Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | January 27, 2010

To be fair to Chatur….

(For those who are wondering what or who “Chatur” is, if there are still such people around, please refer to the recently released movie from the Bombay film industry- 3 Idiots).

There has been quite a lot of talk lately, partly fueled by this movie, of  “following your dreams” and “going after excellence, not grades”. The implication being that traditional education systems, by stressing more on grades and curricular performance, may prevent the student from pursuing or learning about what he or she really wants to. I offer three reasons why, upto a point, the traditional school and university system works and works quite well.

First, it provides structure and direction to the process of learning. Agreed that learning  cannot be put in a can of structure and un-directed serendipity often leads to those priceless flashes of  “now I get it”s. However, just like for everything else, there are tools that can make the discovery process more effective and fun.  The dreaded three R’s (reading, writing, ‘rightmetic) are great ways to a) explore the world through the written word, b) clarify and communicate what we know and c) train the mind to make connections.  In  reading, we open ourselves to the endless ideas, creations and facts that surround us.  In writing we learn to engage with those ideas, creations and facts by telling people what we know in a way that they understand. In solving math problems we acquire the means to understand how objects are linked to one another, and thus the basis of creating new objects.

Second,  the traditional system lays the foundation for execution.  Following dreams, whether we like it or not, means to accomplish activities and build creations that spring from them. There are few things as demoralizing as being able to dream but not being able to create a constructive and real-world manifest of it.  Sure, I have a deep and innate understanding of technology and dream of using it to change some aspect of the world around me. But I cannot translate my understanding into a product or a company selling the product or a book that explains technology. That is because I cannot handle the boring dog-work of painstaking design or messy marketing or manuscript re-drafts, nor do I want the detail-driven headache of partnering with or hiring someone who can . Not good. And very frustrating. Execution is not even a fraction as exciting as dreaming. The routine of homework, exams and time-bound periods of activities and deliverables lays the foundation for the discipline, method and patience that it requires.

Third,  doing well in the traditional system, in any recognized system, is a major confidence-booster. By nature, we all want to keep moving, changing, progressing. For most of us, it is reassuring, enervating, energizing, to be able to crack exams or sports or any activity where progress is measured and rewarded. I am good too and I can do it. And sometimes that is all it takes to discover the dream we really want to follow and to have the courage to recognize it when we see it.  Most of us do not know early on what is most  exciting or stimulating for us to do. Many of us are hesitant about our abilities  to do so.  School and university are about work-in-progress, life is about the journey, and confidence equals ability to dream even bigger.  How many people do you know who made it big through a traditional route, and the validation they got from their success propelled them to make a far more significant contribution in another field – the one they really cared about?

Okay, then what? Mark Twain said “Never let school interfere with your education”. Teach the kids the smart ways to use the tools that school gives them. Don’t teach them to ignore the 3R’s. Teach how they can be used to find and talk about exciting things. Don’t tell them grades do not matter. Show them the bigger picture which contains grades, confidence, access to good universities, chances to interact with bright folks, opportunities to question anything they do not value or agree with and create something they do.  Don’t reiterate that exams are boring. They know that. Show them that doing some of the things that people they look up to are doing, is very similar to taking exams.

Yes, it is important to go after excellence. But about the only kind of excellence that matters is pursuit of perfection in something that gives us joy and makes us think. Something that is so much a natural extension of us that we say – Hey I want to see what lies over the edge of whatever this is.  So Chatur…you have the tools all right. Only – you need to learn to use them in an informed way. That way, sooner rather than later, they will lead you to you real dreams.

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