If your child is unsure of what to do after 12th, consider Liberal Arts

This post is a work in progress, possibly incomplete, and might have some inaccuracies. If you have suggested additions improvements, please leave a comment.

A Liberal Arts degree, which in the west is one of the more common routes to higher education, is relatively new and mostly unknown in India. The defining aspect of most of Indian higher education is the early specialization—students choose a stream (Science, Commerce, Arts) after 10th, and a branch (Computer Engineering, Mechanical, English, Psychology) immediately after 12th. Liberal Arts colleges are springing up in India to fix this.

What is a Liberal Arts degree?

The idea is simple—students get admitted to the college after 12th not only without having to specify which branch they want to specialize in, but also without having to specify the “stream”. In the first year, they can choose to do any courses they find interesting out of a wide variety of courses from all the traditional streams, and more. Only after having spent the year sampling various subjects do they have to declare their specialization. This is their “major” and they spend the remaining 3 years focusing on that. And depending on the major, they can end up with a B.Sc., B.Com., or B.A. degree. In addition to their major, they can also declare 1 or 2 “minors”, which don’t have to be from the same stream. So, for example, a B.A. (Psychology) student could do a minor in Entrepreneurship, or Biology, and a B.Sc. (Computer Science ) student could do a double minor in Economics and Entrepreneurship.

Unlike traditional B.A., B.Sc., or B.Com. courses, most Liberal Arts colleges offer students the option of getting a 4-year degree, so they have enough time to explore multiple areas of study through the minors and electives.

Why Liberal Arts?

Liberal Arts degrees have two advantages over more conventional courses. First, if your child is unsure of what they want to do after 12th, then this is a great way to decide, as opposed to picking something that the parents like. Second, lots of people feel that in the fast changing world of the future, where AI is going to automate more and more tasks from traditional jobs, it is dangerous to be too specialized unless you’re one of the best at that. In other words, it’s fine to do a traditional engineering/medical degree from one of the top colleges, but if you can’t get into one of those, then a Liberal Arts degree better prepares you to succeed in an uncertain world. Engineering might be better for the short-term, Liberal Arts might be better for the long-term. One third of the CEOs of the 500 largest companies (Fortune 500) are Liberal Arts graduates.

Dheeraj Sanghi, professor at IIT-Kanpur, ex-dean at IIIT Delhi, director of PEC Chandigarh, JEE almost-topper, and someone who’s been closely studying the higher education system in India, says that if he was a student today and could choose to be in any college/degree in India, he would pick Liberal Arts in Ashoka.

Liberal Arts in India

Pretty much everybody agrees that the best liberal arts college in India is Ashoka (in Sonipat, near Delhi, est. 2014). Top class faculty, most with PhDs from some of the top universities in the world, great infrastructure, and a focus on what makes sense for a modern higher education degree.

The second best is probably FLAME (in Pune, est. 2015), Pune. I get the impression that FLAME seems to be rather strong in business and finance areas, and relatively weaker in the humanities areas (e.g. history), but still it is far better than most other places you could go to get a rounded education.

After Ashoka and FLAME, the choice is probably between Azim Premji University (in Bangalore, est. 2010), SSLA (Pune, est. 2004), and a recent entrant, Krea University (Sricity, near Chennai, est. 2018).

SSLA (Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts) is the oldest Liberal Arts college in India. They have the right vision, and the current director is a great person, but I get the feeling that they have challenges with faculty retention (and I suspect that the quality of faculty isn’t as top-notch as you’ll find in Ashoka, FLAME, Krea, and Azim Premji). And being a part of the sprawling Symbiosis empire comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Azim Premji, and Krea both have the potential of becoming at least as good as FLAME, but they are still very new, so there is the risk of teething troubles.

The other new colleges worth checking out might be Jindal (Sonipat, near Delhi), because their law college is quite good, so they might be able to do a good job of the Liberal Arts college, and Auronya (Puducherry), because Indira Parikh (ex dean IIM-Ahmedabad, and founder of FLAME) is involved.

Shiv Nadar University is another college I keep hearing about. They give a lot of flexibility to students in terms of the different electives, courses, and minors the students can take. However, it appears that they don’t have a Liberal Arts program, and students need to enroll in a specific stream/branch. (Someone please correct me if I’m mistaken.)

