From Kunshan to India: A Talk on Higher Education and a Personal Journey

November 20, 2018

When he was asked to speak in India about the changing landscape of higher education, Noah Pickus knew that he could combine this professional opportunity with a personal journey.

Robert Pickus in Lahore, Pakistan in 1950, with one of his journals under his arm. Courtesy of Noah Pickus

-By Eve Duffy

Pickus, associate provost at Duke and dean of undergraduate curricular affairs and faculty development at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China, had just celebrated in August 2018 the launch of the curriculum he helped develop at DKU. It combines traditional Western understandings of liberal arts education with a grounding in Asian traditions of learning.

Because of his experience, the College Board tapped Pickus to speak about new forms of global education to a gathering of emerging private-sector Indian universities. Until recently, Indian higher education has been dominated by state-funded schools.

At the same time, Pickus and his teenage daughter, Mira, hoped to retrace his father’s footsteps during the trip.

Noah’s father, Robert Pickus, a prominent pacifist who devoted his life to developing non-violent alternatives to war, had set out on foot from London in 1950 to travel through Israel, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan en route to India.

“My father was counter-cultural before there was a counter-culture,” the younger Pickus said. “He was a seeker.”

A page from the journal of Robert Pickus. Courtesy of Noah Pickus

In Indian civilization he saw deep and profound insights about living in the world that he believed a Westerner needed to understand. The senior Pickus meticulously documented his travels and reflections in a neat set of small black journals he bought in London.

Armed with his father’s notebooks, Noah Pickus and his daughter traveled to Varanasi, the holy city on the Ganges, and then to Mumbai, where he spoke about the launch of DKU and compared notes with leaders of India’s burgeoning liberal arts universities. He also traveled to Ashoka University, a new college north of New Delhi supported entirely by philanthropic donations. There, he was invited to discuss DKU’s curriculum with the faculty and to give a lecture for students on immigration issues in the United States and Europe.

Read: Duke Partners with Ashoka University in India for Student Exchange

At Ashoka, Pickus was struck by students’ engagement and energy. Not content to sit back and consume knowledge, the undergraduates posed profound questions about the nature of citizenship, access to rights and the principles of democratic societies.

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Noah Pickus, associate provost at Duke and dean of undergraduate curricular affairs, presents to students at Ashoka Univeristy in India. Courtesy of Noah Pickus

“There were lots of common cultural references,” Pickus noted, “and this made an open conversation easy to have.”

This shared understanding makes the prospect of “liberal arts” learning in India different than in China, where there is no exact translation for the term. Instead, Chinese constructions tend to focus on general education courses that supplement narrowly focused majors. Yet introducing the liberal arts into Indian higher education, which has been focused on state schools of management, technology and engineering, comes with its own set of challenges.

“There, India faces questions of quality, equity and impact,” said Pickus.

From his perspective, as one of the designers of the DKU liberal arts curriculum, Pickus sees opportunities for growth and exchange among India, China and the United States. He is organizing a project on the lessons learned from universities, like DKU and Ashoka, which were launched in the 21st century.

“As DKU and Duke build connections between their faculty there could also be opportunities to teach at schools like Ashoka.  Faculty could learn through joint conferences, working groups and exchanges,” he said. “Similarly, Indian students could take classes at DKU and carry those experiences back to their home campuses.”

Noah Pickus and his daughter at Sarnath, a holy Buddhist site. Courtesy of Noah Pickus

When asked how his professional journey intersected with his personal one, Pickus paused. “My daughter and I connected the past and the present as we read these journals. We could hear my father’s voice in them and compare what he discovered in 1950 with what we were learning today. Almost 70 years later, we saw an incredibly modern nation that was also deeply connected to ancient traditions and religious views.”

This pairing of a modern sense anchored in a rich past can allow India to succeed in embracing a liberal arts educational model that seeks to educate the whole person.

“When we say we offer a global education, what do we mean by that?” Pickus asked. “My father thought India’s culture included ideas and experiences that every educated person should discover. He was right.”

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