The Excitement of Higher Studies

It’s an annual ritual: the fevered anticipation of the HSC results around the end of January/beginning of February, heightened by the expectations of different secondary schools in terms of the single, quasi-venerated marker of their national performance: the number of laureates.

And as usual, it is no surprise that it is the State Secondary Schools that together ‘produce’ the maximum number, with the odd from an outlier college. Debate has gone stale about the merits or demerits of the ‘laureate’ system, its presumed role in the perpetuation of elitism – deemed pernicious — in our educational set-up, whether or not it should be abolished, and so on and so forth. Bottomline is that until further notice, it is part of Mauritian folklore.

Perhaps what has changed fundamentally is the expansion of opportunities for higher studies post-secondary level, with students having a wide range of institutions of tertiary and vocational education to choose from, both locally and abroad: the advent of internet and the online revolution have enormously facilitated this dramatic transformation of the educational landscape. As a result, laureates are neither as revered, nor reviled by their peers: sure, they are bright intellectually, but in a world where Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has become widely accepted among educationists, such that EQ (emotional quotient) is considered to be as if not more important than IQ (intelligence quotient, the traditional psychometric test for intelligence) they just happen to be the luckiest guys. But it does not necessarily mean that others have run out of luck altogether. Besides, it is quite frequently the case that non-laureates study at the same institutions as the laureates. So being a laureate does not mean that others are denied entry to prestigious institutions.

What is more important, however, is what drives this movement towards higher education: it is the yearning for knowledge. We could probably say that this yearning is ‘hardwired’ in us, so strong is the desire to know – for without knowledge, even at its most basic, we would not be able to survive in this world. As hardwired perhaps is the support for this drive: a degree of competition for acquiring knowledge, and there is no system of education anywhere – or for that matter in any other field of human activity — where some degree of competition does not exist.

Evolutionary biologists would perhaps argue that competition confers a survival benefit on the individual. At the lower levels of existence it may be so critical as to be perceived as cruel: it’s either me or you, either I live or get killed. But at the human level, we have the capacity to turn it into a force for good and to mitigate any adverse impact on our fellow human beings by making provision and allowance for those who are less fortunate amongst us. A healthy dose of competition can motivate us towards the ideal of perfection, but in practice with cooperation and collaboration everyone can be helped to maximise his potential in his chosen line of study or work.

This perspective allows us to appreciate that every person can make a valued contribution to the common weal, and that society’s responsibility is not to spoonfeed but to provide the enabling conditions and conducive environment that incentivizes individuals to make productive efforts for their own and the collective good as well. In practical terms what this means for our country is that the thousands who are not laureates have also legitimate aspirations that the country must… aspire to fulfill in equal measure, for they too will eventually be part of its job-seeking citizenry which will have a role to play in taking the country forward.

Critical to this is the quest for knowledge that is the first step on the ladder of learning, whether academic or vocational. It will have to be complemented in due course by the acquisition of skills and the development of attitude that will round up the learning/training process, with the final objective of making them employable in positions commensurate with their qualifications and training. Knowledge added to skills makes for ability which, with attitude, leads to performance. Clearly, therefore, knowledge is the crucial initial dimension as the students prepare to enter the world of work – to properly begin life’s journey as it were, for from then on there will be less chaperoning (by parents in particular) as the budding adults begin to assume more and more of responsibility for themselves in new settings until they become sufficiently autonomous to fly on their own.

From accounts and arts to bioscience through economics and engineering, to humanities and medicine through science to zen and zoology: for each letter of the alphabet from A-Z one can find one or more matching subjects of study. Reality: the vast choice of disciplines of study available to students embarking on higher studies, egged on by a burning desire to learn more, and then more, about the subject opted for. There will be even more, for each subject now keeps getting broken down – atomized – into narrower and narrower specialities and sub-specialities or, if one prefers, super-specialities. And there is no end in view to such ‘atomisation’ of knowledge, which led a medical cynic to give this definition of specialist, ‘A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing.’ So where does one stop before one becomes a nothing! And what are the danger signs of developing nothingness? There is a well-known saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – can there be such a thing as too much knowledge? Points to ponder for aspiring knowledge-seekers…

But more to the practical point: all the knowledge that will be pursued by the students, with the later addition of skills and attitude, fall into the category of what we could call operational or transactional knowledge. That is, it is knowledge about the external world that allows them to, effectively, deal or transact with the world which is outside of them made up of people, objects, events, phenomena and so on. How well they do so, and the impact thereof on their life as a whole, however, is less a function of their transactional knowledge than on knowledge of themselves, who they are: their inner world, in other words, Self-knowledge. Without that, they can only go so far on the road to success.

Good luck all the same…


* Published in print edition on 7 February 2014

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