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Why students must march to their inner drumbeat

The blackboards will have to recede a little.

I am currently teaching an advanced master's level course in Mathematics to about 80 students at University of Delhi. Though I enjoy teaching these students, I also have a nagging sense of concern.

My worry stems from the fact that barring two or three students from this large group no one has any intention of pursuing a career even remotely related to Maths after acquiring the Master's degree.

What students want

I discovered this when, a few weeks ago, I asked my students about their career plans. They responded, almost in unison, that they were keen on getting government jobs that have almost nothing to do with Mathematics.

Their predilection for such jobs is based on the perception that government jobs offer security and aren't too demanding. Of course, there were some who aspired to become civil servants. For the rest, it really did not matter if the job was clerical in nature. More worryingly, it turned out that many among this bunch were already deeply involved in preparing for competitive examinations conducted by bodies such as the UPSC that serve as a glorified and official employment agency. If I have created the impression that this attitude among Mathematics students is a one-time aberration, and confined only to students of my discipline, we need to think again.

Most students appear interested only in getting government jobs and not the subjects they are studying. (Photo: Reuters)

A little bit of sleuthing on my part quickly yielded some more disturbing information. It turned out that what I had felt about the mathematics students was almost similar to what prevails among a vast majority of students in so many other disciplines.

For instance, a similar attitude dominates the preferences of the several hundred students of Sanskrit literature and, also, of as many, if not more, numbers of students of Hindi literature. And this does not imply that students of other disciplines think otherwise or have different career plans. It is just that I have not recorded their views yet. To be fair, some of these students do want teaching jobs in schools and colleges, but again in the government sector. Is this situation and attitude among students a particular attribute of the University of Delhi? The answer is again a resounding 'no'.

Though I do not have any hard data, there is enough anecdotal evidence to indicate that such a situation prevails in a large number of Indian universities. So, it may well be that many of our universities are teaching fancy courses and disciplines with very few serious takers with no major long-term benefits to society and to the nation.

Does this mean we should only teach what a student wants? Certainly not! However, universities and educators need to think about this rather worrying situation where so many students are enrolled in so many degree programmes whose courses seem to have no real meaning or purpose for them.

Purpose of education

The remedy lies in some simple steps that would necessarily make higher education far more purposeful and relevant for our students.

How does an educational institution achieve this? To begin with, institutions of learning and educators must recognise that the young flock to universities in the hope of adding some meaning and purpose to their lives.

This means that they are seeking to discover themselves or, as I am fond of saying, they are in search of their antardhwani or inner drumbeats. The moot point then is the challenge of creating a platform where a young student can discover this inner drumbeat and then march in the real world in harmony with this drumbeat. This shall lead to self-fulfilment and that is what education is all about.

Michael Faraday, one of the greatest scientists the world has known, found his inner drumbeat when he was exposed to books on science. His interest in science, then also prompted him to attend lectures delivered by leading scientists of his time. He managed to do all this even though he was a school dropout. Faraday's story reveals the key to us.

Intuitive learning

We need to expose young minds to a variety of drumbeats in the external world through the platform of a university and then let them see which of these drumbeats resonates with their respective inner drumbeats.

Once they realise what their inner drumbeats say, they shall seek to march in harmony with that drumbeat and be successful. This requires a university to identify some of the great, and not so great, challenges and needs of the nation and of society such as climate change or energy needs or dengue fever; this choice should significantly depend on the capabilities of the university.

These problems must then be exposed to students through various trans-disciplinary approaches and in a hands-on manner through group-based projects.

The blackboard shall have to recede a little. For instance, in the matter of dengue fever, a Mathematics group could devise a mathematical model while students of biology could look at preventive measures through breeding patterns of mosquitoes and chemistry students could look for organic chemicals that could help destroy larvae. This shall, for sure, give a greater learning experience and shall also lead to innovation on the part of the students. A new dimension of education connected with start-ups shall also emerge.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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