The role of pay-cheques and checklists in education

Back when I was in highschool in India, I used to wonder about the massive loss of human capital as students with all kinds of backgrounds and interests dropped everything else to focus on getting admitted into a prestigious engineering or medical college.  Prospective poets, astrophysicists, animation artists, musicians – all had their dreams sacrificed at the altar of uber-competitive entrance examinations.  Parents would say, “Engineering is a smart career option.  You won’t be broke and anyway you could always write or pursue your creative talents even with an engineering degree.”  The system propagates because top firms use engineering degrees as a signalling device – they know that students who have successfully completed challenging engineering programs are smart and hardworking and can therefore function effectively as consultants, analysts, or investment bankers, and perhaps as engineers as well!

When I came to a liberal arts college in the United States, my mind suddenly exploded.  I was blown away by the sheer depth and breadth of possibilities.  I felt like the goddess of learning, Saraswati, had opened my eyes to a new reality. There was so much more to education than engineering.  Economics, anthropology, literature, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy…  the list of fascinating fields of study was endless.  I was like a child in a candy shop.  I wanted to study everything.

I think students (and parents!) in India are now more open to alternative fields of study but I still think they are too focussed on careers to really care about learning.  When I go to substitute in my high school during summers or when I discuss education policies with my friends in India I hear similar suggestions – it seems that everyone in India wants to reform the education system by making it more goal-oriented and more relevant for professional advancement.  Even those who champion the cause of broader education do so by pointing to all the different lucrative career opportunities available to those pursuing non-science fields.  In the land of Saraswati, education is now viewed solely as the means to earn lucre.

I am in favor of professional advancement – I really am.  But perhaps we could also devote some time and energy to other lofty goals such as building character, sharpening critical thinking skills, increasing self-awareness, and nurturing a deep appreciation and understanding of the world around us. 

I believe that this is an area in which the education system in the United States does much better.  Even technical colleges like MIT have outstanding arts, humanities, and social science departments.  In fact, a student who enrolls in MIT is not restricted to a specific sub-discipline based on his/her rank in a nation-wide competitive exam.  Any student here can enroll in any course of his/her choice (a concept that students in India can hardly fathom).  In fact at MIT, as in most other American colleges, students need to satisfy science, humanities, arts, and social science requirements to graduate.  If I am not mistaken, there is now a similar requirement at some of India’s top engineering colleges which is a step in the right direction.

And yet, even in the United States we must be wary.  The tendency to focus on broadening horizons through study-abroad experiences, community service, club memberships, dual majors and the like can boil down to what I call, “checklist education.” Many college students and even many applicants to college have such a checklist in mind: must study abroad, must volunteer with some non-profit, must take diverse courses, must study a second language, must hone a talent or skill in art, music, or athletics, must hold a position of responsibility in some student organization, etc.

The following New York Times article by James Atlas does a great job of describing how this checklist system works for college applicants in the United States.  He points to many problems with such a system not the least of which is greater inequality due to the extra mind-broadening opportunities open to the wealthy in an increasingly competitive world.

I think such a checklist could be a great tool as long as educators and the students themselves find some way to truly assimilate all that broad education into their personal lives.   Without the assimilation, all those experiences are little more than prolonged 3-D movies.  It takes time and reflection for those diverse experiences to leave a lasting impact – perhaps extended engagement with those experiences through thoughtful discourse or quiet introspection are neccessary for a broad-based education to truly sink in. 

Checklists are not a good measure of education and a good education can be enriching and rewarding in ways that pay-cheques cannot measure…

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The 25 Funniest Analogies (Collected by High School English Teachers) (via Writing English)

A really funny set of analogies – enjoy!


