Did the subjects I study prepare me better for life?
I remember that as a schoolboy I went through an arduous time learning about algebraic equations, geometrical theorems and the enigmatic rigmarole of arithmetic. (Trigonometry, I am glad to say, did not exist in my school days). I could never get things into my head. All those questions about trains: "two trains leave in opposite direction, twenty miles apart, one at 9am, the other at 9:30am, the first one travels at forty five miles an hour, the second, at thirty miles an hour. How long will it be before they cross each other?"
I found the whole question so bizarre that I refused to think about it. In the end, unable to find any kind of an answer during an examination, I would draw a huge zero in my answering book and hand it over to the invigilator. When the results were announced my inability to even get pass marks did not amuse my father.
Getting good results in your matriculation examination was a necessary prelude to your entrance into a university in those days. My father, worried about my extreme weakness in mathematics, engaged a tutor to coach me a few months before my final exams. The tutor was none other than my own class fellow, Shahbuddin, nicknamed as Phora (a boil), a gangly young man with huge carbuncles on his face. Phora was a wizard at mathematics.
When our maths teacher had an errand to run, it was Phora who substituted for him. Phora tried to unravel the mysteries of maths for two or three days, but his explanations fell on deaf ears. He was astute enough to try another method: he brought me a sheaf of "guess papers" in which the typical exam questions related to algebra, arithmetic and geometry were listed alphabetically. The solutions to the problems and the correct answers were also provided. "Try to learn them by heart" he suggested.
Our sessions from then on were limited to memory tests. My ability to memorise quickly was a lot sharper than it is now. I crammed the correct answers to approximately a hundred and twenty questions. Fortunately, most of the questions posed in the three Maths papers, though worded differently, were the same that I had memorised. Thanks to Shahbuddin’s ministrations I sailed through my matriculation examination. Wonder of wonders, I got more marks in maths than Shahabuddin. I was judged to be one of the top fifty students of the province and thus become entitled to a scholarship offered by the University of Punjab. From then on there was unmitigated bliss for me. I could now shun mathematics forever and choose any other subjects for my forthcoming four year course.
In the college I joined, my cousin and childhood mate, Pathoo, took me under his wings. He was two years senior to me. He and his group of friends, that I tagged on to, were worldly-wise young men who indulged in the carefree idle ways with long hours of debate in the Coffee House, the abode of the cognoscente, the post-graduate students as well as writers and poets. It was in the Coffee House that I first heard dissertations on dialectical materialism, and it was here that I heard a budding poet extolling the caprices of a non-existent beloved which made the group I was with sigh ecstatically.
What would I have made of today’s New Maths? I shudder at the thought. Not so long ago, I flicked through my daughter’s primer of New Maths. It had chapters called Vectors and Matrices and exercises such as "Find the position integer x such that + < 19 < x +3". What did it mean? The next page was even more perplexing. "The triangle U has vertices (2.1) The triangle W has vertices (6:4)". It was impossible to gauge whether the triangle W was to be pitied or congratulated.
* * * * *
I am not absolutely certain that the subjects I chose to study -- History, Philosophy, Literature and Psychology -- prepared me better for life. Life, I don’t mind repeating the cliché, is a bitch, and no matter what university you go to, you cannot have enough preparation to cope with it.
Finding the position integer might have launched me on my career as a brilliant physicist, but it could have obscured my view towards lines like:
"And the moonlight clasps the earth
And moonbeams kiss the sea
What are all the kissing worth
If they kiss not me"
You might think after reading Cowper’s verse that I am turning into a mystic, but I feel that in our surroundings, in which dissemblance reigns, these are the kind of words I can hold on to. A touch, a caress matters; the awesome equations of mensuration do not.
Perhaps I am wrong. A society ignorant of mensuration cannot survive in today’s world. The fault lies with me for not being able to comprehend certain premises. There have been times when I have asked people to explain to me the technicalities of a video machine, but my obtuseness in such matters was appalling. I have driven cars of all shapes and sizes for more years than I can remember, but if any piece of their mechanism happens to require the simplest adjustment, I am utterly confounded and have to walk to the nearest garage.
What do we do then, we, the inept minority, who cannot cope with technology? Are we to be discarded and thrown into a heap? I am not for a moment suggesting that scientific advancement is a curse and all those who wish to absorb the vast reservoir of technological innovations will face fire and brimstone. I relish the comforts of ‘mod cons’; and, like most citified people, I cannot do without them, but I wish there was a degree of tolerance shown towards my inadequacy when it comes to mending a fuse. I should have learnt to perform this simple operation, I grant you, and I ought to be spending my time acquiring the elementary knowledge about the green, the brown and the red wires instead of writing this piece, but since I haven’t, I feel I ought not to be marked out as one of nature’s freaks.
Sad, though it may be, the world I had inherited as an undergraduate and the world I find today "still is the same narrow crib". This is not the real discovery. The real discovery is that if I had been endowed with sufficient nous and had learnt the essentials of physical and mechanical engineering, I would have known where the carburettor of my car is located.
Also, I have a growing suspicion that although I think I am not, as a rule, addle-headed, I am.