Here is a list of other colleges with a Liberal Arts or similar program which I haven’t yet evaluated. If you have opinions on any of these, please leave a comment below.

  • PDPU, Gujarat
  • Karnavati, Gandhinagar
  • NMIMS, Jyoti Dalal School of Liberal Arts
  • SRM, Amravati (AP)
  • Rabindra Bharati, Kolkata
  • DY Patil, Pune
  • MIT, Pune
  • Manav Rachna
  • Women only: SLE, Shri Shankarlal Sundarbai Shashun
  • SPPU (Pune University): new 3-year BA (Liberal Arts) program starting from 2019.
  • Normal/Traditional Arts colleges that have a good reputation: Madras Christian College, Christ University Bangalore, LSR (Women), TISS Bombay, St. Stephens Delhi, Loyola Chennai, St. Xaviers Bombay.

What about jobs?

What do students do after a Liberal Arts degree? What kind of jobs do they get?

Frankly, I don’t have an answer to that. Most of the Liberal Arts colleges in India are quite new and there isn’t much data about what the students end up doing afterwards, especially in the long-term (which is where liberal arts is supposed to shine). Many of them (60% for example in the case of Ashoka) end up going for further higher education, usually abroad. Some of the top companies are also recruiting these students from campus. Anecdotally, I know that a lot of these students are doing really interesting work afterwards.

But it would be safe to say that the answer to the question of “What to do after the degree?” is much less clear for Liberal Arts than for conventional degrees. This is a new frontier, and nobody knows the long-term value, so I would say this is a high-risk-high-reward situation. If your background isn’t privileged enough that you can handle some uncertainty for some years, I wouldn’t recommend this option. (Speaking of privilege, the fees at these colleges tend to be high, for example, approximately ₹10L per year at Ashoka. But most of them also have financial aid programs that can help in case someone can’t afford it.)

Next Steps

If your child is in 10th or 11th std, both Ashoka and FLAME have a short residential summer camp for 10th and 11th std students to get some exposure to what is Liberal Arts, the various subjects, the faculty, and the teaching styles. I would highly recommend it. Let your child experience what world-class teaching looks like. My son, who hated history as a subject until 10th came back a huge fan of history after doing Ashoka’s Young Scholar program, and it is now one of his favorite subjects. And he will be joining Ashoka this August. Details of these summer programs can be found here and here.

If your child is in 12th, and my description above sounds interesting, you should start applying. The application procedures of most of the schools I mentioned above starts in November-December, and continues in multiple rounds until the summer.

Improvements/Corrections welcome

This article is work in progress. If you see any mistakes, or have suggestions on how to improve it, please leave a comment below, or get in touch with me at navin@smriti.com

When thinking about God/Religion/Spirituality “truth,” isn’t important

Recently, I posted this on my Facebook page:

“Does God exist?” is a bad question.

“Do people who believe in God behave better or worse than those who don’t?” is a far more useful question, isn’t it?

This was a relatively shallow take on a much deeper article I’d read a few days earlier. Very quickly, my friends started poking and prodding at it in the comments, which made me realize that I wasn’t going to get away with a shallow take, and I would have to dive deeper to support the point I wanted to make (which was basically my take-away from the article).

The article itself is a bit heavy for me; I don’t have the appropriate Liberal Arts background, and I was unfamiliar with many of the terms used there (hermeneutics, intersubjectivity). But, I think I got the overall gist of the argument, which I’m reproducing here. (Knowledgeable people, if you find places where I’m mistaken, please post corrections in the comments below.)

I see this as a rationalist atheist’s guide to thinking about God/Religion/Spirituality. The basic idea, I think, is this:

Let us assume that science is right and the universe is fully driven by the principles of science, and with enough knowledge of all the universal laws and enough computation power, we could predict the results of all actions and behaviors. However, we don’t know all the universal laws, and even if we did, we certainly don’t, and will not have enough computational power to do the computations.