UPDATE: Tens of thousands of readers have found this post and hundreds of you have commented. A few have said that these analogies were actually taken from other sources and were not written by high school kids at all. Now, we have a link that ends the debate. These analogies are the winning entries in a 1999 Washington Post humor contest, and there are more than 25. Please look at the comments sent August 3, 2008 by “Jiffer” to get to the comple … Read More

via Writing English

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Daniel Kahneman summarizes decades of happiness research this way: “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

The above is a quote from a post titled, ‘Does Money Make you Unhappy?’ by Jonah Lehrer at Frontal Cortex.  I recommend reading the entire post as well the articles/studies it cites.

Let me repeat: “Happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.”

And that’s by Kahneman – an exceedingly smart psychologist and a leading researcher in the field of happiness; incidentally he has also won a Nobel Prize in Economics.

PS: I am planning a longer post on ‘Happiness’ – in which I hope to vaguely construct (with my usual pedestrian amateurish approach) a theoretical metric of happiness that combines ideas related to long-term contentment, short-lived excitement/fun, and ephemeral but spectacular moments of glory.

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Heart versus Head (or empathy versus consequentialism)

Back in college, a friend once casually observed that I was all head and no heart.  I was devastated.  I remember thinking, if I am all head (an unfeeling, calculative, hyper-rational thinker) then why does this passing and rather inconsequential remark hurt me so much?

As I start this post, I find myself bursting with too many intersecting ideas – if I were to systematically analyze and present those ideas in a coherent way, I would end up with a 1000 page book.  And it would be a ridiculously substandard book in a field that abounds with remarkable works by some of the greatest minds of all time – Kant, Mill, Rawls, and Sen to name but a few.

As an economist I have been trained to think like a consequentialist.  In my mind, the morality of every act can be measured only in terms of the ultimate consequences of the act.  There are of course other ways of judging morality – rather than make calculations about consequences, some prefer to follow a list of rules that dictate what is right (deontology) while some others prefer to make judgments based on whether the actions themselves are borne of virtue (virtue ethics).  There are other views too – Gandhi, for instance, believed that the means and the end are indistinguishable and inseparable.

I think I understand these alternative positions and have great respect for them, but in my mind, even these positions are ultimately supportable only because following rules (deontology) or acting out of virtue (virtue ethics) are smart approaches that help to efficiently achieve the best possible consequences in a world where actually calculating all the consequences (and their respective probabilities) is a mind-boggling task that is paralyzingly difficult.

While thinking intellectually about morality it is impossible for me to ignore the importance of consequences.   However, in my day-to-day life, when I am in a moral dilemma I tend to instinctively let my feelings of empathy dictate my actions.  Only on rare occasions I do succeed in letting consequentialist considerations dominate my actions and even on those occasions I’ve had to make a conscious, extreme, and deliberate effort.

So for me personally, the tussle is between a feeling of empathy originating in the heart and a morally driven calculation of consequences originating in the head.

Let me channel a little bit of Jonathon Haidt here who stresses the socially functional nature of moral thinking.  In short, we have the morals that we espouse because it helps us become members of our group in society.  I think this suggests that empathy is of paramount importance in defining the psychology of our morality and that makes sense evolutionarily too: we are empathetic towards those who belong to our tribe or live in close proximity because we would like to protect shared genes as well as form symbiotic relationships.

But just because empathy is the driving force of our morality does not mean that it should be the driving force of our morality.

After all the verbiage related to theory, let me switch to examples now:

As a kid, when I watched world cup soccer, I always supported the Netherlands because they were a flamboyant team and were simply fascinating to watch.  However, as I grew older, my consequentialist thinking started to kick in: I began supporting teams whose countries would benefit the most from victory.  If a country were in some sort of economic or political crisis, I knew that a football victory would help bring smiles to the depressed society – how then could I support the Netherlands over Nigeria?  Switching my allegiance in soccer was not hard as I usually felt equally empathetic towards both teams (sometimes though, when empathy kicked in, I would support Asian teams over others).

