Part 1 of the Ashoka University story was about the enterprise of higher education, and what Ashoka’s doing differently from its peers. Part 2 breaks down how. Read Part I here.

“Is toothpaste solid or liquid? When you squish it, it flows. On the brush, it holds shape like a solid. What are all the states of matter that lie in between? This is how I explore the field of soft condensed matter physics with my class. Materials are a disruptive area of research, but largely ignored by traditional undergraduate courses in physics,” says Gautam Menon, a professor at Ashoka, India’s first private liberal arts university.

Menon spent over two decades teaching at hardcore scientific research institutions like Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Ashoka, with its liberal arts wrapper, isn’t exactly the laboratory that Menon is used to.

But it’s the kind he was seeking. “Science is liberal arts. There’s no confusion about that in my mind,” says Menon. Ashoka’s given Menon a launchpad to prove that there’s a scientific way of thinking about life, which isn’t stilted or boring. “It’s not just toothpaste,” he grins, “there’s also LED crystals, shampoos and detergent to explain.”

With the autonomy to design his own courses at Ashoka, Menon weds theoretical Physics with Biology, History and mathematical concepts. And this interplay of different disciplines isn’t limited to his ‘Properties of Matter’ class at Ashoka. Quite the contrary.

Ashoka’s short but impactful five years have brought the conversation on liberal arts to the mainstream. Its administration claims proudly to have stolen a march on older liberal arts bastions in Delhi like St Stephens College, Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). The traditional college system, says Chancellor Rudrangshu Mukherjee, is just preparation for an exam. “We wanted to break this mould. Students who are capable of thinking for themselves is what the job market requires.”

“History is not about dates, kings and empires. It’s about us. Once the students make that imaginative leap into the past, they can get a lot out of it. Not all students may become historians. But they will carry... tools of thoughts to understand their present better”

Aparna Vaidik, Ashoka University

Both in terms of content and form, Ashoka’s an outlier. It’s one of the few places in the country where one could major in political science and minor in Indian classical dance. But it isn’t just interdisciplinary for the sake of it. Ashoka wants to ground its graduates in critical thinking—from topics as diverse as 20th century Marxism to 18th century Urdu poetry to learning basic calculus, the three-year programme isn’t about choice, as much as it’s for exposure.

Ashoka’s promise comes at a complex, yet opportune time.

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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