Forcing students to specialize too early

The Calcutta Telegraph had an article a few days ago about the St Xaviers College, Kolkata moving to a more flexible subject regimen that closely resembles the American system of having a “major” and a “minor”. This is in stark contrast with the usual Indian system, where one has to choose one’s specialization (or “stream”) in high-school (typically at the age of 16). In high school, a student can go for one of science, arts or commerce “streams”, and more often than not, the choice is not made by the student, but by the parents of the student (something, as I have seen, that can lead to disastrous results). Students who score more in tests typically go in for science, and the rest are delegated to either arts or commerce. When it comes to applying to college, high-school students who have studied science have the option of applying for either science/engineering subjects or humanities subjects (the Indian college system makes one choose one’s specialization right from the start). The “lesser” arts/commerce students do not have an option, and continue studying the subjects they chose in the beginning of high school. Given this very rigid subject segregation, I would certainly say that St Xaviers has taken a bold and potentially transformative step, though it remains to be seen whether the students, who are coming in from the already segregated system in school, take advantage of the flexibility.

In my opinion, the stream system forces students to make a choice too early. This has two major effects:

  • Unless a student makes an active effort to look beyond the subjects and the syllabus, the system gives rise to a very narrow world-view.
  • In some cases, the choice made by the student (or more likely, the student’s parents) does not work out well, leading to the student losing confidence in himself, and in some cases, even dropping out of school or college

Of course, a school student might have a particular fascination or interest towards a given subject or area, but making everyone specialize at the age of 16 does not make any sense. Something like the Advanced Placement system in American schools, or even something like the “additional subject” system in Indian secondary schools is a much better solution that allows motivated students to learn more, but at the same time, in the end, give everyone an equal chance to not just follow, but discover their passion. I really hope that the St Xaviers experiment trickles down to the school system.

January 23, 2012