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The first of two parts of a paper written for a class on Creative Nonfiction
Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Man is condemned to be free.” He believes life to have no a priori meaning, and that what a person chooses to do is what gives meaning to his or her life.
Perhaps regrettably, this does not seem to be the case anymore. Sartre is not wrong in implying that we make a lot of mistakes in being given this freedom of choice, but what better way to learn than through our mistakes?
When a Pakistani child is born, his or her fate seems to be sealed. Of course, the child is considered to be lucky to have so many well-wishers debating about his or her future, trying to ensure from the beginning that the upcoming life is nothing short of opportunistic. But what if, one day, the child suddenly decides to stop walking the path so eloquently carved out for him, and choose a different one? Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”
I chose to follow Frost’s advice, and in doing so I learnt that breaking away from the orthodoxies of a Pakistani family is much more difficult than being asked to replicate Pheidippides’ act. A four-year struggle to prove that the road less travelled was, in hindsight, the right choice for you, is nothing short of a four-year marathon to stay ahead of those who doubt you.
The age in which our parents lived was one where they were deemed to have little, if any, autonomy over themselves. But it doesn’t make sense to be stuck in the same rut decades later. While the rest of the world seems to move eons ahead, Pakistanis stay stagnated – they refuse to move forward; they refuse to change.
Growing up in an immediate and extended family teeming with doctors and engineers, I was convinced there were only two career choices for me. Now, it feels less of a conviction and more of a lack of exposure to diversity. Having a certain aptitude towards Biology, my prospective career choice seemed pretty monochrome. It only made sense for me to study all Sciences during my A-Levels. I was never the best at what I chose to pursue during both my O-Levels and A-Levels, but I got by decently enough to convince everyone that I was destined to tread the path of medicine – the path that was not the less travelled one.
The only person I was unable to convince was myself. Was I fine with fading away, disappearing amongst the labyrinth of people who devour books and cure the ailed?
A choice of career did not have to be so binary. That was all I believed, and what I stood for. When it first came down to selecting a college other than a medical school or an engineering college, I felt a little apprehensive. Perhaps it was not wrong of others to plan out my bachelors for me, because the sheer process of choosing a path got overwhelming. The conditions were simple: it had to be a well-renowned place in Pakistan. It was later revealed that the conditions were only simple on the surface. There are plenty of big name institutions in Pakistan, but what good will a concentration in, say, History be? I had to deal with a throng of such questions, until I finally settled on a place where I wouldn’t have to worry about such things for at least a year more.
If I had thought that choosing a college would be the hardest bit, then I was in for a pretty brutal wake-up call.
I spent my first two semesters at LUMS convinced that I would choose a major that had some portion of ‘Economics’ in it. After all, if outlandish amounts of money were being spent on my education, then it only made sense for me to pursue a major that would guarantee a job with a six-digit starting salary. Little did I know that I was in for a revamping of my entire thought process.
It would be boorish to mention how spectacularly I tanked in the Economics courses I tried my hand at. Math courses were a similar deal. What became the saving grace for my freshman year GPA were the courses listed in the SS (Social Sciences) stream, something that I did not really comprehend at first. When sophomore year started, I declared myself to be a Humanities major, and have never looked back since then.
Price Pritchett said, “Change always comes bearing gifts.” Given his role as a business advisor, he may have been speaking in purely monetary terms, but the quote is, nonetheless, something to ponder on. I never expected a change to be anything particularly ground-breaking, but I did have faith in the proclamation that it would yield some rewards in the end. It would’ve been downright senseless of me to think of change to be anything other than a struggle, but I also didn’t agree that it wouldn’t showcase its advantages in the end.
There was so much that I didn’t know. I had always enjoyed any Literature classes I had had during my school days, but nothing matched up to the ones I became acquainted with. I was introduced to new authors whose works I am now besotted with, learnt new ways of reading the text closely, and began writing my own works to be discussed and critiqued as opposed to deconstructing the works of famous names only. History became more than just boring names and dates and sheets upon sheets of facts that had to be memorized, and actually became what I had always heard it to be: a story. Long texts that never made much sense were no longer what Philosophy was about, instead choosing to make me think a little harder, analyze a little better, and understand that Philosophy did not have to be about Greek names and Latin texts.
But then the question becomes: so what?
The Pakistani society likes putting this question at the end of every anecdote about choosing an unconventional career path. It is quite interesting to see a person discover a new side of the Arts altogether, but so what? What good is it? Where will such a degree lead you? What will you do with your education? Where will you use it? The list of questions is never ending.
The last one particularly irks me. Clearly it is not enough to say that my education is providing me with the necessary set of skills needed to make a better person, that what I choose to study is actually honing my analytical skills and skills of critical thinking. Hospitals need Doctors, companies need Engineers, and MNCs need Economists and Finance Managers. What sort of a place needs a Humanities major? While this may be a valid concern, where we are lacking is in thinking that a specific place will need Social Sciences majors. What our society fails to realize is that we cannot point to a specific sector not because there isn’t any, but because there are too many.
When the CEO of a reputed MNC mentioned in a talk that his Finance Manager was a Social Sciences major, a lot of people were stunned. And these were students like me – my classmates, my colleagues. That alone was enough to give me an idea of what our society’s mentality is. If I am to be completely honest, in my penultimate year at LUMS, I have yet to figure out where I want to apply for jobs in the upcoming year. But it is not because of a lack of options; it is because I am just overwhelmed by the many options I have. People often ask me if I’m scared of not knowing what to do or where to go once I graduate. The truth is, I am. But it’s the good scared, the kind of scared that a new employee feels on his first day at a new job, or an athlete feels before a big match. Maybe I am a little unsure of where I plan on ending up, but I am definitely excited at the prospect of finding out. Trial and error is how we learn, and if we take the safe route, then where is the risk of discovery, the thrill of adventure? We are not robots who can go through our lives in a mechanical way; we are living flesh and blood with feelings and emotions, and once in a while we may like to let go and set those emotions free. How can one expect robots to do that?
