Dhaka, Bangladesh
Move beyond the familiar

Move beyond the familiar

It is easy to conform to a certain way of thinking, doing and speaking. The challenge and reward lie in leaving one's comfort zone. Okay, so it's that time of year when we make resolutions and then proceed to ignore them for the next twelve months, until it's time to do it all over again. If there's anything I've learned in my relatively long stint on this planet, it's not to make resolutions… but to make plans, instead. Resolutions are those shiny things that hover somewhere in the stratosphere, glinting with hope, but somewhat low on clarity. Plans, on the other hand, have weight and texture, and, most importantly, steps and a timeline. Resolutions say "I (hope I) will …", while plans say "This is how I will." Last week in this paper, Aruna Sankaranarayanan wrote lucidly about why we need to focus on the process rather than the outcome. So, I won't repeat that valuable piece of advice, but rather, look at what one might plan to do. Princeton University recently proposed that students be required to study at least one foreign language as part of their general education, even if they already have knowledge of a language other than English at the time they enter. Many universities used to require this, but over time the language requirement has become something of a formality - and this is pretty much the case in Indian universities too, where the "Part 2" language papers are seen as an insignificant irritant. The Princeton proposal uses the familiar argument that learning a new language, or even gaining a higher level of competence in a familiar one, develops a skill that is not provided by most other kinds of disciplinary learning. It is a window to a different way of understanding, a new vocabulary, and possibly a slightly different manner of interpreting experience and reality. Most of us, when we enter college, are signing on to a set of courses that are closely aligned, or complementary. They offer a cohesive way of looking at the world and dealing with it. Those in engineering or science programmes learn the underlying logic of the natural world and how to manipulate it or further uncover it, while those in the social sciences and humanities do the same with the social and symbolic world. We get comfortable with a certain way of thinking, doing and speaking. The challenges we seek and meet are usually within that familiar framework. Learning a new language is not the only way to open our minds to different ways of thinking, or to new vocabularies - both verbal and non-verbal. The learning of any new skill that is outside our disciplinary boundaries can do this. If one is a science major, then learning how to paint, or to appreciate (or even write) poetry can do that. Or if one is a sociology major, learning how to write code or fix a car can nudge the mind in different directions. With the abundance of online and open courseware, one does not have to go very far to find courses that take you outside this comfort zone. And what's more, it is possible to do this without the pressures of a conventional classroom or the fear of judgment.

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