Posted by: Vikram | June 14, 2017

Thinking about the university and courses

The Mahabharata can be seen as an expansive repository of moving episodes that can leave a deep imprint on the inquisitive mind. A relevant one for those who have the privilege of going to college, is when Krishna, along with the Pandavas, meets Bhishma during his last moments on Earth.

Bhishma wants to leave after his last darshan of Krishna, but Krishna requests him to wait and give the Pandavas a final lesson on dharma. Bhishma wonders what the need for his lesson is, since the Pandavas already have all-knowing Krishna by their side. Krishna responds, ‘I have knowledge but not experience’. The value of experiences is thus so great, that even the gods cannot provide an alternative to them.

College represents the possibility of dramatically increasing the range of one’s experience. A good college offers its students ample opportunity to build and share experiences during their education. Students get opportunities to form groups and associations based on interest/identity/feelings, organize events and even travel abroad. It is thought that college courses exist mainly to transfer knowledge or skills, and it is the experiences gained outside course work that really makes college worth it. However, such opinions reflect a very limited view of courses and the faculty that organize them.

Many experiences are mainly conversations, that we have with others or our own selves. If one thinks of courses, not as a data transfer, but a conversation or dialogue with an expert in an area, each course can become a new experience.

Variants of the thinking process, learnt during different courses can profoundly alter our view of the world. Take for example, a beginner statistics course. More than mathematical definitions and techniques, such a course make us confront uncertainty in a concrete way. It leads us to reflect on how limited, misleading or even fatal anecdotal accounts or incomplete information can be. Deeper into the course, we think about even more formidable questions. How can we meaningfully compare huge sets of people, or even the same set of people at different times ? How do we distinguish variations from trends ? How do we attribute changes among a set of competing factors ? Imagine how much the quality of our public discourse would improve, if the majority of the population could reason statistically.

But such payoffs are not limited to statistics courses. Nearly every field of study has a way of thinking it can introduce us to. I list below just some that I encountered during my own four years in college:

  • Pure Mathematics: Proof based/logical thinking. While writing down a rigorous proof, we have to constantly ask ourselves, does this really make sense, is there a gap in my thinking, am I kidding myself ? This is an attitude that is important far beyond the abstract mathematical world.
  • Engineering: Quantitative/Process oriented thinking. How can I quantitatively reason about this complicated machine/process/phenomena ? Which variables or values really matter for the decision I want to make ? What approximations can I make so that I can reason about it without compromising on what it actually is, or represents ?
  • Philosophy/History/Anthropology: Subjective/discussion thinking. How do we engage with the intangible human world that surrounds us ? Our family, our friends and our society. How do we engage with those whose opinions and experiences seem so radically different from our own ? Why might they differ in the first place ?
  • Physics: The search for Invariance. What relationships exist in the natural world which do not change with space, time or other conditions ? How can we employ our mathematical/linguistic vocabulary to express these relationships ? How do we discover them ? Conjecture about their possibility ? Confirm their existence ?

Course topics become a foil to access new ways of thinking and reasoning. It is apparent that every type of thought process alluded to above will leave us better poised to understand and navigate the world around us.

Absence of even one of these types of thinking abilities, even in a basic sense can lead to sub-par outcomes. Examples abound. Well educated, highly trained people without a stats course make basic errors in understanding the world. This was seen in the lung cancer epidemic, where people kept ‘believing’ anecdotes of smokers who lived to 90, to continue their own march to death. As an another example, without logical thinking, we become prone to convenient (but false) justifications for our beliefs/decisions because we dont have enough practice in evaluating whether we are wrong. Without humanities thinking, we fail to understand the intangible forces and structures that govern other people’s or even our own behavior, and start attributing every disagreement to bad intentions/faith.

A corollary of the above discussion is that diversity in courses is not a luxury but a priority. Each type of course taken reflects a new challenge to be confronted, a new way of thinking to be encountered. Once a few different ways of thinking/reasoning are encountered, one can make a better decision of which area to commit to for deeper study. Few higher education establishments in India give students the opportunity to think about their four years in college in this way. But those that do (Ashoka University, Flame University, IIT Gandhinagar among others) should be commended.

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