Thursday, July 30, 2009

An American Education

Disclaimer : I was NOT paid by the US Department of Education to write this one :)

The trigger for this post was an article I read recently on the American education system, it's merits and de-merits.

Having done my schooling in India and undergrad & post-graduate education in the United States, I can truly appreciate the differences in the educational systems of the two countries. One can argue that primary & secondary education in India is much more rigorous and therefore better than that in the US. This is often cited as one of the main reasons Indian students do so well at colleges abroad.

However, as far as college education goes I strongly believe that the American education system is far superior to the Indian system. It’s more inclusive, well-rounded, and colleges in the US have much better infrastructure that give students easy access to material outside of their coursework, contributing to the quality of education. Not to mention sprawling campuses where you spend some of the most memorable years of your life!

Take for instance the fact that students can choose their own major irrespective of how much they scored in Class 12th (or senior year of high school for Americans). They can decide to major in any subject they want, whereas in India their Class 12th scores determine what subject they will be allowed to major in. That I think is the biggest limitation of the Indian higher education system. Kids are forced to take up subjects they have no interest in just because they couldn’t attain the minimum required marks for the subject of their choice. I think it’s pathetic.

Colleges in the US also require students to take a bunch of ‘electives’ during their first two years of college. These ‘electives’ could be as diverse as religion, astronomy, music, anthropology, archeology, European history post World War II, social psychology, sociology etc. for someone who might be interested in majoring in Economics, Computer Science or Biology!!

The fact that you can take classes across such diverse streams gives you a perspective on widespread issues and helps you develop as a person. And the best part is that you’re not even required to declare your major until the beginning of your 3rd year in college, so you can explore various subjects before deciding on what you want to major in. Even if you had declared a tentative major during your first two years, you have the option of changing it at the beginning of the 3rd year.

You also have the option of doing a double-major, i.e. specializing in two subjects simultaneously. I did a double-major in Economics & Psychology, which paved the way for a Masters in Behavioral Economics.

Your final grade in a class is determined not only by your final exam but also on the mid-term exam and a series of papers you write through the course of the semester. The papers that you’re expected to write would include a great deal of research outside your text books. You’d end up issuing books from the library, researching the internet, watching movies/documentaries on the subject etc. - in order to come up with a well-substantiated argument or point of view.

I remember once I had to watch a series of plays by Shakespeare in order to write my own interpretation of the way he used female characters in his plays - for Shakespeare was widely criticized for being a chauvinist while others argued that he created his female characters keeping in mind the times he wrote in! Another time I had to watch a series of movies on human behavior in different crisis situations in order to write a paper for my personality psychology class.

When I was in school in India I never thought exams could be completely tension-free! Which Indian student does? But exams in the US aren’t the least bit intimidating as they are more subjective than objective. They aren’t about memorizing information and regurgitating it onto the examination sheet. They’re about analyzing information in a logical or creative manner – depending on the context – and presenting it in the form of a coherent argument. The focus isn’t as much on questions that have a right & a wrong answer but more on one’s point of view.

There are open-book exams & take-home exams. This would sound like an alien concept to anyone who’s used to the rigmarole of the Indian education system. The terms are pretty self-explanatory. In open book exams, you're allowed to refer to your books while answering the questions, and in take-home exams you're given the questions a week or so in advance and you can submit your answers on the day of the exams.

In-class exams are usually unsupervised – something unimaginable in India! Rather they are based on the Honor Code system. Each student signs the Honor Code at the end of the exam stating that he/she has neither given nor received any unauthorized aid during the exam, and trust me, it works! Students do abide by it. I guess it works at a psychological level...and in any case I feel people in the West are inherently more ethical than Indians.

I think the biggest strengths of the American education system are that it lets you be what you want to be rather than shoving some antiquated redundant idea down your throat, doesn’t judge you on the basis of one instance alone, and encourages you to think beyond the text book, helping you develop as a much more well-rounded person.

More liberating than the Indian education system, don’t you think?


The knife said...

I was horrifed when I shifted to ICSE from O Level (Brit) in the 4th standard and was introduced to the concept of exams

Scarlett said...

@The Knife - I feel exams are redundant in today's times. The focus should be on application as that's eventually what we're expected to do once we start working.