In Favour Of Unlearning: How Literature Becomes A Platform To Develop Critical Thinking

A growing awareness among students and faculties about the importance of liberal arts is a positive trend

In Favour Of Unlearning: How Literature Becomes A Platform To Develop Critical Thinking

“This is a battle; this is a war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls. Armies of Academics going forward measuring poetry”

These words of John Keating, the English teacher of reputed Welton school in Dead Poets Society, a 1989 film directed by Peter Weir, resonate to our times whenever the necessities of liberal arts and humanities are pitted against profit-driven, market-oriented management and engineering studies. 

In the film, as Keating asks his students to tear apart an essay titled Understanding Poetry for its diktats to quantitively measure the human emotions that shape the poetries, a new wave of empathy and sensibility starts flowing through the hearts of vibrant teenagers—till then occupied by the hegemonic disciplines.

The Welton Academy, known for its contribution to the armies of doctors, bankers, engineers and management professionals, might be fictional; but it exists across the globe in different forms and names. In India, the IITs (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIMs (Indian Institute of Management) appear to be the most-sought-for institutes. But why is there such a rush to get into these places? 

According to the Indian Skills Report 2021, the employability of engineers is still the highest, standing at 46.8 per cent followed by MBAs at 46.6 per cent. Though there is a decline in the employability of the students since 2019 when it used to be 47.4 per cent, engineering and management students still lead the trail. However, if overall employability is concerned, only 45.9 per cent of graduates are found to have the required skills that are a must for hiring.

Against this backdrop, one of the suggestions of the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020—to emphasise on liberal arts—has been mostly welcomed by scholars. As per the draft NEP, “the purpose of a liberal arts education is not simply to prepare for one’s first job, but also for one’s second job, third job and beyond. With the coming fourth industrial revolution and the rapidly changing employment landscape, a liberal arts education is more important and useful for one’s employment than ever before.”  

As per a 2017 report by Dell Technologies, 85 per cent of the jobs in 2030 have not been invented yet. So, the surge in liberal arts schools may also lead to the creation of new jobs. However, the question remains, how do literature, poetry, history and other social science subjects help in shaping the lives of engineering and management students? Diane F. Halpernn, the former president of the American Psychological Association, noted in 2010 that “the enhancement of critical and creative thinking, at the postsecondary level, is still more of a desirable vision than an empirical outcome.”

Literature offers a great platform to imagine and think about social realities. It is rooted in cultural and historical contexts, allowing students to have a critical perspective on these issues.

Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, even said that the combination of knowledge and empathy that stem from liberal arts is necessary to prepare one for good communication skills.

Developing Critical Thoughts

The relevance of liberal arts, nevertheless, stands beyond the ambit of employability and it encourages students to adopt critical thinking. Nazia Akhtar, a faculty of literature at the International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT), Hyderabad, says: “The courses in literature and other arts enable and train students to exercise their imaginations and cultivate subjective ways of thinking about the world.”


Literature also offers a great platform to imagine and think about social realities. It is rooted in cultural and historical contexts, allowing students to develop their skills in thinking about these things and have a critical perspective on them, which will stand them in good stead in the long run, irrespective of whether they immediately step out into the world as young IT professionals, pursue research careers, or become entrepreneurs, she adds.

The study of liberal arts is necessary for engineering students majorly for two reasons. “Firstly, these students, as they start preparing from very early days, they miss out on the arts subjects in their schools. And during their technical training they don’t get the chance to unlearn the hegemonic cultural influences acquired from the society,” says Dickens Leonard, a faculty of literature at IIT, Delhi.  

So, unlearning becomes necessary for most of them. “The second important component is the development of critical thinking. In their second year, the undergraduate students choose courses from literature, economics, philosophy and psychology to build up their required social knowledge,” he adds.

Soon, the IITs will make one vernacular language and critical thinking course compulsory for the first-year students keeping the spirits of NEP 2020 in mind. Leonard says, “For the last 10 years, the whole idea of technical education across the world has changed and in the coming decade, it will transform further,” says the IIT faculty.  

The innovations stemming from technological studies definitely have social goals. “If one has to think of them in terms of application, a liberal arts education allows us a glimpse into the human condition. Courses in disciplines such as literature and history are meant to equip the engineers and doctors in market-driven education and economies with a critical perspective and an ability to communicate and think deeply about that very human condition,” says Akhtar.


Ajay Saini who teaches the paper titled Rural India and Planning for Development in IIT Delhi emphasises on the significance of such courses. “The course exposes the students to the state of rural India. It helps them develop a holistic understanding of the issues that face rural India and the communities that inhabit it,” says Saini.  

These theoretical knowledge and analytical skills, he adds, help them analyse the trajectory of development and its social and environmental outcomes with a special focus on the disadvantaged and marginalised sections of society.

