The Liberal Arts Go Global

May 20, 2019

For all the challenges to liberal arts education in the United States, it is fast on the rise around the world—a reminder of the vast power of what Wellesley offers.

I was thrilled to see this firsthand on my recent trip to India, where I spent time with some truly remarkable Wellesley alumnae and parents. My first stop was Ashoka University, a vibrant oasis of learning just outside Delhi. Established in 2014 by a group of prominent business leaders, Ashoka was designed to be India’s first private Ivy League–caliber liberal arts institution, an alternative to the elite technical institutes that have long dominated Indian higher education. Among its founders—and the only woman—is Harshbeena Sahney Zaveri ’82, vice chairman and managing director of NRB Bearings Limited.

The excitement in the air was palpable. As I talked to Ashoka faculty and students, as I listened to their stories, I felt that I was bearing witness to something profoundly important: the embrace of liberal arts education as a force to advance all sectors of a nation. And it wasn’t just on campus. Throughout my trip, I heard this again and again, expressed with great feeling.

Significantly, this excitement extends well beyond Ashoka. Elsewhere in India, FLAME University carries the liberal arts banner, hosting Wellesley students for study abroad on its Pune campus. More broadly, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Ghana are all countries where the liberal arts model is gaining traction.

What is driving this trend? Supporters point to a growing need for creative problem-solvers—innovators who can work and think across disciplines, communicate well, and operate effectively and ethically in fast-changing landscapes. These are among the aptitudes that a liberal arts education cultivates. (If any further proof were needed, it could be found in members of Wellesley’s Business Leadership Council—several of whom are from India. I was delighted to cross paths with the BLC at Ashoka as they wound up their own cultural tour.)

The fact that business leaders around the world have bet on the liberal arts model is compelling evidence of its vitality. Notably, many are themselves graduates of liberal arts institutions. They’ve seen the impact of liberal arts education in their own lives and careers, its power to respond to the world’s most urgent challenges.

Throughout my time in India, I was struck by just how much we agree on what these challenges are.

They include women’s right to safety, dignity, and equal opportunity. They include climate change and sustainability, especially as they relate to women and girls. (I had a chance to dive into this issue with a group of experts convened by Wellesley parent Vaishali Nigam Sinha, chief sustainability, responsibility, and communications officer for ReNew Power, India’s leading renewable energy company.) And they include global threats to democracy, a topic eloquently addressed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59 in her 2018 bestseller Fascism: A Warning.

Shortly before I left for India, the eminent writer Nayantara Pandit Sahgal ’47 was disinvited to a prestigious Indian literary event due to her public stands against rising intolerance and sectarian violence. Such controversy is nothing new to Sahgal, now in her 90s, who throughout her life has used her voice on behalf of women, freedom of expression, and democracy.

I was moved—though not surprised—to learn how Wellesley helped to shape the woman Sahgal became. In an essay collection published by the Wellesley College Club of Los Angeles, she reflected on how her college years imbued her with a sense of freedom. “It was a fatal discovery that entered into my very bones,” she wrote. “I knew that never in any circumstances, personal or national, whether in my capacity as student, or later as wife, mother, or citizen, would I let it go. The freedom to be was what life was all about.”

The freedom to be was what life was all about. Amid the dangers and uncertainties of our time, the liberal arts continue to show the way forward. History affirms our vision. The future demands that it grow.