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…