On education

Just completed the movie “An Education” starring Carrey Mulligan and Peter Skarsgaard. The world works in a funny way when movies – which seem simple enough – are the most though-provoking things around. Having read about the movie, and heard rave reviews about it from friends, at a girls’ night in, we just couldn’t pass it up.

So the movie embodies naïveté, first love, growing up and learning from your mistakes. But the movie is not new. It’s from 2009, so I’d expect that the storyline is familiar to most. It follow much of the classic Hollywood examples. Yet what caught my eye was a scene in which the protagonist – Jenny, played by Carey Mulligan – challenges her parents and teachers about ‘education’. In her childish ways, she asks why formal education is even necessary for women and why that education no longer mattered if one had someone else to rely on (i.e. a husband) – this is set in the 1960s. This I found to be the best under-appreciated scene in the movie.

She was childish, true; she was insolent, true. But as someone who has gone through the motions of higher education, I think her questions are pertinent. As a woman living in the 60s, her questions seem insolent – why would a woman not want to succeed through a university education? But alas, I find it ironic that in the 21st century, that question is forgotten. Ask many a student on the street, ‘Why are you going to university?’ and you’d be hard pressed to find a satisfactory answer. In our quest to increase educational levels, we have forgotten why we are here. And I find this loss of purpose a great disturbance to the future.

We no longer go to university because it was ‘exceedingly rare’. We no longer go to university (in the classical sense of the word – see note) because it is the only way to have a job (for women). We no longer go to university because we want to travel, see the world, explore. Many of us go to university because it was the right thing to do, without so much as a bat of the eyelid. Does university offer us a new future for the world? It certainly offers us the tools to change our world, but does that knowledge still contain value?

I’ve found that many of us go to university without a purpose, without a passion and sometimes with a purpose or passion that is not ours. As someone who did not really consider the ramifications of a university education, I am guilty of such a lack of purpose. We spent an important part of our lives dreaming a dream not our own. So as much as I am – NOW – an advocate of university (and post-graduate) education, I find that we need to do so with a purpose that is wholly our own. In the words of my professor, ‘It is your passion in life that will lead you through all sorts of shit.’

And this is especially true – even now – for women. Call me bizarre, but I do believe that women especially need to understand why they are pursuing higher education. Primarily because social pressures exist everywhere to deter us off course. The pressure to form a family, have children, stay at home, take care of our parents. I do not pretend that these social pressures exist. To think that they do not is to fail to see the reality of social mores. Childcare is not a crime, no, but does it have to be the woman that takes time off to do it? Housework is important, yes (and quite necessary for survival, I have learnt), but is it necessary for the woman to do it all? If women do not understand why they are in university, and why it is important that they are in university, pursuing what they want, I don’t quite trust society to give them a break. Every summer that I return home, a familiar beat is drummed: Women who are not married/dating by the age of 30 need to be pressured to do so.

And this regardless of the level of university education they receive or even how intelligent they are. Are they not capable of surviving a life without a male companion? Are they lesser beings?

So for me Jenny’s fight rings true. I do not work so hard, for so long, just to be married off. I am here and working harder than ever before because it is a difficult world to succeed in, and I want to stand on my own two feet. Alone with friends and maybe some pots and pans, if necessary. It is movies like this and ‘Mona Lisa Smile‘ that make me think and re-think my educational purpose.

Ask me in 10 years if I changed my mind.

But till then.


*Note: When used in this context, I take university to mean the institution that offers higher education in the form of disciplines, Humanities, Arts, Social Sciences, Natural and Physical Sciences. Different technological and vocational hybrid institutions are challenging this model, but for the most part universities have remained quite classical in their classification of knowledge. i.e. Anthropology is a social science while Chemical Engineering is a Natural/Physical science.


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