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A well-rounded education

  • Published at 07:40 pm April 22nd, 2017
  • Last updated at 07:56 pm April 22nd, 2017
A well-rounded education

Death, taxes, and mediocrity are human inevitabilities, but with some effort, the last one could be made less so.

Putting aside criticisms of its one-size-fits-all nature for now, education is one of the major avenues for generating fitter, happier, more productive functional units of society.

But what kind of productivity does society encourage, and what kind does it need? Is any education sufficient? And where does the country stand today?

Judging by the tens of thousands of business graduates being churned out by every higher education institution you can think of, it is not hard to understand the demands of the job market.

Studying business is a perfectly practical thing to do in this context, but are we producing the best possible business graduates who can compete with their counterparts elsewhere?

Are they well-rounded individuals who can think critically, write, speak, and understand, with some degree of insight, the forces which govern their world? Can they innovate? Am I -- yet another product of privilege -- going to expound, at length, on the virtues of a liberal arts education?

Maybe, but you should listen.

People are naturally and rightly averse to learning things that they have no use for.

There is an urgent need for a progressive movement coming out of Asia and the rest of the developing world in order to stimulate growth and sustainability

But a university graduate, from any discipline, who does not have a rudimentary understanding of global warming, algorithms, or genetics, will eventually find himself a little out of his depth in the real world.

Well, maybe not, if the real world has been filled with his ilk.

But, I will not advocate for simply internalising knowledge -- there is enough of that going around already. Most studies that have looked into the matter suggest people retain very little actual information from their undergraduate courses. The university curriculum should therefore be built around skills, but not just field-specific skills.

Science and the arts are invaluable tools in the teaching of such skills. Science is not about knowing how many exoplanets NASA has discovered so far or learning the structure of an amino acid.

It is a way of looking at the world. Science provides a platform for learning how to assess or weigh evidence, solve problems by tackling them logically based on existing information, and generate new knowledge.

In an ideal world, people would remember what global warming is from engaging with it as a problem facing the world, as part of an undergraduate course. The arts provide context.

We do not live in a vacuum, and an increasingly globalised world further increases the need for understanding culture, society, economics, and politics. Any educated individual should be able to critique the world with insight and appropriate cultural context.

But would simply having required science and arts courses be enough?

The top private universities have made great advances in that regard, but writing and reasoning must be made essential parts of these courses. There are obstacles here though. What happens when most students entering these universities do not find themselves equal to my fastidious demands?

What can be done now?

Should there be more prerequisites for people who have an insufficient grasp of English?

What about students who have not encountered any science since the eighth grade?

Should we, then, fix primary and secondary level education first? Would there be any value to making the admission requirements for universities tougher or, more specifically, directed at assessing critical thinking than they are now?

In the current global scenario, conservative forces are gaining momentum, while liberalism -- white liberalism -- is being exposed of being complicit in the maintenance of hierarchies it claims to oppose. There is an urgent need for a progressive movement coming out of Asia and the rest of the developing world in order to stimulate growth and sustainability.

One of the many dangers of conservatism is its insistence on following tradition for the sake of following tradition.

We cannot afford to be slowed down by this, and must quickly reassess what we prioritise passing on to our children by way of education.

Society encourages a stable income, a family with two kids, and complacency, usually in that order.

But it needs individuals capable of learning, growing, and contributing to growth.

Are we doing enough to produce these kinds of individuals?

Ornob Alam teaches biology. He holds a degree in molecular microbiology and immunology.