You were really lucky to have benefited from a liberal arts education. If I had to do my education all over again, that’s exactly what I would do. Although there are a few options to pursue the less-trodden upon path in India, the “smarter” i.e., the kids who excel in school, are expected to pursue a STEM degree. I rebelled a bit and instead chose architecture which my parents justified in their head because it was a scientific art degree and also, the fact that I was the 21st living potential architect in my extended family. So hardly a rebellion. But at least that education exposed me to history, elements of design, society & culture, vernacular context, etc something I would’ve have learned in an Indian engineering college.
But even then I think I made a mistake of choosing a college based on the potential of the faculty rather than the potential of my peers. I should have understood better the importance of how peer norms and peer expectations drive your motivation and expose you to things that you didn’t even know that you didn’t know (sorry, Rumsfeld). But I think I managed to make amends when deciding to pursue my graduate education in the U.S. I choose Public Administration & Public Policy. You can imagine the puzzled looks on the faces of my Indian acquaintances until I realized I could stop trying to explain by simply saying, “With this degree, I may work at the World Bank or the United Nations”. This is partly true only because no one had any idea what exactly those two organizations do in their day-to-day functioning.
This brings me to your question of “what are some of the foundational ideas that guide your thinking on education”. If I had to put it in one term, I would say, critical thinking. The ability to understand the question before you even try to come up with a solution and how constraints in our thinking (as Simon called it, bounded rationality) affect what we do and what we decide to do. One of the best classes I took in grad school was Logic in Public Policy and believe it or not, it was one of my first formal courses in philosophy and how it affects our decision-making especially in the world of policies. Discovering the various fallacies and argument styles may have caused some of my friends to hate me when I called on their BS but it also let me read everything with fresh eyes. The work of John Rawls’ and his Theory of Justice (Fair and Just) has informed my thinking ever since and has helped tremendously in understanding issues of equity that often my STEM friends have trouble wrapping their heads around.
I totally relate with the uncertainty that you experience when you read or learn more but I’ve always found much truth in Will Durant’s quote - “education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance”. And THAT is exactly what separates us. Admitting that we do not know everything and are also uncertain about the things we know is I think, the essence of education. That feeling, I believe, keeps us learning for a lifetime and there’s no such thing as “I have completed my education”. Some consider this snobby but strangely, it keeps me humble knowing that there is much to learn out there. We can only be more certain but never 100% certain so I’m often bemused by people who are always absolutely certain. and don’t experience self-doubt. Perhaps working at a university where this belief is ground into you may have helped (nurture v nature) but after many years of reflection, I’m at peace with how this feels.
I may have been all over the place in this letter but I wanted to write back before it got too late as we wind down the month.
Isn’t it amazing how that Rumsfeld quote is so dang useful from such a horrible man? I swear, it comes up constantly in my life.
The Veil of Ignorance remains a powerful way to see the world for me, and I’m sure even more so for you having experienced life in India and the US. I have found it particular powerful as someone privileged to be born here with typical American blindness that comes with it to consider this as part of my own conception of justice.
The unknowable used to haunt more more. I do agree, of course, with the “progressive discovery of our own ignorance” and I have no problem with the academic standby of “it depends” that gets so skewered. Lately though, I’ve been more terrified by the “known”. It feels like all around us we face challenges that are very much known with solutions that are very much known and a social-political-cultural context that cannot act in the collective interest.
I’m curious given your varied experiences with public policy and experience in a large, growing country outside of the west with a very different state apparatus– where do you lie on our ability to solve problems? This is an odd way to phrase it, but it’s a big question. What I mean, for example, is where do your impulses go on participatory, small “d” democracy, local governance, etc versus centralization, technocracy, professionalization, etc. It feels like this is a core tension in US education, the localist of local control democracy in many cases, but it’s also a core tension facing us with climate change, global war, tackling poverty, healthcare, and more. I think a lot about how we’ve managed to build a system that seems almost uniquely poorly suited to address the problems of the day, while understanding the history and context and successes that led us here.
I’d also like to know about a space you love. As someone who studied architecture, what is a home, a building, a public square, any where that grabs you? What makes it feel special?