universities? It turns out that specialised 4-year undergraduate colleges, so-called liberal arts colleges, produced almost as many STEM PhDs as MIT per capita at around 14% versus 16% for MIT (see table 1).
Clearly, something about the liberal education format works for science and engineering. The distinguished chemist Thomas Cech, himself a graduate of Grinnell College (number 7 on in the table) listed:
- Small classes
- Teaching focussed faculty
- Cross-training in other disciplines
- Writing skills in particular and communication in general
Why should broad exposure to other disciplines including the humanities and social sciences form part of the undergraduate curriculum at an engineering institute?
These are all attributes that the LASE Committee sought to bring to a UG program at IIT Bombay. This is to be done entirely in parallel with the existing B. Tech which will continue to evolve.
Like all B.Tech degrees, the LASE program will start in the second year after students have been through a common set of science courses in their first year. The difference is in the mode of entry. The LASE program will not appear as an option for those taking the JEE. Rather, it is an option available only to those who have already secured a seat at IIT Bombay in one of the existing branches. At the end of the first year, those interested in the program will apply for admission to the LASE program and go through an exam and interview process. At the outset, 30 students will be admitted to the program.
All 30 will go through five Foundation Courses that the Committee thought make up core areas where all UG students should have some minimal competence: Modern South Asian History, History of Science, Data and Society, Inequality and Society, and Reading and Writing Literature. With a hard cap of five courses a semester, students go deeply into each course with substantial writing and sometimes design-based assessments. Seminars in each semester integrate their learning; all students must do a final year project.
The balance of five courses in Year 2 is fully open electives: students can take any course from any department subject to prerequisites. The idea is for the student to explore in order to make an educated choice: what do I want to study?
Like all B.Tech degrees, the LASE program will start in earnest in the second year after students have been through a common set of science courses in their first year.
Choice is critical because it gives students ownership of their destinies. As opposed to the brutal sorting hat of the JEE where students buy the Institute label rather than the disciplinary content, in LASE students have time to shop around until the end of their second year before they choose a “branch.”
But rather than offer the standard menu, the Committee offered a smaller set of “preset concentrations” rather than regular branches. Thus, LASE students can choose to “major” in one of the following concentrations: Natural Sciences, Engineering Sciences, Social Sciences, or Art and Design, all leading to a B.S. degree. They can also choose to fully customize a concentration with faculty advisers; Physical Biology for instance. Faculty advising at every level will be enhanced, the corollary of increased choice.
The concentrations enhance student choice even while maintaining coherence. Each has a set of prerequisites, 4 or 5 courses that are compulsory for that concentration. After that, a student opting for the Natural Sciences, for instance, could take science courses across the Institute for the rest of her time at IIT Bombay; alternatively, she could choose to specialise in Physics. The Committee also designed some interdisciplinary specialisations within concentrations should students want to pursue that route: AI and EdTech in Engineering Sciences is one example (see Table 2).
Jobs and Higher Education
Anchored on broad foundations and sharpened with well-articulated concentrations, LASE students will be equipped for leadership and innovation in whichever field they choose. We have already seen how the liberal education model makes for successful PhDs in STEM. Further, our most pressing contemporary problems in India and the world are multidisciplinary: climate change, AI, robotics, inequality, poverty, pandemics. We will need both disciplinary foundations and interdisciplinary vision if we are to get to first base in solving them.
In the world of work, the skills needed in today’s workplace go well beyond the technical content. After an in-depth, multiyear study of what made their best managers, Google settled on 10 core attributes of which the only one concerned technical skills. Necessary but far from sufficient, technical excellence only gets you so far up the hierarchy. Developing a vision, being a wonderful coach, a good listener, an excellent communicator, were the core attributes of the best Google managers. Cross-training in different disciplines leads directly to this broader skill set.
Leadership and Innovation
To conclude, IIT Bombay is synonymous with excellence. In order to maintain that well-earned reputation and to catch up with the world’s best, we need to produce leaders in science and technology and social sciences and policy. Our Asian neighbours have realised the limitations of what the former president of Yale University Richard Levin calls “the traditional Asian approaches to curricula and pedagogy [which] may work well for training line engineers and mid-level government officials, but they are less suited to fostering leadership and innovation,” (Levin, 2010, p. 70). This is the aim of the LASE program at IIT Bombay: to combine rigour and vision to equip the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.
- Akera, Atsushi, and Bruce Seely. “A historical survey of the structural changes in the American system of engineering education.” International Perspectives on Engineering Education. Springer, Cham, 2015. 7-32.
- Cech, Thomas R. “Science at liberal arts colleges: A better education?.” Daedalus 128.1 (1999): 195-216.
- Levin, Richard C. “Top of the class: The rise of Asia’s universities.” Foreign Affairs (2010): 63-75.
- MIT, Report of the Committee on Educational Survey (“Lewis Report”), Cambridge, MA, MIT Press: 1949.