Human beings are very complex. And human societies are even more complex. In the absence of our ability to perfectly model either of those, what kinds of rules of behavior should a “scientific” or “rational” person formulate? Specifically, if we formulate certain rules of behavior for a person in society, can we predict the effect of those rules across long time-frames—over generations? (Spoiler: No, we can’t.)

Let’s approach this from a different angle.

There’s a survival-of-the-fittest evolution happening at tribal/societal level. Tribes/groups/societies that have certain beliefs and hence follow certain rules of behavior survive and thrive, and those that follow other rules die out. This process has all the key characteristics required for evolution: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene migration due to genetic admixture. Repeat this over long-enough time frames, and you can start thinking along these lines:

Old traditions that have survived long enough have important properties that are key to survival of the society as it exists today

This is true, even if you, as a rationalist thinker do not see the connection. Because, the connection is beyond your computation capabilities.

We can follow up that thought with this one:

Beliefs drive behavior. So, traditional beliefs, even if they’re objectively untrue, even if they’re provably false, have value in terms of the behaviors (rules) they’re driving, which can have important properties that are key to survival of the society as it exists today.

And thus, we reach

If a belief has survived in various different societies for thousands of years, it has value (in as much as it results in society as it exists today), even if the belief is provably false

Does this mean that we should uncritically accept all traditional beliefs and rules? Certainly not. There are things wrong with society as it exists today, which are driven by traditional beliefs and rules. But, these problems cannot be fixed by purely rational thought processes, because purely rational thought processes are not powerful enough to even model the problems, forget fix them.

There are lots of things wrong with lots of traditional beliefs. Also, many of them were responses to situations and problems that just don’t exist today because of modern science, medicine and technology. But I want us to acknowledge that there is a lot right with many of them in ways that are not obvious, and we need to re-view them with this new lens. For example, this thought process has helped me better appreciate the reason for homeopathy’s existence.

Anyway, here’s the original article that inspired this thought process. Good food for thought, if nothing else.

Planning your career after a bad JEE rank

JEE results are out today. 1% of all those who tried got a rank. 0.2% will probably get into a good IIT.

This is for the others, who did not. Remember these things:

  • A bad rank does not reflect on your capabilities or intellect. The system is screwed up. There is too much luck. Do not adjust your self-worth downwards just because you did not get into a top IIT
  • IIT isn’t the only path to success. The reason IITs have such a strong brand is because in the 70s/80s/90s, there were very limited options for smart-but-not-rich people in India. Today, the situation is different – we have other colleges that are also good; we have better jobs/roles/salaries in Indian industry; and it is now much easier to go abroad (for higher studies, or work) without an IIT-tag. Dheeraj Sanghi, who is arguably one of the most articulate experts on the state of IITs and engineering education in India, points out this list of alternatives to IITs.
  • Engineering isn’t the only way. Increasingly for students in India, non-engineering options are looking more and more interesting. Dheeraj Sanghi (same guy from the previous bullet point), has said that if he were to choose today, and had the choice of any college in India, including all the top IITs, he would choose to do liberal arts in Ashoka University. (Pune also has a couple of good liberal arts schools – FLAME and Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts.) See also this article of mine about “quitting engineering”.

Most importantly: Do not give up.

  • You worked hard for the last few years, and that hasn’t yielded the desired result. But don’t give up. Not succeeding in an entrance exam is just one play in a much, much larger game. Over the long-term (10+ years) continuous learning, continuous self-improvement, and hard work will beat ranking, college brand, and raw intellect¹ every time. Over the 25+ years in my career (in India and US; large companies and small; tech and non-tech) I have seen a number of IIT-ians go into mediocrity due to over-confidence and laziness, and a number of people from tier2/tier3 educational backgrounds succeed phenomenally (sometimes, this is in spite of not having the same raw intellect¹).

I also encourage 12th standard students to take a gap year, and consider going to the US for undergraduate studies (if you’re rich).

Footnote:

¹ Note when I say “raw intellect” here, I mean the specific kind of intellect that the JEE selects for – ability to quickly solve difficult math problems & puzzles, or speed of grasping complex math/engineering issues. There are of course many other types of intelligence, and even more types of capabilities that the JEE does not filter for; so I am definitely not implying that only people who clear the JEE are intelligent.