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Why do we seek education?

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MAY 05, 2016

Nine days away from graduation, after spending four years (and an amazing amount of money) to study at the No. 1 public institution in the world, I, along with many others, am still asking, “Why do we seek education?” For many of us, the answer that comes first to our minds is this: jobs. But is there no merit to education beyond finding a job or beyond economic security? It’s an important question that has haunted me and many of you throughout college.

In 2012, I came to Berkeley as a really confused freshman with interest in economics, physics and politics, and in just about two weeks, I will leave Berkeley a proud graduate in economics and business. It took a mixture of luck and a realization of my own limitations when it comes to what I would be willing to dedicate my career to. But when I looked at the factors — economics majors are in high demand in the workplace, UC Berkeley doesn’t even offer a political science minor and physics is more of an intellectual subject for me than a career choice — it made it much easier for me to choose my majors than a lot of you.

As I reflect back on my education today, though, I can point out a number of nonmajor classes I took that have contributed more to my growth than some of my major classes. This spring, I had the privilege to audit a class instructed by Darren Zook on peace and security in contemporary South Asia, a class that I probably went to more often than some of the classes I was registered for. I’ve often wondered if I should be taking on more classes than needed in my final semester of college when senioritis is at its peak. My argument to myself is always this: Yes, because I see value in taking classes and gaining knowledge from spheres beyond the curriculum set by the campus.

Please don’t get me wrong — I have thoroughly enjoyed the major-centric courses I have taken here, be it the class taught by Barry Eichengreen on the 20th-century world economy or the class taught by Rob Chandra on alternative investing. But my nonmajor classes have contributed distinct skills and experiences to my growth at Berkeley.

You could argue that everybody has the opportunity to take classes outside of their major. Well, not really! Our education system, despite its institutionally required breadth classes, binds us in a tight construct of requirements, leaving little space to explore and experiment with education. Departments offer little flexibility in terms of selecting cross-departmental electives and students often find no time to dig deeper into any particular breadth area they felt passionate about.

If a student finds themselves in a place where their interest lies in a area not highly demanded by the market, they often end up with two nonoptimal choices: selecting majors that seem convenient and ditching subjects that they are passionate about or following their passion and facing the risk of a weak job market. This decision of ours is fueled by insecurity, augmented by pressure from both parents and society at large.

Our demand for different kinds of skills has always been unequal, and rightly so. Any economic and industrial structure will favor one kind of jobs over another. But today’s job market for college students focuses very heavily on highly technical jobs. This gross disparity is a reflection of both a structural shift in the American economy toward a service sector based economy focused on technology and finance, and the inability of our education system to empower all kinds of majors to become job creators in their own areas.

Despite having a relatively better education system, most American universities still lack educational programs that allow students to combine their passion with skills that are most demanded in the workplace. Our formal education, in putting students into silos, often does little to make an engineer understand how her products impact social inequity and fails to teach an anthropology major how to convert his ideas into successful companies.

Standing on the edge of student life and peering into the oblivion we call the “real world,” I truly believe that despite the shortcomings of our educational system, graduating from UC Berkeley puts us at a distinct advantage. The ideals of dialogue and (sometimes chaotic) debate that Sproul Plaza symbolizes, the respect for diversity and equality that our public mission embodies and the breadth of classes (though we often struggle or fail to incorporate them into our schedules) whose ideas range from “Language and Power” to “Drugs and the Brain” — they all represent that advantage.

In a world where racism still exists, religious intolerance is on the rise, income inequality persists and poverty still affects one in five children living in the richest country in the world, we need more people who can understand how our economic policies affect different communities. We need to create an equal system of valuing knowledge and bring people together to create products that move us toward our shared ideals.

Akshay Balwani was the 2015-16 managing publisher. He joined The Daily Californian in fall 2012 as an account executive. He is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in economics and business.


Contact Akshay Balwani [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @akshayblive.

MAY 04, 2016