The Indian and The Myth of the Liberal Arts Education

~ Anna Mathew ’10

Ending up at a liberal arts college was a complete accident. In fact, at first growing up, I had been one of the strongest critics of a liberal arts education. It was only after attending Bryn Mawr for four years and applying the knowledge and skills set I had to my internships and work experience that I recognized the value of such an education. The liberal arts education is for the most part a unique aspect of the American experience. It denotes a curriculum that promotes general knowledge focused on developing the student’s critical thinking skills and intellectual capabilities. When I was growing up, I misunderstood the purpose of a liberal arts education. I associated it with elitism and impracticality. It made no sense to me why a company would hire a chemistry major, when they could hire a chemical engineer? What would someone do with a degree in biology? I perceived that the liberal arts education was oriented towards rich, elitist people who wasted their time pursuing impractical degrees while they were younger all so they could chalk up money for more expensive and practical grad schools.

There was another reason I did not support the liberal arts education- and that’s because I came from an Indian family. I’m not going to stereotype and say that Indian families do not support liberal arts educations, but for the most part it is a foreign concept. In fact, the liberal arts education is a foreign concept in most parts of the world. The United States is perhaps the only place in the world where students for the most people are not expecting to choose their career path until 19 or 20 when most people decide on a major (as opposed to 16 when most people around the world make a choice about a career path). For my Indian family, at the time, it didn’t make sense why it was so hard to choose at 16? After all, you could either be a doctor, engineer, lawyer, or businessperson? How hard was it to choose a career?

I mean that’s how things were. You studied a broadly liberal arts curriculum from kindergarten onwards, and then at 16, you choose whether you wanted to go on a math and sciences track, a business or law track, or a humanities to track. For many students, if you weren’t in the first track, it usually meant you were an idiot. Which is why growing up, I had major insecurity issues telling Indian people I wasn’t studying to be a doctor or engineer. I mean, I wasn’t really good at math or science, but that didn’t render me to be without a career. There were also issues with time. For my traditional Indian family, education was something you got finished as soon as possible, so you could start working as soon as possible, so you could get married as soon as possible, so you could have children as soon as possible. It’s for that reason that some parents of my grandparents’ generation would lie about their children’s birthdate so they could enroll three and four year olds into the equivalency of kindergarten.

Americans almost stubbornly believe that more education can make you more qualified. But evidence from relatives and family friends who choose to enroll in medical school at 18 and become doctors at 22/23 and then come to the United States passing the board exam with flying colors and practice successfully as doctors in America suggested the contrary. It was stories like these that made my family question why Americans had to devote eight years for undergrad and medical school when the whole process could have been compressed to five years. The Americans argued the American education provided a more “well-balanced education.” To my family, the American education only meant more time and more money. To them the liberal arts education seemed completely unnecessary-especially when they considered the process that it was part of the reason that healthcare was so expensive (as doctors with many medical school loans needed to be paid more). That’s right- in my family, the liberal arts education was inadvertently used as a scapegoat to explain our nation’s complicated healthcare problems.

And of course, you didn’t need college to make you well-balanced. You could do that on your own, by reading the Economist and BBC on the side. Yes, my family thought that a well-balanced liberal arts education could be easily substituted by a loyal adherence to British media.

I’m not here to argue against the perspectives of my family. I think to a certain extent, knowing that people in the other world had to make a choice about careers at 16, forced me to focus my interests and careers. At the age of 18, I was convinced that I had to know what I was doing. Education was time and money, and I was not about to waste my parents. My family, although they liked Bryn Mawr, had no idea what I would get out of the educational experience. Even I, who had fallen in love with the school, was a little skeptical and nervous about whether the classes I took would translate into getting a job. For me, a career at the end of the line, was the only way I could measure a successful college education.

But then while talking to a dean at Rutgers (the other college I was considering that would have provided me with the more practical and certainly cheaper alternative), he told us something that fundamentally changed the way my parents and I approached education. He said, “There is no formula to how you choose a career. I’ve talked to many hiring managers and they only want accounting majors or straight business majors. But then, I’ve talked to other hiring managers, and they hate those types of majors. Why? Because they want people who can write and learn how to process information.” It wasn’t what you learned in college, he argued. It was whether you had the skills and experience to learn that mattered. Listening to his words, my parents were persuaded about the value of a liberal arts education, and we decided to take a chance on the liberal arts education.

After four years of college, I can say that my perspective of the value and purpose of a liberal arts education has certainly changed. It’s not to say that I don’t entirely agree with my family on the merits of being focused and knowing what you want to do on a young age. But the American system provides many options, and likes to teach you are not confined. You’re not restricted to just being a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or business person. You can do other things, and explore educationally, and still land up with a good job/ or career path down the line. Ultimately though, the liberal arts education is more than just getting a job- it’s about learning to be a conscientious and understanding world citizen. It measures success not just in your ability to provide for yourself and build a successful on your own, but on your ability to understand the deeper mechanics of the world. It is an educational philosophy that will never be without its share of controversy. But having gone through the experience, I wouldn’t change it for anything else.

Baisakhi – A Festival as Varied as South Asia Itself

~ Sowmya Srinivasan ’13

Vaisakhi, or Baisakhi, is a festival celebrated in different forms throughout South Asia. The festival is celebrated as Vaisakhi in Punjab, where it hails the new harvest season. Celebrated this year on April 14, it also marks the New Year in many parts of India and surrounding areas.

The holiday is especially important for the Sikh faith. In 1699, the Sikh leader Guru Gobind Singh, the 10th guru, founded the Khalsa Panth by baptizing five men into the brotherhood of soldiers. These five men became the Panj Piaras, who are still revered today. During Vaisakhi, followers of the faith go to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. If this is not possible, the faithful go to the gurudwara. Religious leaders try to encourage charity on Vaisakhi. Vaisakhi is also celebrated by non-Sikh Punjabis. For them it is a harvest festival, celebrated with processions through the villages and bhangra dancing in the fields.

Vaisakhi represents the New Year in Nepal, Bengal, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu, among other places. In Kerala, the New Year is known as Vishu. In Tamil Nadu, it is known as Varsha Porappu, or the birth of the New Year. Malayalis and Tamilians have a tradition known as “kani kannal” which means “first sight” in Malayalam, or “kanni” in Tamil, which they believe will bring prosperity and happiness in the new year. According to custom, looking at auspicious items first thing on the morning on New Year’s Day assures a year filled with good luck and fortune. The night before, families set up a tray filled with coconuts, fruit, flowers, rice, and a mirror which they look at as soon as they wake up in the morning.

Different parts of South Asia have varying ways of celebrating Vaisakhi, depending on what the holiday represents for them. Nearly all of these celebrations involve plenty of ethnic food, dancing, and overall joy.