Sunday, July 21, 2013

'Useful' Degree: Which subject should you study?

Choosing college is one of most excruciating rituals in one's life: Full of dilemmas, hopes, disappointments and illusions of big decisions, an act which makes us middle class perhaps. This is one event that creates an enormous amount of chatter, usually by one's parents but, if things go wrong, even by the neighbours, and among friends: This may mean good byes, and welcomes, losing friends and getting new ones. One anthropologist calls this stage 'liminal', a transitory experience between home and adulthood, a brief period of freedom, perhaps, between compliance and responsibility. But, in the middle of the blinding array of choices one has to make during the period, one that stands out is about choosing a subject - what to study when you go to college?

I am uniquely qualified to speak about this as I made, perhaps, a wrong choice. But, for me, it was never really a choice. I grew up in pre-liberalisation India, and when I went to college in 1986, everything was already set: The people mobility was limited, so I never thought of leaving the city I was born in; there were limited options and seats, so my school-leaving examination really determined what I could or couldn't do; and finally, there were very few job prospects, so my parents counselled me endlessly to do take up something useful.

In my class of about 60 people, 59 tried the Joint Entrance examination, which was the portal for Engineering and Medical careers. It was extremely competitive - only one or two people made it to the thousand student shortlist that the state Engineering and Medical colleges took in - and the rest tried again next year (and for some, again the year after). I was the missing person who never tried, because, at the time, I wanted to be a journalist. There were no courses on Journalism or Media available, so I was pleading my case with my parents to study English Literature or History. I thought my father, an English professor in a local college would be sympathetic. I also thought that my rather impressive results in literature subjects, I got the highest marks in all humanities subjects in the district as well as topped the list in eloquence and literary quiz competitions ran by the State Government that year, would help my case. But my parents, and also my tutors, decided that I would waste my life if I choose to study 'useless' subjects.

In the end, I shall somewhat settle for Economics, a subject I had a rather utopian notion of. A closet Marxist, Economics meant all sorts of things for me at school which, as it would turn out, it was not. But this was the only agreeable middle ground between Engineering, which I chose to pass off, and History, which I so wanted to study. Indeed, there was nothing wrong with economics - I loved the subject when I understood it, only that this was much much later, after I finished college and serendipitously landed in a career of international business; when I shall spend my rather solitary Friday afternoons in Dhaka reading back issues of The Economist, just out of boredom. I survived college somehow picking up just enough to pass examinations, mostly memorising stuff without understanding why I needed to memorise it, which was just fine as that's what was expected of us.

So, my quest of an useful degree meant living through a life which I neither liked nor hated, a subject which I could master but barely connected with. I emerged with an indifferent degree and went on to do my Masters, discovering, along the way, computer programming, which, strangely enough, I liked. Looking back, I know because I volunteered, took risks, did unexpected things, my life did not become a complete disaster. But it was very very close. I felt the most useless when I had the 'useful' degree in my hand but couldn't do anything very well. I had an Honours degree in Economics, and even a Masters, but was clueless about what I wanted to do. I was lucky that I was working in a networking firm the day I finished my Masters examinations and I never went back and spent another day using anything I learnt in college. I have barely ever mentioned my degree, except much much later, when I felt confident and developed a view point, only through independent study, life's experience and work.

My father would confess today that it was all a big mistake. He didn't stop my sister when she went on to study history; in fact, he encouraged her. How much of this is because he learnt from my experience, and how much of it was gender roles (that my sister, being a girl, was not expected to earn for herself, and therefore didn't need something 'useful') would remain a conjecture. And, surely, I am not sulking, as my life moved on its strange way, not because what I knew or what degrees I had, but what I did. I realised later that curiousity, openness and flexibility had been far more influential in shaping my life than any degree or work experience I had: It did feel precarious most of the time (as it does now), but I drew pleasure from what I did, after I finished living each phase of life. I was almost proud that my life turned out to be all agency and no structure.

It was only much later in my life I shall go back to university again and complete a second Masters. This time, I followed my heart and did not pursue anything useful: I studied Adult Learning. I loved what I did: It did help that this was one of world's best universities, so I was surrounded by very smart people and could participate in stimulating conversations. This was all about open-ended pursuit of something I really wanted to understand. It was not completely utopian though: My work life centred around training and education of adults. I worked in businesses, set up some of my own, but the content of the work I was doing for over twenty years was always about dealing with adult learners and making them learn something. But this was not a teaching qualification I was doing, nor what I studied allowed me to earn any professional brownie points. It was my own deep pursuit of an understanding what I was really doing, and how to do it better. This was my rather slow, long (it took me four years to complete the MA, as I did it alongside work) and deliberate exploration of my practice, which included lots of apparently purposeless studies in philosophy, sociology and history - the history of universities in America, Foucault and Bourdieu, history of psychoanalysis and structure of collaborations that lead to innovation. A Master of Education that I earned in the end, even if this was from University College London, was unlikely to be of any value or get me a job, particularly in contrast with something like an MBA, which I could have done at the same cost of time and money. 

But, that's the point - it is never the degree, but how you study that matters. Despite the claims of all the education thinkers, three/ four years that we spend in a college is a really short time to change a person's character. Higher Education neither shapes one's life nor makes him/her automatically productive, because it only works alongside so many other forces that shape our life so much more profoundly: Our families and communities, our schools, our work, our love and relationships, our health, our circumstances, finances, bereavements and travels, all define a slice of ourselves, putting a layer on whatever we learn from college. What the college can uniquely do is to make us open, curious, flexible, give us a way of looking at all our disparate experiences and a way of making sense of all of these. It can help us feel empowered to answer that first question that we mostly leave unanswered - what we really want? It was only much later in life I felt confident to open the lid of this very important question: I felt forever disempowered, forever at the mercy of others, forever dependent on making decisions for me (whether by offering a job, promotion, opportunity or something else). 

I hate those people who tell me that I can be anything I want to be. I know that is the language of privilege, of being born into opportunity, where everything is indeed possible. I have tried, but I couldn't be what I wanted to be. But one thing is certainly plausible: To know what you want. To be able to ask the question, to calibrate your own aspirations to the reality, to develop abilities, even if this takes a long long time, to get there. The trick is, what you want may change mid-course, but to achieve anything in life, one must take the new course and yet be persistent; you must keep asking what you want not in terms of jobs, or salaries, or careers, but deeper and deeper and deeper. And, once you are able to do that, what you dreamt come to you. In that sense, everything is possible, but it is not everything - just the thing that was made possible by your persistence. This is the ultimate usefulness of an education, to navigate this essentially confusing terrain. The education that allows you to do that is the only 'useful' education.

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