There is not a shred of doubt that we are making a grave mistake when we make our young people anxious about their careers too early in life. It is only normal that parents should be concerned about their children’s future, but this should not be at the expense of a solid, rich and broad educational foundation. Early specialisation makes learning limited and narrow. In any case, it should be understood that the world is changing so fast that specialisations become obsolete in no time. When we buy a new mobile phone or drive a different model car, we need to unlearn our old habits and pick up the requirements of the new settings and controls. Similarly, in almost every area of work, one can expect new approaches, new methods of doing things and of course the latest technology. There have been so many accidents and costly mistakes simply because people have not upgraded their training, nor have they bothered to branch out. The clichéd but useful directive to develop the ability to “learn, unlearn and relearn” must be followed. A broad educational foundation goes a long way in facilitating this. Therefore, the wise way forward would be to acquire strength and breadth of knowledge along with a range of skills.
Unfortunately, career concerns drive parents to encourage their children to make choices rather prematurely. Consequently, the education of our young suffers from a certain narrowness. This narrowness begins as early as secondary school. Students are permitted to drop mathematics or science after Class 8 and in high school they are encouraged to take up subjects that supposedly lead to stable or lucrative careers.
Sometimes we find lone voices telling young people that allsubjects have value and there is no such thing as a “useless” subject — that is, if it is taught with some competence and the relevant skills learnt and honed. But these voices have proved to be quite ineffectual. And the frenzied quest for the magic path to good jobs and careers continues unabated. This is further exacerbated by the need to obtain high scores in public examinations for entry into reputed institutions of higher studies. The subjects that are perceived to be “scoring” are in great demand, irrespective of a student’s interest in or aptitude for them. In these circumstances, students are unlikely to develop a passion for any subject nor acquire any real competence in it.
The need for a broad base is explained and argued lucidly and effectively in Saikat Majumdar’s new book, College – Pathways of Possibility. At pesent, the scenario is such that students show no curiosity about the different disciplines or branches of knowledge other than the ones they have been advised to study. Science students look down on the humanities and talk about them disdainfully as “mugging” subjects that do not require any intellectual power to master other than the ability to memorise. In their zeal to get students to score well in the board examinations, even school teachers and private tutors encourage them to concentrate on the syllabus of the examination year and they are happy to leave out topics from the previous year’s syllabus. Consequently, there are gaps in their learning. Students, however, are made to work hard perusing the last so many years’ question papers and closer to the examination itself, all sorts of hints and “suggestions” are circulated regarding which topics are likely to be tested that year.
It is abundantly clear that the objective of being “college-ready” and “career ready” is not being met. Professors find even the students who have succeeded in gaining admission shockingly inadequate and wanting in certain important skills such as research, making one’s own notes, academic and creative writing, presenting original comments on texts, synthesising and most significantly constructing knowledge, and not merely consuming or reproducing it.
We have to admit that it is we adults — parents, teachers and those who formulate our educational policies and design the mode of assessment — who are ruining bright young minds. We are failing to give them an insight into the different branches of learning, failing to demonstrate the relationships between them and failing to point out that all disciplines require students to think, reason, reflect, process, assimilate and apply. The rigid divisions into the humanities, commerce and science streams should not exist. Moreover, the colonial legacy of pursuing the study of an “honours” course in a single subject for three years seems to be quite archaic. The subsidiary “pass” subjects are not taken seriously so that even at the undergraduate level the education that we deliver continues to be narrow. Employers keep complaining that the young people they recruit have not only to be trained for and on the job, but they have to be educated afresh and taught to change attitudinally.
In this context I must refer to Saikat Majumdar’s book once again. He makes a strong case for the development of T-shaped individuals who have both depth and breadth of knowledge as opposed to I-shaped ones. The I-shaped individual represents “vertical expertise in a single discipline”. Majumdar explains with examples from industry how it is impossible to function efficiently in a complex tecno-industrial environment with narrow and often outmoded specialisations. Indeed today every working person would need multiple skills represented by “the solid horizontal stroke of the T”.
It is hoped that the authorities in our education departments will overhaul the system as well as the curriculum. Let us remind ourselves of the old satirical story of the Saber-tooth Curriculum by Harold R.W. Benjamin — it is still vitally relevant to our current situation. The lesson of this story is “change the curriculum to suit the needs of the times, or be prepared to perish”.