Saturday, March 11, 2006

The road not taken.

A friend of mine sent me this link. A brief synopsis - it’s about what the author calls the ‘Keeping-One’s-Options-Open’ mentality, a common syndrome in which people sacrifice themselves for the next phase in life, which itself consists of nothing but sacrificing themselves for the following phase. In his opinion, the KOOO mentality is what drives us to follow the crowd and do the safe thing rather than find out what exactly it is that we want to do with our lives and getting it.

Do read the article, it is thought provoking. The reason I decided to blog about it is that while I agreed to the most part with it, there were some strong reactions I had against what was being said in the article, well-intentioned as it was, and that set me thinking (not a good thing, every time that happens I tend to ramble on on my posts. So be warned and brace yourselves, it’s a long road ahead).

If you are from India, especially South India, you will know it’s not just the DAVs and PSBBs that are churning out top-rankers (and consequently doctors and engineers) by the dozen. Even the school I went to, despite having its strength in Literature and the Arts went on to produce engineers and doctors in bulk.

I love Literature, I have always loved it and the professors who have made the greatest impression when I was young were all English professors. English, really, is more than just a language, just a medium. It really is a channel to higher thoughts and concepts and discussions. Every lesson, every poem has had a profound influence on me, especially in the last four years of schooling.

I remember the first time I thought about death and immortality, reading Joseph Blanco White’s ‘To night’. This was a poem that we read in the 9th grade, a bunch of thirteen year olds. The poem is about how God created Adam (hey, it was a catholic convent, what did you expect, Nietzsche?!) and so Adam is having the time of his life, rejoicing in God’s creation, sun-bathing and all that when God pops by and says ‘oh by the way, there’s this thing called night when the world will be plunged into darkness and everything you’re seeing right now? Well it won’t be there then.’ So Adam worries himself silly and is so scared and so frightened at the very prospect of daylight ending that when night finally rolls around “Creation widened in man's view”. He realizes that he need not have been worried or feared the unknown for night though starkly different from day, was just as glorious and beautiful.

It was the last line of the poem that was the moment of epiphany for me - “If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?” In essence, saying that if the glory of daylight could have deceived Adam into fearing night, could it not be true that the glory of life is deceiving us into dreading death? And thus began my spiritual quest, the start of my soul-searching, the beginning of my love for literature, sparked off by one line in my 9th grade English textbook.

To Night
- Joseph Blanco White
Mysterious Night! when our first parent knew
Thee from report divine, and heard thy name,
Did he not tremble for this lovely frame,
This glorious canopy of light and blue?
Yet 'neath a curtain of translucent dew,
Bathed in the rays of the great setting flame,
Hesperus with the host of heaven came,
And lo! Creation widened in man's view.
Who could have thought such darkness lay concealed
Within thy beams, O Sun! or who could find,
Whilst fly and leaf and insect stood revealed,
That to such countless orbs thou mad'st us blind!
Why do we then shun Death with anxious strife?
If Light can thus deceive, wherefore not Life?

There was a handful of such writing that had a profound influence on me while I was growing up. There was Milton’s ‘On his Blindness’, Shakespeare’s ‘The quality of mercy’, Wilfred Owen's 'Strange Meeting', Robert Frost's 'The Road not Taken', Shakespeare’s ‘To be or not to be’ – this however wasn’t part of the school’s curriculum, I hungered for Shakespeare after reading the quality of mercy – and these works did not so much influence me as they fashioned my thoughts and beliefs. In much the same way as a young boy grows up idol-worshiping his father and strives to be like that exalted vision on a pedestal, I grew up tempered by the accumulated wisdom of writers past.

So then, despite my love for words, for writing, for debating, despite all my teachers urging me to pursue a career in Writing/Journalism, despite the fact that that step would be the absolute convergence of my aptitude and my inclination why did I choose Math-Physics-Chemistry like everyone else?

I remember the day my tenth board results came out, and my friends and I ran to school to boast vainly and rub salt on raw wounds whenever possible (I remember holding this scrap of paper with my scores written on it and waving it under Preethi’s nose because she got 196 as opposed to my 197 in Mathematics. *Sigh* Good times.). The results incidentally were released AFTER we had decided which streams to choose in the final two years of schooling. So when did I decide to get into Math-Physics-Chem instead of the Advanced-Literature course that I had my heart set on? Smack in the middle of the 10th grade, when I was all of 14 years old.
There were the usual reasons of course

Evidence 1. All my friends were taking the Science Stream, and I wanted to be with them

Evidence 2. For all my teachers advocating I pursue Literature, an equal number of teachers, family relatives and ‘elders’ advised ‘You’re a bright child! What are you doing thinking about Commerce and Advanced English? Those are for the duds! Put your brains to some good use and take up Science’

Evidence 3. Dad sat me down and reasoned ‘At any time in your life, if you want to switch streams and you want to get into writing you can always do that, if its an innate ability you’re never gonna lose it. But it’s infinitely more difficult to pursue an Engineering Degree when you’re older with other responsibilities to juggle.’

