Republica Repost–Covering the Fields

Published in the Republica on 17th Nov, 2015

Students, parents and society need to take popular beliefs and assumptions about different fields of study with a grain of salt

covering the fieldsAmid yet another crisis at home, one issue that worries me is how the education of younger generations is being affected. I’ve written about privatization and phony ideas about quality education that are making it increasingly difficult for the children of the vast majority of poor people to become successful on the basis of their talent and hard work alone. Rising cost of education is one of those forces that lead parents and students to ask the wrong questions about what to study and what career to pursue. So as they pursue higher education in the fog of crisis after crisis, how are members of Nepal’s young generation choosing what to study, what career to pursue?

Full article on Republica (Nov 17, 2015)

To begin with an analogy, at my five year old daughter’s kindergarten here in New York (yes, there are underlying similarities between Nepal and the US in this regard), the principal and another administrator from the school district presented on budget priorities in relation to the school’s mission. They told parents about the importance of investing in their children’s “college-readiness,” focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (or STEM) areas. They justified the surprisingly high cost of the dancing robots they had just bought, wanted students to pay more attention to physics and biology, and they emphasized the importance of math.

I wasn’t impressed, and I shared my disappointment with the principal afterwards. I said that twelve, sixteen, or eighteen years down the road, university professors like me struggle to undo the damage done by superficial ideas about STEM as the field of all opportunities, as the means of all social progress. In a graduate-level writing course, for instance, I spend a lot of time trying (and often failing) to convince students that to be successful engineers and doctors, successful writing and communication in the professions involves far more than facts and correct language. Successful communication demands critical thinking, analyzing audiences and contexts, mastering many genres, drawing on the knowledge and skills from different disciplines, understanding politics and power in the profession and society. It involves a lot of “humanistic” skills. So, it is dangerous to fill five year olds’ minds with the idea that a focus on one artificial group of disciplines or another is key to success for a lifetime.

The argument that having a STEM degree will guarantee success is dangerous because the society and professions may radically change, some fields may become saturated soon, and others may need a new configuration of knowledge and skills. For instance, today’s professional engineers must handle a variety of communication tools, need management and leadership skills, must use sophisticated theoretical terms and frameworks, and may even need a philosophical mindset. So, in terms of cultivating interest in different areas of human knowledge (arts, sciences, languages, and society) it is wrong to tell five year olds what field will hold best promises even ten years down the road.

When the broader society, culture, technologies, and political climates change, single-minded and hyper-specialized individuals struggle to adapt—or simply fail. Many popular jobs (and often fields) in which we work today will no longer exist forty years from now, when today’s entry-level employees will be retiring. As educators, we must be aware that we may be preparing workers for jobs that do not yet exist and we can’t even imagine today. We have seen the rise and fall of disciplines. The English master’s degree, for instance, was pursued by more than two thousand people around 2006 when I last taught at Tribhuvan University; that discipline has sharply fallen in popularity today. Business Studies is still being marketed aggressively, but it may be oversold already. Other popular fields have given rise to unaccredited colleges, whose consequences students will suffer; yet other fields have fancy foreign names attached, with no quality of education involved. There is a gap between the reality of society/professions and status of many fields, so while the degrees are “hot cakes,” the graduates only have socially irrelevant knowledge. Fashions create blind spots.

Some disciplines like medicine don’t fluctuate over time that badly, but the inflated demand creates a variety of problems in those fields as well. High-demand fields tend to create hyper-specialization at lower and lower levels, with high school students starting to consider themselves engineers and scientists by choice—before they find out what fields out there may also be worth learning about first. But excessive demand also paradoxically increases the number of years that students must spend and money they must pay to complete the degrees—as it happens in medicine in Nepal and elsewhere today.

At the bachelor’s level, the situation is worse. In reality, when students complete high school (or twelfth grade), they are yet to build good foundations for college-level reading, research, writing, and interdisciplinary knowledge skills. But partly because of cost—or the need for return on oversized financial investment—and partly because of popular beliefs about productive/lucrative fields—parents and students dislike general knowledge courses. One extreme is of imposing the same old subjects just because they carry cultural capital or symbolic value; the other extreme is to narrow down and have no strong foundation in essentials.

Let me share another anecdote to explain the problem of too narrow focus too early. During a class conversation about making career choices recently, a student told me that he didn’t like most of the compulsory (or “required”) courses that he had to take for his bachelor’s degree. The class was discussing benefits of different courses. One student described how a humanities course had opened his eyes about engineering; another highlighted the value of writing skills in nursing. Students in that class are from (or working toward) dance therapy, actuary, cryptography, teaching, digital humanities, marketing, engineering, medicine, nursing, economics, psychological counseling, physical therapy, medical writing, standup comedy, and child life services.

While most students see how required courses fit into the big picture of their education, some students focus on what they “like” and don’t like, often based on their notion of what will be useful. I ask them: “How do you know what you (will) like without even giving yourself the chance to find out what something is like?” The second meaning of “like” gives some students a pause; some simply don’t bother to think about it.

In contrast to popular beliefs, people do very well in some fields. For example, in the US, people with philosophy degrees seem to be more successful in business and industry than people believe (they include leaders some of the world’s largest corporations).

In contrast, trendy choices create critical social gaps. If too many people pursue a field as lucrative, the society will have too people from less popular fields to select from. When people decide what to study through a hive mentality, blind spots start to expand.

Thus, at least at the bachelor’s level, it is extremely important that students, parents, and the society take with a grain of salt the many popular beliefs and assumptions about how to choose fields and courses of study.

Specialization of education and the professions has its benefits. Superficial thinking and shortsightedness do not.

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