Liberal Arts Studies at Ashoka University – Q & A With Saikat Majumdar, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Ashoka University

Saikat Majumdar is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Ashoka University. He is the author of a book on liberal arts education, College: Pathways of Possibility (2018), a book of literary criticism, Prose of the World, and three novels, most recently, The Scent of God (2019), Silverfish (2007), and the widely acclaimed The Firebird (2015). With AarthiVadde from Duke University, he has co-edited a collection of essays, The Critic as Amateur (2019).


Professor Majumdar was educated in India and the US. He taught for several years at Stanford University and was named a Fellow at the Newhouse Center for the Humanities at Wellesley College. He writes regularly on higher education, arts and literature for Times Higher Education, Hindu, and Outlook, including a biweekly column on college, campus, and academic life, Cheat Sheet, on


Baishali Mukherjee of got in touch with Prof. Majumdar to know about the prospects of liberal arts studies at Ashoka University, one of the top liberal arts colleges in India.


A selected excerpt of the interview –


When did you join Ashoka University? Why?


I first came to Ashoka as a visiting professor in 2015, and joined on a permanent basis in 2016. I was looking for a suitable opportunity to return to India for some years; as a writer, living closer to the Indian reality was important to me. Ashoka was perfect – it offered the freedom, quality and the resources of an American liberal arts college in an Indian setting. Plus, there was the great opportunity to shape a creative writing department, possibly the first in an Indian university.


What is your opinion about Liberal Arts curricula at Ashoka University? What programs are available in liberal arts?


The term “the liberal arts” is an anachronism. It comes from the days before the full specialization and professionalization of knowledge, and the separation of the sciences into a fundamentally different space. That was a time when mathematics was one of the “arts” as much as music. “Arts” stood for the wide gamut of disciplines pretty much how “philosophy” does for all in the phrase “Doctor of Philosophy” (Ph.D.)


But while philosophy has gradually become fragmented into various natural and social disciplines, the liberal arts still continue to be the larger name for the arts and sciences that are not linked to training for specific professions. While the “arts” really mean nothing specific, “liberal” certainly does – the liberal is that which is not professional.


In today’s context, it is more appropriate to speak of a liberal arts education than a liberal arts subject. There is really nothing called a liberal arts subject; any subject can be taught as one. A liberal arts education, on the other hand, is a very distinctive thing. A liberal arts education is defined by its difference from professional education, which prepares the student for a specific career—medicine, engineering, journalism, business administration, or any other particular profession.


This is the principle behind Ashoka – to offer the entire range of the fundamental arts and sciences, both at the undergraduate and the research level, but not to have professional programs. A liberal arts education entails combines depth with range, so Ashoka students, no matter what their major, must take a range of courses that foreground methodologies and archives from the humanities, the social and the natural sciences.


Why do you think today’s youth should opt for a liberal arts program at Ashoka? What are the career scopes?


I have elaborated on liberal arts education and the wide range of career possibilities that it opens up in my book, College: Pathways of Possibility. The ideal liberal arts graduate is a T-shaped individual. The expert in a single subject, the product of traditional undergraduate education, is an ‘I-shaped’ person, one who embodies pure depth, or vertical expertise in a single discipline. The T-shaped individual, on the other hand, comes out of a college education that combines vertical with horizontal expertise—depth along with breadth or range. The vertical line of the T stands for depth in one’s direction of specialization.


The horizontal bar stands for the breadth of knowledge in a number of fields and domains. A dedicated curriculum of general education, followed by disciplinary expertise goes a long way in preparing this kind of individual who is the ideal employee in the 21st century where the nature of jobs are fast-changing, where people do not remain in the same career all their lives, and where Artificial Intelligence will turn many professional and vocational skills useless.


In a world where knowledge is constantly evolving at a lightning pace, the pointed question has become whether the college should have a conventional end-point. And even if it should, whether that point should come so early in life and close off the option of renewing education for the rest of it. It is going to be increasingly difficult for a one-time college education to prepare a student for the long trajectory of professional life that follows college, one that looks more and more fragmented in comparison with the single and linear career trajectories of the past.


We now live in a world where it is impossible to predict what specific job markets will look like even in two or four years at a time. And yet that’s the pitch one hears from the vocational majors—that they will get you a job. However, not only particular jobs, but the larger professional careers that frame them are now highly changeable and require a constant updating of skill and sensibility; to say nothing of the fact that now more than ever before, people are switching career trajectories entirely, or eagerly seeking to do so.


What is the faculty profile at the university?


Ashoka seeks to combine the teaching strengths of a liberal arts college with the research strengths of a research university. This has drawn faculty with extensive research and publication credits to the university. Faculty in History, Political science, Economics, English and Creative Writing, and International Relations are especially strong. The natural sciences are relatively younger here but Physics already has some well-known academics, and the other fields are also picking up.


How is the liberal arts program at Ashoka different from other Indian Universities?


The universities set up in India by the British in the 19th century were nothing like the centers of higher learning that had existed in Western Europe for centuries. ‘The first universities set up in the 19th century in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras were primarily established for conducting examinations and awarding degrees, and not for undertaking research or even teaching. So if the great public universities in India are routinely blamed for their lack of innovation, pedagogic vitality, and research productivity, such inadequacies have much deeper roots than the general underdevelopment of the nation; they are specifically traceable to the original British colonial structure, which independent India has done little to change.


Under this system, education is simply seen as the consumption of knowledge. Exams test how you well you consumed it. In serving their administrative goal, the British left out the other major function of universities, already well-established in the 19th century by Wilhelm von Humboldt at the University of Berlin – that of the production of new knowledge. It is no surprise that the clerical model of the colonial university in India rarely encourages the production of new knowledge or questions by its passivized student body.


Ashoka is one of the first attempts in India to depart from this antiquated, colonial model of higher education. Even though all the humanities, social and natural sciences are well-entrenched in Indian universities, a liberal arts education system, which combines a major (depth) with a broad general education (range) is unknown here. So is the culture of research at the undergraduate level, which is the best way to give students control and responsibility of their own learning process, an experience that will stay with them long after they leave college.


What is the admission process to join the programs? What are the eligibility criteria and cut off marks?


It is a holistic evaluation process, which takes into consideration grades/marks, scores on aptitude tests, essays and other applications materials, on the spot-tests, interviews, etc. The idea is not merely to choose the student who has excelled in traditional examinations, but to choose people who are truly creative and have new things to offer, as well as creating an interesting and diverse student body.


Any existing student/faculty exchange program at the University with Indian or international institutions?


Yes, there are many. Wellesley College, Universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, UC Berkeley, Sciences Po, Kings College, etc. Many of these are listed on the university website.


Anything else you want to share?


Ashoka has made a high-quality international education available in India. The model is more American than British/European, tailored to Indian conditions and cultural contexts. As faculty, it is tremendously satisfying to be here. I’m part of a truly innovative, global academic community right here in the Delhi-NCR area. I hope there will be more institutions like Ashoka in India in the years to come.


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