But things became much harder in the recent cricket world cup.  The semifinal was between traditional rivals India and Pakistan.  All my patriotism and empathy lay with the Indian team.  The captain of the Indian team is a friend of one of my close childhood friends.  Though it was heartbreaking to even consider rooting for Pakistan, in my mind I knew that the people of Pakistan needed the victory more.  While India is far from being a happy, developed, trouble-free country, it is in much better shape than crisis-riddled Pakistan.  My consequentialist mind and my empathetic heart refused to come to terms and I remained ambivalent even after India won the match.

But empathy remains the driving force of most of my day-to-day moral decisions.  I am not alone in this tendency to be driven by empathy.  A famous behavioral economics finding called ‘Identifiable Victim Effect’ confirms that potential donors contribute more to a cause if they are told, with the aid of an emotional narrative, the beneficiary’s name, life story, and family background.  If people are instead given numbers and statistics about the cause as a whole, they are likely to donate less!  When potential donors are told both (the emotional narrative and the pertinent statistics), they are likely to contribute less than in the case where they are only told the narrative.  Somehow, hearing the numbers makes us less empathetic and therefore less moral.  Stalin had this right: “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

Empathy could also be part of the reason why terrorist attacks and natural calamities stir stronger feelings of support (we feel a sense of empathy with victims as we realize that we could have been in their shoes) than prolonged famines and starvation (we cannot imagine ourselves as ever being victims of such tragedies).

So the danger with using empathy as our criterion is that we will allocate scarce resources sub-optimally (every economist’s nightmare!).  Rather than spend pennies on micro-nutrients to save thousands of lives we could end up spending thousands on causes that don’t have as much of an impact on saving and improving lives.  Similarly, empathy with a certain group (say fellow citizens) can make us hostile in practice if not in intent towards other groups (say refugees) even though it would probably be more moral to treat all humans as equal.

However, there are also dangers with focusing on consequentialism – 1) the difficulty involved in determining the best course of action in a world full of uncertainty paralyzes us into inaction and 2) when confronted with numbers, we tend to become less empathetic and since empathy drives our morals we become less moral.

Charles Dickens portrayed consequentialists as cold-blooded hypocrites in his book, ‘Hard Times’.  I hated his portrayal but I now understand how risky consequentialism can become if it erodes our moral sensibility.  In a recent study (discussed in a blog post at Crooked Timber), psychologists found that those who use utilitarian (a form of consequentialism) thinking tend to be “emotionally callous and manipulative—traits that most would perceive as not only psychologically unhealthy, but also morally undesirable.”

As an economist, I think that I should continue working with inherently consequentialist models (so as to determine, to the best of my ability, what the consequences of various policy alternatives would be) but I should also be extremely diligent about remaining moral despite confronting numbers all day.

P.S.  I’ll do another post on Rawls sometime – I tend to agree with Rawls in spirit (but not the exact details) but my approach to Rawls involves a consequentialist framework although I believe many people (including perhaps Rawls himself) would disagree with my consequentialist characterization.

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Happy Independence Day (part II)

I am feeling an outburst of patriotism so continuing in the same vein as my last post (the one where I talk about about how my patriotism has changed over the years), let me share a few scenes/songs I remember (perhaps it as interesting coincidence that A.R. Rahman is the composer of the musical score in all three):

First, a clip from the movie Roja.  In this scene, a militant Kashmiri separatist sets the Indian flag ablaze and this prompts an intense reaction from the hero, a typically mild-mannered almost nerdy crypto-analyst who’s been taken hostage.  The hero jumps on the burning flag in an attempt to put out the flames with his body.  Of course the scene is overly dramatic (in keeping with popular cinematic tradition) but it did leave a lasting impression on my 13-year old mind.  Please note that the director of this movie, Mani Ratnam, is not typically prone to creating statist propaganda – his other movies Dil Se and Bombay are strongly critical of state-sponsored and state-incited violence while Roja focuses more on the emotional and political aspects of hostage crises.