My plans don’t even think so far ahead as to weigh out potential job prospects; they are more short-term, choosing to gloss over what courses I would want to take in upcoming semesters. The way I see it, every course is in itself an entirely new journey – there is so much to learn, yet so much to be discovered. So why think about where to go and what to do upon graduation when I’m not even done with this current journey? It is good to plan ahead, but in doing so, I would not want it to overshadow the present voyages of discovery into the works of different authors, the history of different places.
The problem with our society has been that we have adapted to the stereotypical culture our forefathers set for us. We look at workaholics and promise to produce more, which means we should force ourselves to take courses that teach us potential money-making schemes. If a student clocks up enough hours of sleepless nights, submits an infinite number of assignments and reproduces his or her text books in the exams, said student is said to fit the bill for the perfect candidate for a job. If the formula for producing a hard-working individual was that easy, then I would consider myself a front runner based simply on the number of sleepless nights spent. It would be wrong of me to say that this does not create a hard-working individual. But it would also be wrong to say that this individual is any different from the many other hard-working individuals. What this ends up producing are clones of the same traits; workaholics who can follow a given set of instructions to the core but will falter at the merest thought of surviving a day without those instructions. Charles Darwin talked about the theory of evolution, which gave form to man as we know him today. What a Pakistani society is doing is fighting with the very laws of evolution. Evolution considers things to be different from one another, but in producing these clones, we are ensuring that all our people are the same. What, then, will become the identity of a person? Individuality, which is the highest forte for every human being, is ultimately lost.
The Science that our society holds so dear conducts its experiments on lab rats. What is it that makes human beings different from rats? Perhaps the fact that those rats are all the same, while humans aren’t? If that is the case, then Pakistani human beings are no different than rats. We all want the same things and we all end up competing for the same things, a prestigious college degree and a good paying job being two of the supremely important things on that list. We are caught up in this incessant rat race to be ahead of the others, but what we don’t realize is that the problem with the rat race is that even when you win, you’re still a rat. The race to be the fore runner is nothing short of the survival of the fittest, an idea that Science guises under the banner of ‘natural selection’ but which, from a Philosophical standpoint, is nothing short of jungle culture. Isn’t it about time that we stop behaving like animals and accept our humanity?
I feel like I would disappear if I get caught up in the furrows of job seeking; stuck in a trench, unable to get out, my voice not heard outside. I want to work after college, but I don’t want to go back to the same trench to work, and be still caught in endless progressions of morning coffees and numbers that reign supreme. I don’t wish to be another alias; I wish to have my own identity.
Why I hold a degree in Humanities so close to my heart is for this precise reason only: it allows me to embrace my individuality. I have learnt that there is no single correct answer to any question. Every student produces a different answer, and their work is graded on the quality of what they produce. I never have to worry about what the person sitting next to me in an exam may be writing or whether my answer is as long as the one written by the smartass of the class. What I know, and almost worship, is the fact that the answers I generate reflect the person I am, and just like no two answers can be the same, no two persons can be the same either.
Maybe it stems from the fact that Pakistan is a third world country, but our society’s obsession with everything monetary is disconcerting. A college degree is looked at specifically in terms of the extrinsic (read: monetary) value it can provide, as opposed to the intrinsic value of an education. Four years of grind come down to nothing more than being evaluated on the basis of the number of zeros on a person’s first paycheck. A New York Times blog article said that “…college is to nourish a world on intellectual culture…Otherwise, we could provide job-training and basic social and moral formation for young adults far more efficiently and cheaply, through, say, a combination of professional and trade schools, and public service programs.” This is, perhaps, something that the Pakistani society fails to understand, that college is much more than just training for a decent job. Students are not pawns to be polished for prospective employers to have a bidding war over. They are people; individuals who deserve the right to choose their own path. We produce more of these identical prospective employees than there are job placements, but when are we going to accept that we’re making a mistake in doing that?
Whether it is the many Philosophy courses I have taken or just that I chose to do what I wanted, but the fact of the matter remains that I’ve become immune to talks about the monetary worth of my college degree. Every time someone mentions it, I have a mental image of students holding up their degrees in their hands while an auctioneer tries to sell them off. It is depressing, to say the least. I refuse to be put in a spotlight and scrutinized by people – the sight will be no different than when looking for sacrificial animals of Eid-ul-Azha. And whatever the case may be, at the end of the day, we are not animals. Sea pearls are sometimes encased in oysters, and it takes removing the outer oyster to expose the beauty within. Perhaps it is boastful of me to think of students as pearls, but we do seem to be trapped inside a mollusk – our society’s stereotypes.
Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am.” What is paramount in his evergreen quote is the use of the word ‘think’. Why produce more Doctors and Engineers who can recite an entire page from some obscure text book, but are baffled when it comes to creative thinking. We can produce good workers, hard-working people, but where do we go when we need decision-makers and managers? In shunning any unorthodox form of education, what the Pakistani society is doing is limiting creative thinking and putting a stop to the advent of new and innovative ideas. Consider the example of Bill Gates. He did not become a billionaire by finishing college. Or Mark Zuckerberg did not create Facebook by sticking to his college courses. What these people produced are examples of how far innovation can take you. They did not create Microsoft and Facebook while sticking to societal norms of finishing college. But why we can never expect any such phenomena to take place in Pakistan is because no one breaks free of the standards that society has been functioning on since the advent of time, it seems.