Prinecton, New Jersey: Why would an Indian student travel halfway around the world to enrol in an undergraduate degree at Princeton, only to then choose an elective course on Mughal history?
The answer to that concise riddle may well illustrate the push of Indian education and the pull of the American system.
“I chose the course out of curiosity, really—just to see how they would teach it here,” says Jahnabi Barooah, who left India wanting to study computer science. “And it’s so interesting! Earlier, in school, Mughal history would just be dates and battles. Here you think and analyse and write.”
Princeton student Jahnabi Barooah (Photo by: Brendan McInerney / Mint)
Barooah wasn’t the only Indian student in that class. Sukrit Silas and Nikhil Seth, two more of the six Indian undergraduates at Princeton being tracked by Mint as part of its series on The Indian Education Dream, had registered for the course as well.
That course was taught by Bhavani Raman, a graduate of St Stephen’s and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a new assistant professor of history at Princeton. Her background gives her wide experience in education in India as well as the US. She contends that it is not merely how a subject such as history is taught, but how it is perceived that may make the difference.
“I wonder if in general the assumed problem about history teaching in India is partly caused by a general disinterest in Indian middle-class families with history and greater investment in the sciences and engineering,” she says.
“(History) is not considered the track for high achievers, and I would imagine that is a very important problem,” Raman adds. “Students who want to become engineers or doctors don’t think that knowing history is relevant. So, the issue isn’t merely of not having innovative or interesting teaching methods or textbooks, although, of course, this is also an issue.”
Princeton gave Barooah, Silas and Seth their first taste of the famously broadbased American undergraduate education—where you need to declare a major only one-third of the way into the degree, where you can change tack at any point towards another stream, where a substantial number of your classes need have no relation to your major whatsoever.
This pliant system turned out to suit Barooah better than she expected. “When I came to Princeton, I thought I wanted to major in computer science,” she says. “But when I took a computer science course, it destroyed me.” She then considered economics, and her major now is operations research and financial engineering. “But I want to be able switch from that if I don’t like it too much.”
Namita Devidayal, who obtained a bachelor’s in political science from Princeton in 1991, is real-life proof that your undergraduate choices don’t necessarily define what you become.
“I had no idea at the time what I wanted to do. I thought political science would be interesting, but it was quite boring,” Devidayal, now a writer and musician, says. During her undergraduate years, she began writing as an extracurricular activity and found her vocation. “No matter what you’re studying, though, they expose you to a way of thinking, of being able to analyse and express yourself,” she adds.
In her year at Princeton, Barooah has dipped her feet into various pools of study—exactly as Princeton would want her to do. In her first semester, she took a class on literature and human rights. Next semester, she has her roving eye on a course on the religions of India and on a philosophy seminar abstrusely titled, ‘Perfecting Life: Designing Choice, Designing Memories, Designing Death.’
It isn’t just the content of these courses that is appealing, Seth points out; it is how the students are taught to think. “Our papers, for instance, have to be at least 25 pages long, so a certain amount of planning is required,” he says. “The thought process that goes into it is very different, and very intensive.”
Every first-year student at Princeton is required to take a writing seminar, to learn how to craft academic papers the American way. The Princeton seminars focus on stating a thesis, posing arguments and counter-arguments, and thus winding up to a climax.
“We had a different approach to writing back home,” says Barooah. “We built just one argument. So, my first paper here was horrible! But my writing seminar teacher was very nice, so my grades consistently improved.”
Their classes require of Barooah, Seth and Silas a very different sort of reading rigour as well. “Keeping up with the reading is tough. There are usually 200-300 pages per class per week, and since you take four or five classes each semester, that’s over 1,000 pages of reading each week,” says Seth. “That’s a huge change from school, and I struggled in the first semester. But I’m better now.” Seth figured out, as he puts it, how to “read effectively”. “You have to read into the text,” he says. “You have to be selective, you have to take notes.” For her history course, Barooah begins her readings 2am on the morning of the class and plugs away till midday.
With their science and mathematics-based classes, the Indian students seem to have an easier ride—but only if they wish it. Barooah is repeating physics and math that she did in high school. “Those are my easiest classes,” she says. “I don’t study for those.” Silas, however, got impatient once when a professor took 15 minutes to explain the properties of a straight-line graph, and he chose an intensive, multi-semester regimen, known as integrated science.
One common perception is that for Indian students, after the CBSE grind, all collegiate science in America should be a cakewalk. “But in the integrated science physics courses, for instance, the first semester included class XI physics, but it also pulled down some statistical mechanics from third-year college portions,” says Silas. “In the second semester, it pulled down quantum mechanics. Next semester, our biology course will do the same.”
The one intensely familiar element to them all, though, is the razor-edge competitiveness, exactly as it was back home.
“Everybody’s very ambitious here, trying to get the edge over everybody else,” says Seth. “Trust me, you don’t want to get left behind.”