In short, choosing the P/M/C stream would be, well, keeping your options open!
So I finish those two years (awful time, more about that later!), follow it up with 4 more years chasing an engg degree, graduate with fine grades from a fine institution and here’s the clincher, if I could go back and tell myself at 14 what to choose, I’d do it all again exactly how I have done.
I guess the point is keeping your options open basically means just keeping them open till you are clear about what direction you want your life to take. And at all of fourteen, it is too early by any stretch of optimism to think that you would be able to objectively judge your capabilities, your aptitude, your desires and find a career path that you think would tie it all up beautifully in a big, pink bow. When you’re thirteen-fourteen, every career just has a bit of stardust. You don’t really think about the nitty-gritty of it and tend to gloss it over so your idea of a glamorized, purposeful future remains intact.

If you want to be a doctor, its probably because you’ve just watched this brilliant one-hour special on doctors without borders or Angelina Jolie flying to Africa, helping out emancipated kids and overcome by bonhomie and an overwhelming sense of altruism and not because you’ve actually shadowed a doctor/spoken to them and tried to figure out if you have it in you to juggle a day job of saving lives, a spouse and two kids, a social life and sleep.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to patronize fourteen-year olds. There are some very, very mature children at that age, who after due deliberations probably figure out what they think they want, and decide that whatever it is, thru their darkest moments, they will stick to it and give it their all and not flit about from career to career because they lose interest or because it didn’t turn out to be as fun as they thought it would be.

Having said that, those individuals are exceptions and the ‘normal’ fourteen-year old really is influenced to an alarming degree by her peers and (unless she has serious difficulties with technical subjects) probably would sail into the M/P/C stream without much thought figuring, ‘hey, if I don’t like it. I can always drop it later on’ and this is probably a good thing because one reaches that maturity to decide what to do with one’s life at… well, there’s isn’t a definite age, but there comes a time when your thinking is not a mere reflection of your peers and you have faith in yourself to stand up for what you believe in even if everyone else thinks you’re wrong AND you’ve understood the important of research, and you’ve utilized all resources at your disposal before deciding on something that important in your life. Whenever that age is, you can be sure, there’s a pretty good chance it’s not at fourteen.

The other day I was speaking to this chap who’s in his first year of engineering and he positively hated it. He hated math, physics, chemistry… he thought they were dull, useless and there was nothing he gained from that and nothing he could gain from the engineering course.
Here’s where I disagree.

I think that the only reason that anyone could say that they hate any subject, be it Math, Physics, Chemistry, History, Geography, English whatever, is because they were taught by dull, incompetent, probably sexually-repressed teachers in school. I have some gripe about the education system but I won’t get into it here. Suffice to say, that this compartmentalizing of subjects is ridiculous in the sense that it creates an impression in children’s mind that the world is modeled in they way that it is introduced to them in school, in other words, fragmented into distinct segments.

It is a rude shock when you finally realize that events in real life are not conveniently categorized and colour-coded for your digestion. You cannot hope to know all about say, the situation in Haiti, from a history or geography textbook. Real world issues are multi-dimensional, they spill into overlapping categories and it is in this sense that one would hope to understand them: holistically.

Contrast this with school when entire events and significant chunks of information are fed to students thru one subject alone, as if to indicate that every possible parameter of any significant event/phenomena/process falls within the limitations of the subject and coloured solely by its connotations. How can you understand physics or chemistry or math in isolation? Our ghastly math teacher was an endangered species from another planet and since the Trans-Galatic Equal Opportunity Labor Law, Section B2 states that all sub-intelligent species also be given equal opportunities, she is, at the ripe old age of 102, still teaching in Church Park and has every intention of inflicting pain on new students year after year, till someone in possession of a large enough mallet puts her and subsequently the students out of misery. Her method is to walk in and with her back to the class and her hand to the board, silently work out every sum and then slither away unnoticed at the end of the hour. Its worse when the wailing banshee attempts to read the few mandatory sentences printed in the text.

