World beyond the school walls

New Delhi April 18 For most of us, the academic calendar is in wind down mode. Exams are either completed or in the offing. Farewell parties have been held or are being organised. Admission interviews have happened, or application forms are feverishly being filled up for the next level of education. Students grapple with mixed feelings — disappointment, anticipation, sadness, eagerness, confusion, among others. Depending on which stage of your education you are about to begin, you are faced with specific kinds of choices. For the lucky few, there is clarity (for the time being at least) about the programme, particularly if we have chosen a “professional” stream (engineering, medicine, architecture, law). For others, there is clarity about where one is not going. And for still others, the choice is not so much about what one is going to study, but where.

Our academic choices are shaped in many ways. For many of us, it is circumstance and parental concerns that limit what we do. Some of us are influenced by what we read, see, and talk about with our friends, or our teachers. By the time we reach high school, we’ve formulated some ideas about how we get to where we want to go. But it may be useful to take pause and think about not only what we want to do, but where we spend those formative years of our lives. The context of learning is as important as the content, and, as many people will tell you, the spaces of learning (or unlearning) often have more of an impact on us than the curriculum itself.

At the college level, the first big selection is between a public institution or a private one. For those fortunate enough to have theGroup-Discussion-topics advantage of choice, this is a crucial decision. In recent months, there has been a lot of discussion about the true meaning of a university, of the nature of publicly-funded institutions, of the culture of higher education in this country. Many parents — and young people — are apprehensive about our public higher education system, worried about what seems to be a rise in student politics and campus unrest, and interference from government in their autonomy. One response has been to move away from them, preferring instead the growing private sector, where, we think, students can focus on the core task of studying and getting their degrees. In fact, we’ve been hearing a lot about how this is what students should be doing.

Let me take a slightly different perspective here. The years of emerging adulthood — between school and the workplace — are crucially important in more ways than just preparing ourselves to earn a livelihood, or to enter the job market. These are the years where we could learn to think for ourselves, unrestricted by the somewhat iron-clad syllabi of the school boards. These are the years where we could possibly find out what the world looks like away from the safe channels of our school buses and the high walls of the school compounds. These are also the years when we are most likely to meet people outside our zones of comfort, rather than others “just like us”. Parents worry because these are years of experimentation and exploration, of exposure to activities and ideas that could be destabilising. But these are also years when we can develop the capability to confront and make sense of a variety of uncomfortable ideas and situations. In fact, these are perhaps the safest spaces within which such an understanding can be developed.

Public universities and colleges, or those with a wider mandate to make higher education accessible to all sections of society, are more likely to offer a young person the exposure to life beyond the narrow confines of a curriculum. Of course, some private or trust-funded institutions do attempt to do this too, designing their programmes in a way that incorporates a wide range of social and cultural exposure.

In making your choice, you may wish to ask: How diverse is the student body and how much space is available for extra-curricular activities? How connected is the institution to the community it is located within? What are the academic and social networks it is a part of? Is the larger environment of the institution conducive to productive exploration and a wide range of intellectual experience?

There’s no denying that academic excellence depends on the quality of faculty and infrastructure of an institution, but we are seeing that often, those who graduate from high-ranking colleges that focus only on academics, are somewhat unprepared to deal with the complexities of the social world.

The kinds of conversation and debate that can occur in a more diverse, open space—of the kind many of our public institutions offer—feed this complex understanding. Such conversation happens not only in the classroom, but more importantly, outside it, in the ramshackle canteens and under the shade of the old trees in large university campuses.

So when you are trying to think about where to study (having figured out the what), you may want to consider that higher education is incomplete if it does not also give you a sense of the world in which your learning is to be applied. And that includes the messiness of its natural, cultural and social dynamics, as well as its politics.

Education Plus (The Hindu)