The above text is translated as: "I am driving a Ricksha, not a bullet!"

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"Na Aya Hai Na Ayega Araam Kahin, Mai Musafir Hun Meri Subh Kahin Shaam Kahin" (Translated as: I Have Not And Will Not Find Peace Anywhere, I Am A Traveller And My Mornings Are Somewhere And Evenings Are Elsewhere)

We all want to organize our life stories. The elation we feel when we are able to fit everything in that structured sequence, like getting all the fifty dishes, bowls and mugs in the dishwasher, or stacking all the worn, unworn and never-intended-to-be-worn clothes in one cupboard shelf, in a fashion that every time one opens the cupboard, he can pull precisely what he wants, is a manifestation of the control we aspire to exercise over our lives. So whenever things are seen to be unfitting a sequence, or a general trend, attempts are made to fit them in the established pattern, or reject them completely. And unfortunately or fortunately enough, a liberal arts degree has its own peculiarities. Hence, the products of this unusual educational track, are continuously challenged to define their place and role in the overarching story line - in the badly plotted, demarcated and organized story line - that begs fitting structures to sustain itself.

This essay does not seek to evaluate that story line. It only aims to introspect. The introspection of the misfits in that story line, on the value of their misfitting degrees. It is only part one of my reflections on what the dictionary of obscure sorrows refers to as monachopsis,"the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place, as maladapted to your surroundings as a seal on a beach—lumbering, clumsy, easily distracted, huddled in the company of other misfits, unable to recognize the ambient roar of your intended habitat, in which you’d be fluidly, brilliantly, effortlessly at home."

I am frequently asked what I plan to do with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, especially more so in Karachi, where BCom, BBA and BSc translate into jobs shaping the financial capital of Pakistan. It takes some effort to explain that firstly, B.A. is a well reputed degree in America and is neither a mediocre course of study as it is perceived to be in Pakistan nor a waste of a brain that was always seen fit for Math and Sciences. Secondly, no, a major in Politics does not mean that I want to be the next Benazir Bhutto or that I am not eligible for jobs that are not directly related to politics.

While studying economics or engineering might make one more marketable to employers, to make finding a job the ultimate goal behind an education is a misguided approach. My father always gave me examples of people who didn't attend highly ranked institutions but landed well-earning jobs to emphasize why going to a better quality english medium school or university is not as important, and does not, in the long run, hinder one's career prospects. For the longest time ever, I rebuked this statement with only a partially sufficient argument, that better schools prepared one for better universities and a degree from a better quality institution significantly secured one's future career prospects. The fact that many had managed to achieve that security without necessarily following these footsteps does not diminish the contribution of a better education to attaining income security. However, in time I realized that my degree in Politics from an institute of significant recognition in America, did not make me a more attractive candidate for companies in Pakistan, where I hope to settle. Most of these big companies, like Siemens or Unilever, not only have an established pattern of recruitment from Pakistani universities, but also, look for focused degrees that I had escaped from, to quench my thirst for variety in knowledge. Hence, while my argument that better institutions contributed to better career prospects had some standing, better jobs were by no means a necessary outcome of better education and neither a sufficient reason for why such an education should or should not be pursued in the first place.

A relative who completed a PhD in Biochemistry and left his field to work for an organization that had a mission he found himself aligned with, told me that the academic process learnt through a PhD had equipped him with a valuable life skill, the skill of acquiring education, that he can use in any field. The fact that he did not continue with biochemistry did not, by any stretch of imagination, mean that those 10 years of undergraduate and post graduate study in biochemistry had gone to waste. An education that focuses more on honing your critical thinking and prepares you for the arduous task of teaching yourself, is much more valuable than any specific knowledge acquired on a specific subject. Hence, it is the academic process, not the product, that matters more. The fact that I heard this liberal arts motto outside my college, from a non-liberal arts student who had invested many more years on education in America, was my first realization of a certain universality to this claim. As a Pakistani society, maybe this concept is completely alien to us. But when I see many people with their focused degrees, some even acquired from abroad (most often UK), well-paid jobs and yet, hardly any ability to think critically or motivation to be better citizens, I realize the inherent value of a liberal arts education. This is why, despite being a politics major, I see politics as only one minuscule aspect of my liberal arts experience, and not a full force restricting or defining all my career pursuits - unlike my 15-year-old sister who can never dream of becoming a doctor because when she was thirteen, she picked Computer Science and not Biology in the mandatory career track selection.

This is not to say that navigating my way with a liberal arts degree in a society where most well-paid jobs dismiss it as insufficient, is not a challenge. But rather, I have come to see that earning money is a necessity that can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. This ability to focus on the variety of ways, to think outside the box, is what I consider to be the true gift of my liberal arts education. Better institutions and higher education then, are not important for their provision of an increased likelihood of economic security only. Their primary value lies in their process of mental training, which helps make individuals who can design their own adventures, carve a niche outside the structured sequences, and reshape the story line - the badly plotted, demarcated and organized story line - that needs critical and original thinkers to address its problems and take it forward.