| August 16, 2018
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Covering the fields

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

Amid 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?
At my five-year-old daughter's kindergarten here in New York (yes, there are similarities between Nepal and the US in this regard), the principal and another administrator from the school district had presented their 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, they wanted students to pay more attention to physics and biology, and they emphasized the importance of maths.

I wasn't impressed, and I shared my disappointment with the principal afterwards. I said that university professors like me struggle to undo the damage done by superficial idea about STEM as the field of all opportunities and a means of 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, they first need to be good writers and communicators which involve 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 and understanding politics and power in the profession and society. It involves a lot of "humanistic" skills. So it is dangerous to fill a five-year-old's minds with the idea that focus on one artificial group of disciplines is the key to success.

The argument that having a STEM degree will guarantee success is dangerous because the society and professions may in the future radically change. Some fields may soon become saturated, and others may need a new configuration of knowledge and skills. For instance today's professional engineers must handle a variety of communication tools, they need management and leadership skills, use sophisticated theoretical terms and frameworks, and they 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 the most promise even 10 years down the road.

When the broader society, culture, technology, and political climate 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 40 years from now, when today's entry-level employees will retire. 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. When I taught at Tribhuvan University IN 2006, over 2,000 students were pursuing Masters in English. That course has sharply fallen in popularity today. Business Studies is still being marketed aggressively, but it may be oversold already. Other popular fields have spawned unaccredited colleges, whose consequences students will suffer; yet other fields have fancy foreign names, with no quality education involved. There is a gap between the reality of society/professions and status of many fields, so while some degrees are "hot cakes," the graduates have irrelevant knowledge. Fashions create blind spots.

The importance of some disciplines like medicine doesn't fluctuate that much over time, but inflated demand creates 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 even have a chance to find out what is worth learning about. But excessive demand also paradoxically increases the number of years that students must spend and the money they must pay to complete the degrees—as it happens in medicine in Nepal and elsewhere.

At the Bachelors level, the situation is worse. In reality, when students complete high school (or 12th grade), they are yet to build good foundations for college-level reading, research, writing, and interdisciplinary knowledge. 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 imposing the same old subjects just because they carry cultural capital or symbolic value; the other extreme is to narrow down and have no foundation in essentials.

Let me share another anecdote to explain the problem of too narrow focus too early. During a class conversation about career choices recently, a student told me he didn't like most of the compulsory (or "required") courses he had to take for his Bachelors 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 belonged to (or were working towards) degrees in 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 is out there?" 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).

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

Thus, at least at the Bachelors' level, it is extremely important that students, parents and the society take with a grain of salt the popular beliefs and assumptions about fields and courses of study.

Specialization has its benefits. Superficial thinking and shortsightedness do not.

The author is an assistant professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University (State University of New York)

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Shyam Sharma

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