When my friends and I were growing up in the late seventies in India, selecting our subjects of study in high school and later in college/university, were a done deal. There was not much to go on with. It was Science, Arts or Commerce in high school as broad streams of study – which opened up a few more opportunities in college/university. Science students could choose from physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics as the vanilla options. Or, branch out to more career-oriented studies like engineering and medicine – which opened up further options either based on the stream of engineering we chose (mechanical, electrical, electronics, etc.) or later during post-graduate studies with specialisations which was mainly true for medicine.
Arts students, which comprised mostly of women, could choose from vanilla options such as literature/language (e.g. English, Bengali, Hindi, etc.), economics (which was sometimes classified as a science subject), history, political science, geography, education, philosophy, comparative literature and international relations. Commerce students were limited to commerce subjects like accountancy and economics, which helped them to branch out to chartered accountancy and cost accountancy later on. There were special subjects too, like agriculture, architecture, anthropology, geology, instrumentation, law, marine engineering, mining engineering, paper technology, pharmacy, psychology, statistics, textile engineering… among quite a few others.
Computer science was introduced in the eighties when I had left college and, as it is true for millions of others in my age group, I learnt to use computers on my own. Of course, the great levellers were management studies (or business administration) and the Indian Administrative Services which produced millions of civil servants for our country. Both options were offered at post-graduate levels and coveted by many students from the time they undertook undergraduate courses. Management studies were for the elite – usually hand-picked students from wealthy and upper middle-class families who went on to lead private (typically multinational) companies. They talked of business goals, strategies and profits while they collected handsome pay-packages and built lifestyles envied by the rest of us.
The Indian Administrative Services offered job security and immense power as civil servants in the government – be it administrative services, foreign services, revenue services, the police… among a plethora of choices… and welcomed graduates from lower middle-class to wealthy families. From an economic dividend point of view, the Indian Administrative Services were far more democratic as a job and even lifestyle leveller. There was also the perk of making additional money collected for/from favours – a topic that was known universally but talked in hushed tones. Apart from money, what was – and still is – most attractive about doing a post-graduate management programme or joining the Indian Administrative Services is the status and prestige they promise.
However, very few students accomplished the feat of a getting into a management programme or the Indian Administrative Services. Most of us in high school or in college/university were clueless about our careers. There was no career guidance or student counselling services available to us. Our teachers knew nothing about careers, except for what they taught us in class. And even there, I had my doubts. Our parents were no better. Yet, they had fixed notions about what we should study and which careers we should choose from the limited options presented before us. You could say we were like living zombies, under parental control, unable to take decisions on what we wanted to do with our lives and which careers to pursue.
In other words, we were clueless. Which was not too different from how most high school and college/university students and their parents feel now… in spite of thousands of options before them. Perhaps the Indian education system and/or how we view education as an entry or springboard to our jobs and careers need to change.