For a few hours, we thought we could forget our distance from home, we thought we could separate ourselves from the stark contrasts between poverty and wealth that had defined our stay thus far in India. I thought I would be able to, at least, as I sat in a luxuriously air conditioned hotel boardroom watching a Bollywood film entitled Three Idiots. Flashy, fun, and at times emotional wrenching, Three Idiots surprised me by instead carrying a vitally important cultural message. Set at an intensely competitive engineering school, the film focuses on a group of three boys, one of whom refuses to conform to the norms of education: stiff, with no room for love of the topic, and instead centered on reaching for success. The antagonist of the story embraces rote memorization and does not rebel, as the protagonist does. Over the course of the movie, the protagonist eventually becomes more successful and satisfied than the antagonist. The movie also addresses the high suicide rate amongst Indian students, dealing seriously with the consequences of mindless and joyless pressure. This message, of aiming for true learning, living in the moment, and finding happiness is at the core of the movie and epitomized by the phrase the protagonist repeats to give himself the courage to face difficult situations: "all is well." After spending a week staying with a student who attends the Cathedral School, an elite school here in Mumbai, and based on my own experiences in Andover, I am all too familiar with this kind of pressure. My initial reaction to the film made me simply want to live a different and better life. I wanted to embrace a life where I found happiness in even the most difficult times of intense study, where I rediscovered the passion for learning that has driven me this far. I was reminded of what Jinali, my home-stay host, had told me about the extreme pressures she felt were put on Indian students to get into college, and how I had felt a deep connection to that experience. At the same time, I knew those two experiences were in many ways drastically different. Certainly, in the US we have to memorize facts, but in the upper crust pressure cooker schools we also often embrace a culture of more expressive forms of writing, reading, and exploring. We are encouraged to learn how to form opinions. In younger grades, topics considered "fluffy" are still included, as we are encouraged to be ourselves and embrace individualism. There is still a culture that appears to encourage finding ourselves; that quickly, however, becomes an effort to create ourselves instead. What is the value of rote memorization? To make the playing field equal for more kids. Yet this seems ineffective, too, since then only the privileged end up having the time to experience anything else, as they try to do at Cathedral.
For me, all of this also connected back to our trip to Dharavi. So many of my peers commented on how great it was that these people could work so hard. Others envied their ability to have a community, thought we may not be able to tell the strength of their community. Either way, I felt that there was something lacking based on my life experience. Education and facing new unique challenges is necessary to our humanity. Whether it is book learning or simply dealing with life, human beings crave intellectual challenge. To never exercise our minds makes us unable to explore identity and makes us feel trapped, lacking the movement and progress we crave. More than just being challenged, from an American perspective, and from my perspective, we also crave the ability to move and control our lives. We need stability and the faith that our actions will pay off in order to have true freedom. An education can provide both of these. Human beings naturally have curiosity; it is oppression to prevent a group from exercising this curiosity. Without an education system, of course, people find ways to creatively use their minds. That's why I think we see so much ingenuity in communities that are prevented from having a traditional education system. However, they still can't move up or craft their lives in the same way. Education is the key.
But education can also be a curse, and at the same time I believe that education is absolutely necessary to creating opportunity and bringing freedom, it can also do the opposite. As Three Idiots and my own life has pointed out, the pressure from an education that values only results and disregards process can be equally damaging. It doesn't allow for the freedom, growth, and challenge that humans crave. We don't even have freedom, really, when a line pushes us towards a single goal and we have no choices. In some ways this places us in a mental state similar to those in Dharavi, though of course only in this one regard. And at the end of the day, we can always choose to confront our parents and rebel. We can choose, if wealthy or educated, to shape the course of our lives. For that audience, the message in Three Idiots was relevant. But what about those who have no such option, and have been force to live out there role as homemaker or laborer. Do those who rebel disregard the sacrifices of their parents?
And is freedom the goal? From an American perspective, yes. But maybe self-discovery doesn't necessarily come from education and the freedom to move and change our lives. Maybe it isn't about creating ourselves, it's about finding ourselves. Live discovery is about finding our role, our dharma, for which we are made. But then, do we still need education? And where are the signs or reasons to tell us where to find that path. The purpose of education and the definition of freedom still elude me. All I know is that I must keep asking these questions, and through doing so receive a truer education.