And then there was my physics teacher, whose idea of teaching is to drone on for 2 hours everyday, sometimes three if she’s in a particularly sadistic state of mind, leaving no comma or semi-colon unnoticed. What she does is take the book in hand and read. No explanations, no doubts, no illustrations, nothing... just words from the text as if it were the gospel. If she feels at any time that this is too much hard work for a paltry 7k a year, she asks one of the students to read. This was my tryst with Math and Physics.

The point is if this is the way children are first exposed to important concepts it is no mystery that the same children grow up with an abhorrent hatred of everything that falls under the purview of science. It took me nearly three years into my Engg degree to finally get over my loathing for Math.

Contrast this with the atmosphere in college, at least in my university (I choose to ignore the bottom-feeding scum who somehow seem to infiltrate any institute of learning, and I opt instead to highlight some of the better teaching methods employed). Now, I won’t give the credit solely to the education system because there was a lot I picked up from my peers. Working closely with some highly-intelligent, driven individuals has influenced my own approach to a large extent. The realization that I need not be confined to the prescribed text first hit me in college. That was when I started to actually break away from the mentality of digesting information in ‘2-mark question’ or ‘8-mark question’ chunks and begin to read up on it from other material. What happens here is that in doing so, you gain a holistic understanding of a process or phenomena rather than just being exposed to what is relevant or necessary in the context of examinations. The purpose of our education is to impart knowledge and to foster an inquisitive nature, NOT to examine whether what is fed in is spat out in exactly the same way.

Some of our profs in college refused to touch the text. It was implied that we were mature enough to read the material on our own and utilize class hours to interact with peers and the prof and discuss the material. The shift from frantically pushing in info (as it was in school) to using the class environment to showcase your understanding of the material and appending it with the observations of others was instrumental in getting me finally interested in the stream that I had decided to dedicate a considerable chunk of my life to.

I especially learnt a lot sometimes more than what I had actually assimilated during class hours, by doing those mandatory semester projects. It is when you try to apply the abstract concepts in your text to a real-world problem that you gain a complete understanding of a theory. All the milestones, all the hurdles that you eventually overcome, all the additional material (Out of syllabus! If you only knew how many times those three dangerous words had ensured I wallow in my pool of ignorance for a while longer) you had to incorporate in order to make this simple concept ‘work’, ultimately these are the very things that we try to gain by an education.

Of course, since one is more mature by the time she pursues an undergraduate, the onus is on the individual to seek information rather than it being the duty of the teachers to spoon-feed facts. I am not sure how much a 11th or 12th grader will benefit if the onus is on her to make the most of her schooling experience. Still, there are places where we can supplement text book learning with more ‘hands-on’ learning methods. Einstein once remarked, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift”. It was true then and it is sadly still true now.
Having said that, for those who think that science is a bore or dull or ‘too technical’, I think it is no less beautiful than art or literature. The symmetry, the aesthetics, the complexity and the insight that one finds in literature are no less present in Physics or Mathematics than they are in the arts. I rate Aho and Ullman’s “Principles of Compiler Design” as highly as any of Betrand Russell’s essays. The brilliance of the argument, the logic of the reasoning, the clear, succinct language, the beauty and elegance of the design – these are the traits of a literary classic, a book that will in turn influence your own thinking and reasoning. Reading the book was as though someone has shone a light on the murky muddled concepts I was grappling with in my mind, and laid them out so beautifully for me to see and remark on the perfection of it all. Sometimes contradictory demands /constraints of the school education system may make it unfeasible to impart a synergetic learning experience, however one can, if so inclined, choose to understand physics or mathematics for what it really is, rather than to limit it to the confines of a ten-mark answer.

Be warned, there is a reason that certain subjects are perceived as more tedious than others; it is because they are. Having said that, Einstein’s theory of relativity is no less dense than Shakespeare. It is just easier to understand Shakespeare when you are guided by a passionate, highly motivated literature professor. With science though, if there is no such mentor you can consult to refine your understanding of abstract or complex concept, take heart in the fact that the Internet is a fantastic resource at your disposal. If something interests you, do not hesitate to read up on it. Try the library. Consult your teachers for leads on where to get additional material; even the most jaded 12th standard teacher will take a couple of minutes to suggest a few books or at least clarify any doubts.

Once again, I will borrow words from someone who we all, literature students and physicists alike, think highly of, not just for his momentous advances in his field but for the lucidity and simplicity of his arguments and the principles that he upheld and lived by. “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.” – Einstein.

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