Next, a scene/song from the movie, The Legend of Bhagat Singh, which in my opinion is probably the best Bhagat Singh movie made so far.  Bhagat Singh is often considered a militant freedom fighter against colonial rule but as the movie clearly shows, he was a strong adherent of non-violence except on rare occasions when he felt vigilante justice was appropriate.  In fact, the movie shows how he took great precautions to prevent innocent British and Indian civilians from getting hurt.

And finally, an exquisitely beautiful video directed by Bala and Kanika featuring, once again, the genius of A.R. Rahman.  Click on this link for the fascinating story behind this video.

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Happy Independence Day!

Growing up, I was a very patriotic Indian.  I loved my country immensely and I still do – although I would like to think that my love now is more mature, humble, and personal.

I was about 9 years old when I went to my first Independence Day celebration at Loyola School.  I still recollect the warm fuzzy feeling of pride and joy as we celebrated our nation’s freedom from colonial rule.  I was so moved by that experience that I made it a point to attend my high school’s Independence Day celebrations every August 15, all the way through my undergraduate years.  However, in 2004, I had to break that tradition as I had to be back at UT Austin to answer my Ph.D. qualifying exams. I felt heart-broken, miserable, and guilty.   And then a miracle occurred – as I was walking towards the room where the exam was to be held, the bells of UT Austin chimed the Indian national anthem.  I stood at attention as a wave of relief, optimism, pride, and joy overcame me.  It truly felt like divine intervention – the surge of patriotism was like religious or spiritual transcendence.

May be this is a good opportunity to link to a beautiful rendition of the Indian national anthem.

And yet I realize that even though patriotism is a kind of love, it can easily be used to rouse divisive sentiments and provoke belligerent behavior.  

The boy who left India was fiercely patriotic. But the young man who formed close friendships in college with students of various nationalities started to realize that patriotism should not really be fierce. 

I had various transformative experiences in college:  I remember a Pakistani friend cheering loudly for Indian tennis players Bhupathi and Paes by waving the Indian flag passionately at the Hartford Civic Center during the Pilot Pen International.  I remember a Nepali friend explain how various Indian policies had caused tremendous pain and suffering in Nepal.  I remember how proud a Ukrainian friend was of her compatriots involved in the Orange Revolution.  I remember a trip to the UN with fellow international students – each of us feeling very patriotic while simultaneously sharing a deep sense of solidarity.  And I remember an American friend who through subtle remarks made me think hard about the nature of my patriotism.

In college, I also discovered Tagore and found out how one could aspire to be truly broad-minded.  I rediscovered Nehru and Vivekananda who yearned for welfare all across the world.  I realized that I could love my country deeply, despite her flaws and failings; and that just as I had excellent reasons to be proud of my India, citizens of every country across the globe had similar reasons for being proud of their respective countries.

This may be a good opportunity to present my favorite Tagore poem:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

And now a link to Nehru’s famous speech on Independence Day – a brilliant speech especially if we consider the political realities of the time: 

Unfortunately, I could not find the entire speech on Youtube, but here’s the text from wikipedia. You can see how steeped Nehru was in the idea of international solidarity based on some excerpts from that speech: 

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity….  It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world….  To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom, and democracy. And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service.

P.S.  I plan to do a few more posts on related topics that will probably demonstrate my nuanced feelings regarding patriotism.  I’d like to do one post on how patriotism and religion are similar in order to argue against a famous quote attributed to Dawkins, another on the distinction between patriotism and Chauvinsim, and a third on whether migration restrictions across national borders are ethical.

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Partly Right

Partly Right is a movie made by current students of my high school – Loyola School, Jamshedpur.  It is fun to watch the actors (current students and teachers) and the location (my school) – what really amazes me beyond the quality of the production is the fact these students were able to obtain permissions from the authorities as well convince teachers to act in the movie!

The topic of the movie also appears to be relevant – there was a spate of suicides in recent years mostly attributable to the extreme pressure faced by students to succeed academically in a harshly competitive environment.

It is somewhat paradoxical that these students are in fact able to take so much time off from their studies to produce a movie that’s partly about insurmountable academic workloads!

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