Both nations understand how to educate children the right way.

In my last column, I argued that Singapore and China, so often praised for their achievements in education, are terrible models, bad even at generating a creative and accountable business culture, and hopeless in forming the preconditions of stable democracy. Rejecting their guidance, however, does not mean that we should turn away from Asia for insight. The humanistic traditions of both Korea and India offer much that we should applaud.

Korea today is the only nation in the world, outside the U.S., that strongly promotes a liberal arts model of college and university education. So far from waning, this humanistic commitment has been strengthened recently by a reform that changed legal education from an undergraduate to a post-graduate course, meaning that law students in Korea, like their U.S. counterparts, must have a liberal arts background before embarking on the study of law. To some extent this trend reflects Korea’s intense admiration for American universities, as parents strive to send their children to the U.S. not only for college, but, increasingly, even for high school. The roots of Korea’s different path, however, are older and deeper, closely connected to ideas of national self-definition.

Beginning in the fourteenth century, Korea had a Confucian style of humanistic education, focusing on history, philosophy, and poetry. This system benefited only male elites, but it later became the basis for a renewed and more democratic commitment to the humanities. During the Japanese occupation, Confucian education was strongly repressed, along with the Korean language, and Koreans were limited to low-level vocational training. Illegal village schools, however—in some cases aided by U.S. missionaries—continued the Confucian vision, in a more democratic and inclusive form, open to women and to all classes. (Thus American influence, then and later, was seen as on balance pro-Korean and consistent with national pride.) Much later, when Korea took the world stage as an independent nation, it was a point of honor to reassert this tradition—in an aggressively democratized form that focused on equality, while also emphasizing values of human rights, critical thinking, and imagination.  

Korean universities vary widely in type and quality—partly because more than 70 percent are privately funded—but the norm in the best universities is that of a broad liberal arts education that encourages independence of mind. I’ve seen this for myself, and it’s very impressive. Less prestigious universities often focus on vocational and technical education, but at least the best universities are squarely in the liberal arts camp. If only more nations would associate their nationhood with poetry and philosophy, rather than only with increased GDP per capita.

What about India? India today tends strongly toward a focus on technical and vocational studies, and the dominant pedagogy of rote learning makes things worse. In her past, however, India has been home to some of the most creative forms of humanistic and interdisciplinary education, providing examples from which the entire world—and certainly India herself—can learn today. Ideas of democratic education flourished in many parts of India in many forms, but the greatest of India’s educators was certainly Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, but who also had world-class gifts as a composer, choreographer, visual artist, philosopher—and educational pioneer. Hating every school he had ever attended because he detested rote learning, Tagore created a school and, later, a university, that popularized a new norm of Socratic self-examination and cultivated imagination. Describing its aims, he said, “We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. … This education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed.”

Tagore’s Santiniketan school set out to change all that. (Tagore’s ideas have much in common with those of John Dewey, and it’s likely that Dewey knew about Tagore’s experiments.) Education at Santiniketan focused on critical thinking—Tagore described his own pedagogy as Socratic. The arts were woven throughout the curriculum. Particularly keen to empower women, he focused on dance as an avenue of expression. Among the most gifted of the student dancers was Amita Sen, mother of economist Amartya Sen (himself later a pupil in that school). She has written eloquently about the liberating effect of Tagore’s deeply emotional choreography on shame-imprisoned girls. Explicit themes of gender equality and social criticism were common in the dance dramas. Meanwhile, Tagore’s songs, which became famous all over India (he’s the author of the national anthems of both India and Bangladesh), emphasize ideas of dissent and independence that resonate to this day. Here’s one that is especially beloved, and which embodies well the school’s spirit (it is even better with the music, of course, so I wish I could produce my colleague Dipesh Chakrabarty to perform it for you):

If no one answers your call, then walk on alone.
Walk alone, walk alone, walk on alone.
If no one says a thing, oh you unlucky soul,
If faces are turned away, if all go on fearing—
Then opening up your heart,
You speak up what’s on your mind, you speak up alone.
If they all turn back, oh you unlucky soul,
If, at the time of taking the deep dark path, no one cares—
Then the thorns that are on the way,
Oh you, trampling those with bloodied feet, you tramp on alone.
If a lamp no one shows, oh you unlucky soul,
If in a rainstorm on a dark night they bolt their doors—
Then in the flame of thunder
Lighting your own ribs, go on burning alone.

Think of young children growing up on that song, and you’ll see a spirit of dissent and challenge that strengthens the backbone of India’s democracy even to the present day.

Meanwhile, at the university level, Tagore focused on interdisciplinary liberal education, something that really did not exist in India before that. He made it clear that his goal was the formation of intelligent critical world citizens. (The university’s name is Visva-Bharati, “All the World.”

For many years Tagore’s school and university were famous and beloved, defining norms of what education for the new nation should be—so much so that Jawaharlal Nehru sent his daughter Indira there, even though she spoke no Bengali. (It was the only happy time she ever had in school.) Today, however, the fashion for technical and pre-professional education has won out, and India differs from Singapore and China only in her firm commitment to freedom of speech and of the press, and thus her totally different surrounding political culture. How long, however, will that culture endure without the animating spirit of dissent and cultivated sympathy? Tagore’s university, now run by the state, has become like every other university; the school, rejected by ambitious parents, has become a museum of Tagoreana, while the glory of a parent is the admission of a child to one of the Institutes of Technology and Management.

It is time to call for a return of the humanistic values represented by Santiniketan, rightly seen by Tagore as essential bulwarks of a decent political culture—not just in India, but everywhere. Korea has shown that a nation can adhere to humanistic commitments while succeeding economically. (And why not, when economic success, like democratic stability, requires a cultivated imagination and a culture of accountability?) India is a glorious democracy, but it is unwise to assume that democratic traditions can thrive in the absence of education for democratic citizenship. No nation is so secure in its commitment to democracy that it can afford to gamble its future away by pursuing the false idols of rote learning and mere technical mastery. At any rate, if the U.S. is going to emulate Asia, let’s follow Tagore and open up our hearts, educating not for herdlike conformity, but for sympathy and reasoned argument.

Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She is the author of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

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