DUB Speak

The Compartmentalisation of Learning

Let us set the premise of this article by a hypothetical yet very real situation.

You are enrolled in a university as a student of subject ‘A’. But you are also curious about other fields of study ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘Q’ etc. You study the concerned texts for those subjects – strictly academic and more general literature. But as you go through a few pages, generally, one these two phenomena happen –

  • You get confused and eventually lost in the technical jargon about that particular field.
  • You actually enjoy the piece. But there is also surging guilt at the back of your mind because you realise that your own subject requires a lot of study, and what you’re reading now has absolutely no direct relevance to your conventional career path.

In both of these cases, you end up closing the book, never to open it again. If this has ever happened to you, read on. If it hasn’t, well, try being a little more curious, and still read on, because the problem needs to be addressed.

There is severe compartmentalisation of education, and it affects us in apparent ways on a daily basis. Yet, it seems as though we have turned a blind eye to it. I’ll take the example of curriculum structure in theUniversity of Delhi (DU) and wider assessments can be made. In all arts, science and commerce honours courses in DU, we have little to no scope of studying any other subject practically. In simple English, if you are, like me, a student of Economics, then psychology, philosophy, political science etc. are strictly ‘other’ subjects for you. You don’t perceive their knowledge to be of any direct (and sometimes even indirect) consequence to your honours degree in Economics, and your fabulous career thereafter. Often, your judgement proves to be right. But that is not because your judgement is stupendous, but because the judgement of both academia and the industry is, on the whole, also flawed.

But why is it flawed? They are really different subjects, each having its own terminology and laws, carefully developed across centuries and critical to passing on the knowledge of that subject to the new generation. Moreover, today’s world is not a world of polymaths. With the advancement of human knowledge, each field of study has made unprecedented progress and to study one of them requires exclusive attention from the learner for many years. One can be startled by Aristotle, Da Vinci, Tagore etc., but must also appreciate the fact that they lived in times much different from today’s world, where education has become specialised.

I agree with the aforementioned reasoning. Wholeheartedly. After one point, any discipline requires a student’s exclusive attention. But I must ask – is not all knowledge related? Are not all disciplines inter-twined? More practically, will an engineer who has studied sociology, economics and political science not be a more aware citizen than someone with only four years of engineering training? Will an economist who has studied history carefully not have a better sense as to what should be done to avoid another financial crisis than someone who has not? Will a student of any subject who has not studied philosophy be ever able to appreciate that philosophy is the essence of all kinds of knowledge?

When two friends with different honours streams sit and talk about their majors, they are essentially speaking on two parallel levels that never intersect. One speaks and the other listens. And then the other speaks with almost zero connection to what the first one said. That is because both people use ‘specialised’ words, exclusive to their field of study, impenetrable by all other people. This jargon is what initially creates boundaries, or compartments, in education. When your friend from Psychology shares her dilemma with you; you, an Economics major, cannot give her any practical advice. Neither can explain even simple concepts of one’s subject to the other because we rarely give a thought to simplify our own learning. We are attracted by complexity. We use words in our answers we really don’t understand because we know that making things simpler won’t fetch us marks. In this complex world, we are made to understand, simplicity is mediocrity and mediocrity is a sin beyond forgiveness.

Students from different streams simply cannot understand each other. The inability to understand leads to ignorance, which is ever-lasting. The discussions during our lectures never involve examples from other disciplines, unless some rouge professor vaguely mentions a thing or two making a pass. We are given under the Choice Based Credit System (CBCS), an option of studying one or more Generic Electives (GE) across four semesters, but our choices are guided mostly by herd-mentality, and rarely out of our own curiosity.

The compartmentalization doesn’t stop there. Once we have erected walls around our majors, we create sub-boundaries within our subjects. We separate each subsequent topic from the previous, and try to understand each topic in part, rather than forming a logical sequence of all topics as a whole. Ultimately, we end up with fragments of knowledge about the subject we majored in – basically, almost as stupid as we started.

This is not a recent problem. This disease has manifested itself across generations and is today in its most vicious form – creating ignorant individuals who strongly believe they know a lot, and a society that never corrects them. It is no surprise that this translates into master’s as well as doctoral studies. Although the academic world is seeing a positive trend of very practical inter-disciplinary courses, the industry is yet to even acknowledge this problem. Although engineers are being made to study social sciences, and arts students are being made to study basic natural sciences compulsorily, the progress rate and scale is far from desired.

But why is this a problem that needs an immediate remedy? The answer requires some pondering, but is fairly simple. It comes down to the basic purpose of education. The desired end behind educating ourselves is not merely getting a job – it is only a means to sustain our daily lives. If we’re privileged enough to attain higher education, our ultimate purpose is to enhance the knowledge around us. At the moment, our way of living mirrors a highly hierarchical corporate institution. In that institution, there are so many divisions that a common worker has no clue as to what her purpose is in the company, yet it won’t be surprising if she’s a so and so manager/officer/expert. Compartmentalization creates these impenetrable differences, which lead to divided action. If the purpose of higher learning is really (as we are told in our temples of learning) to create a better world for tomorrow, we must begin to appreciate that there are other kinds of knowledge different from our own, and we shall need them in our lives.

Now, this is all very good for making a fiery public speech and garnering applause, but we need to find practical solutions to this. We need to start small. We have the platforms already. We need to start utilising them and then create new platforms for inter-disciplinary integration. In generic elective classes under CBCS, we have students from multiple disciplines. Teachers and students must, during the classes, initiate debates and discussions which force us to link our major to the other majors, and develop a holistic perspective to the knowledge we are taking.

The projects, assignments, reports etc. of a GE must involve a group of students from different disciplines. Or, they must be more broad-ended and challenging. Say, a Political Science generic elective assignment on early Western Political Thought must be open enough for a Sociology student to critically analyse social relations of the time; for an Economics student to write his opinion stemming from the trade relations and patterns of the time, all from the same text.

Then, for one instance, we can have Economics and Psychology students working together on a joint statistical assignment that carries marks. These practical solutions will inculcate a much-needed cross-disciplinary culture that will open tremendous new possibilities for higher learning in India.

We have created a dangerous world for ourselves with our approach to education. A world of false prestige and real disappointment. Those privileged enough to attain a quality higher education have prestige oozing out of their bodies. Yet the world is more unequal today than ever. The action must come right now!


Feature Image Credits: Blogspot


Alyasa Abbas



(Alyasa is a third-year B.A. Economics (Honours) student from Zakir Husain Delhi College.)