“Courses in disciplines such as literature and history are meant to equip the engineers and doctors in market-driven education and economies with a critical perspective”

Interestingly, Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts (SSLA) which offers both major and minor courses in Business Studies and Sciences, gives the degrees of Bachelor of Arts (Liberal Arts) Honours and Bachelor of Science (Liberal Arts) Honours. “The importance of this nomenclature is rooted in the fact that students at SSLA engage with deeper knowledge in their respective majors and minors,” says Shweta Sinha Deshpande, the director of SSLA.  

Emphasising on the values of inter-disciplinary knowledge, Deshpande adds, “This helps them in imbibing holistic and interdisciplinary knowledge and skill sets. They become better problem solvers; they gather core transferable skills from the diverse subjects they study; and develop critical thinking.”  

Suraj Saw, who teaches English to the management and engineering students at Galgotias University, however, notes the importance of soft skills. “I teach them English— Communicative English and Functional English—for specific purpose. These courses include contents related to soft skills, grammar, basic theories of communication etc. Such courses help students in developing their soft skills which is the demand for professionals of management, engineering and science,” Saw adds.  


Liberal Arts: An Excess?

However, there are several students in all of these institutes who consider it as something ‘excess’ and waste of time due to the prevalent hierarchy of subjects. “There are certainly people who think it’s a waste of time. A basic hierarchy of knowledge has rendered theoretical or philosophical forms of knowledge a luxury as well as a waste of time perceived to be meant for a privileged few,” says Akhtar, the author of Bibi’s Room: Hyderababadi Women and Twentieth Century Urdu Prose. In an increasingly market-oriented economy, she notes that those who come to learn liberal arts mostly belong to the privileged background.  

“Others do not see what it adds to their CVs or skills, and so we have to make pointed connections between, say, learning how to interpret a creative text and learning how to make sense of the world as a text and not take language or narrative at face value,” adds Akhtar.  

Saw also emphasises on the ‘extra burden’ that students think of such courses. “Most of the time students take courses on Communication as an extra burden. They fail to understand that soft skills are the gateway to success without which the hard skills lose their significance,” adds Saw who earlier used to teach at Amity University, Jharkhand.  

Deshpande, the director of SSLA, nevertheless is of the opinion that their students rarely consider it as ‘excess’. “Rather than describing it as ‘excess’, the students create very well thought of combinations for themselves which cater both to their personal as well as professional growth,” she says.  


Notably, a study by the Ministry of Education recently found that between 2012 and 2022, the percentage of students opting for arts after class 10 has increased from 31 per cent to 40 per cent. A 2019 study by the Ministry of Human Resource Development titled All India Survey on Higher Education, notes that 93.49 lakh student got enrolled in arts courses at the undergraduate level making it the most popular choice. According to the survey, engineering and technology seem to be the fourth most popular choice, enrolling 38.52 lakh students in the 2018-19 session.  

An Uptick in the Trend?

So, is it a new trend where students’ interests in arts are growing? Deshpande says, “It seems that there is a growing awareness among people about liberal arts. The National Education Policy talks about interdisciplinary learning and the significance of liberal arts. Whether you look at the India Skills Report 2021 or the World Economic Forum Report 2020, the world is affirming the importance of the core skills that a liberal arts education develops.”  

“Most of the times, students take courses on Communication as an extra burden. They fail to understand that soft skills are the gateway to success without which the hard skills lose their significance”

Saini even takes note of this emergent trend and says, “When I first offered this course in 2019, around 25 students enrolled in it. But around 200 students expressed their interest in taking this course the very next semester. Since then, I had to lift the cap multiple times so that more students can be enrolled.”  

However, he also points out at the challenges and adds, “I do feel that since these students had a very limited interface with humanities and social sciences disciplines, the course coordinator has to put a lot of effort into teaching. One cannot assume that all the students would know the basic concepts such as caste, class, tribe, equity, and so on.”  

Leonard thinks that the structural changes in the entrance examinations of IITs and medical colleges also could be helpful to assess their critical knowledge. “Around 15 marks could be reserved to assess their knowledge of common histories, constitutional knowledge, etc,” he says.  

In the Dead Poets Society when Keating tried the unorthodox methods of teaching to train people in critical thinking, he was punished. Neither the preparatory school like Welton Academy nor the elite parents of the students could accept the romance of sitting at a cave in the riverside to recite the poetry. They were there to participate in the quintessential rat race. Will our future generations be allowed to celebrate the criticality, against the grains of hegemonising knowledge economy?  

We must remember that Galileo’s father wanted him to learn medicine in the 16th century. He chose mathematics. Choices are not easy to be made—mostly when society says—it’s the economy, stupid.

(This appeared in the print as 'In Favour Of Unlearning')

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