The Career Maze
A friend shared an interesting graphic on a whatsapp chat earlier today. It was an image titled the "Career Path Finder". You may have seen it too - either the same image or something similar. It basically lists out the various career options that are available to a 10th or 12th grader, on the threshold of stepping out from school. If categorisation and listing the various career options was indeed the intention behind creating the graphic, it has done a very commendable job. But when I look at the title, I get the feeling that it was meant as a kind of tool to navigate the various options to choose a career for oneself. And if the latter was the intent, then I dare say it would be a challenging task for most 10th or 12th graders. I wouldn't be surprised if many of them are put in a daze by what then becomes "The Career Maze"; it definitely had me dizzy very quickly! And from that perspective, I joked with a friend that when we were passing out 25 years ago, we had it simple - there were only two real options to choose from - you could either be a doctor or an engineer, and God help those who did not end up being either of the two!
Now, the daze that the "Career Path Finder" could potentially put students into, is not a problem with the graphic itself; it is rather a problem with what we learn or "do not learn" at school. And it strikes at the core of what I personally feel ails our schools and our education system today. I may be wrong and it may not be a real issue now, but it certainly was a big problem 25 years ago, and I sincerely doubt if much has changed since. Thankfully, sparks of hope can be seen here and there, but these are quite few and far between.
If the problem that we faced 25 years ago was that we had very limited choices with regard to career options, the problem now is that there are too many choices. And I agree that it may sound counter intuitive in some sense - isn't it good to have more choices? How can that be a problem?
It is the same problem I faced along with a friend of mine recently, while ordering lunch at a fancy restaurant. I could have lived with the physical discomfort of having to lift up the fifty page hard-bound, two kilogram menu book, if it would have helped me in some small way at least, to make a reasonable choice for lunch. I could not even pronounce, let alone understand, half of the items on the menu. After fifteen minutes of painstakingly turning the pages over, trying hard to hide my frustration and helplessness, I finally asked the waiter what he would recommend. And that, I realised soon enough was a big mistake. Because he began reeling of the various choices that I could have for starters and the many courses to follow, serving only to add to my confusion. I finally ended up having a beef burger (medium, rare or well done?) with fries.
It is no different from the problem I have begun to face when wanting to buy a shirt or a pair of trousers. Slim fit? Regular fit? Classic Fit? For heaven's sake give me one that somehow fits! People have often asked me why I usually wear the mundu and the long loose kurta. Well now you know one of the reasons - after all, how wrong can you go with a white mundu? Notwithstanding the difficulty in choosing a thick border, thin border or gold border for the mundu! But thankfully, my dear wife does that for me!
So much for choices.
I dare say that the primary aim of education (especially in today's context, though I would argue it ought to have been the same 25 years ago) should be to help the students narrow down their choices for deciding what they want to do in their long term careers and indeed with their lives. Going back to the restaurant menu analogy, if at the end of twelve years in school, a student is not able to decide that he likes fish better than chicken or beef, then it is indeed a massive failure on the part of our education system. To take that analogy further, he may probably be not sure whether he likes the fish baked or fried or as curry, but then that choice refinement can be achieved quite easily. Or he may in fact even have an allergy to sea food; it should not take him the best part of 25 years to come to that conclusion. And given the endless options available today, it would indeed be a pity if someone with an inherent preference for fish has to live on beef for a good part of his life, simply because he was not allowed to develop and refine his taste for fish.
I say it is a pity, because students when very young, cannot but help display their joy and passion when they go about doing that which truly excites them. I dare say that most observant teachers would have seen the musician, the lawyer, the actor, the dancer, the scientist, the doctor, the teacher, and so much more in their students. It would take a blind eye not to see it. But then somehow quite soon, all these varied talents are channelled back into one single stream, with one single aim, with one single examination to assess them. Now, I am not an educator or a policy maker and maybe there are practical difficulties of giving each student the means to flourish independently doing that which they were born to do; but how I long for the day when our schools allow our children to bloom, into the flowers that they were meant to be, each distinct, with varying colours and fragrances - not into a tissue-cultured, lab-created bunch of flowers that look and smell exactly the same. Most children start off showing their obvious interests, but such instincts are soon stifled and snuffed out. That is the pity.
So can something be done about it? At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, I suggest that each student, for the last five or six years in school, be given the opportunity to explore various subjects and concepts and options for a specific period of time, maybe two or three months. So each year, a student gets to explore three or four "themes". In six years he would have covered, 20 or 25 such themes. And it is likely that most students would find that some themes strike a chord deep down in their hearts. Admittedly, the job of the teacher would become much tougher - because there are no real scripts to play by - but I dare say that if the right minds sit together in a room for a while, a curriculum based on this idea can be worked out. So mathematics would be only one such theme; so would science. And dancing and singing and writing would each have their place. There would be no exams to assess - or to stress! But the key now would be the ability of the teachers to filter out the students according to what gets them really going. We would need more teachers, who understand and who can recognize when a particular child seems to be in his or her zone. That is the real challenge. And again, I am not a policy maker and I do not understand the nuances of the planning and implementation of such policies. Maybe.
But something needs to be done - an education system designed with a specific objective one or two centuries ago, that of churning out employable men and women to satisfy the demands of a rapidly industrializing world; such a system needs to be overhauled. And a start needs to be made somewhere.
It would also be wrong to thrust this entire responsibility on to the poor teachers and the school. I firmly believe that parents have an equally important role to play - to identify what our child is good at. We know for a fact that there is not a single child who does not excel in some thing or the other - not all of them can be mathematicians or doctors or lawyers or scientists, which unfortunately is what we would have them be. But each one of them has a spark in them, which if fanned properly, will grow into a bright and steady flame.
In the meantime, our schools continue to be battle fields where students are at war - with the sole objective of excelling academically. The relentless drive for excellence is emphasized with the justification that the outside world is a much bigger battlefield and schools should prepare students to survive and thrive in such an environment. I do not know. But just looking around at my group of friends who passed out 25 years ago from school together, all of us seem to be reasonably well settled. And it does not look like those 10 or 15 marks made any difference in the long run. Now, how many of us seriously and passionately enjoy the work we do is a different question altogether; many of us fish lovers are still munching on our beefs grudgingly.