Liberal arts is becoming a preferred choice for undergraduate students, world over. Following the trend set by the US— which houses many renowned universities, both private and public, known for their liberal arts programmes—India is now catching up too. Ashoka University and Flame University are pioneer institutes in the country, which offer four-year undergraduate programmes in liberal arts in the same spirit as the ones offered in the US.
As the name suggests, liberal arts offers students the independence to choose the subjects they would like to study from arts, social sciences, physical sciences and mathematics. Irrespective of the subject the students select, the programme prepares them to think critically and become proficient in problem solving and logical reasoning.
A brief history of liberal arts
Going back to the ancient Greco-Roman world, liberal arts was the name given to the education that was essential for a free person or someone worthy of being a free person. This education equipped the person to take on civic responsibilities. Back then, it had three subjects— grammar, logic and rhetoric. By the Medieval Ages, two more subjects were added— philosophy and theology. The aim of this liberating education was to develop conscientious, knowledgeable and ethical people.
Human resource professionals are responsible for people business in an organization. Therefore, knowledge of logic, critical thinking, oral and written communication helps them perform their jobs better. Moreover, HR employees require to be persuasive, solve problems and constantly engage meaningfully with others in the organisation.
In the past, if there were about a hundred positions that required to be filled up by HR trainees, there would have been about ten from liberal arts background
HRKatha spoke to senior HR professional, Rishi Tewari, cluster director, Hilton, and enquired whether he felt liberal arts students are equipped to become HR professionals.
“Liberal arts is not a subject in itself, but a group of subjects put together for a student to select from. Whether a candidate from this programme is suitable for an HR role depends on the subject concentration. For instance, someone studying Greek philosophy, English literature and theatre cannot be picked up for an HR role,” answers Tiwari
Apparently, colleges such as XLRI and others that offer a master’s in HR, have designed their courses to incorporate the core competencies required by HR professionals, such as organisational behaviour, industrial sociology, people psychology, macro-economics, business studies and others. These courses have been curated by taking out subjects from the bouquet offered by liberal arts to equip a person to become an expert in this field.
Rahul Sinha, HR head, Pidilite Industries, says, “In the past, if there were about a hundred positions that required to be filled up by HR trainees, there would have been about ten from liberal arts background. This number has gone up to fifteen in recent times. While it may seem like a 50 per cent increase from the old data, it is a very small representation when you think of the overall number.”
Liberal arts is not a subject in itself, but a group of subjects put together for a student to select from. Whether a candidate from this programme is suitable for an HR role depends on the subject concentration.
Fundamentally, HR executives must be high on empathy, good on curiosity and great at people connect. In addition, they have to be very strong in business concepts to be able to solve problems in all functions.
“Some of the great work done in HR points towards the fact that HR is not all about people, but also about business. The great HR scholar, Dave Ulrich, believes in the same theory. Relating this to the given context, I would say that liberal arts is not the qualification that equips a person with business acumen,” opines Tiwari.
“Having specialised in HR means they have had opportunities to do projects within this field, internships that have given them in-depth understanding and exposure. Largely, we hire interns from the lot that works with us on summer projects,” reasons Sinha.
Most employees who find their way to the HR function are postgraduates with specialisation in HR. But that is to change soon, as both Tiwari and Sinha are open to hiring from liberal arts colleges. The number may be small, yet a start has been made in that direction.