Taking break from academics

Taking break from academics

INFORMAL SABBATICAL Taking a break from academics for a while gives one valuable insights into life, says Yoginder Sikand

Taking break from academics

It still isn’t the done thing in India, and twenty-five years ago, when I decided to do it, it was almost completely unheard of. ‘Haww! Have you gone mad? What will people say? That you are a failure? A drop-out?’ I can imagine close relatives of mine exclaiming when they learned of my decision.

Shortly after my graduation, I decided that I had had quite enough of being cooped up in a classroom almost ever since I was an infant for no choice of my own. I desperately needed a break from it all. I wanted to do something different, at least for some time, and to experience the ‘real world’ outside on my own. Almost all my friends at college were, at this stage, dead serious about preparing for their careers. Some headed straight for the USA for higher studies, while others enrolled in different Indian universities—to prepare for jobs in the civil services or in the corporate sector. Most of them would have reacted with horror at the thought of dropping out of college at this crucial stage of life and doing something different. An awful waste of precious time that had just one purpose, they would have thought—to earn the higher degrees they needed to get the jobs that they dreamt of.

I’ve always felt that the two years that I took off from my academic studies after graduation were easily the most enriching and fulfilling period of my life. Nothing that I had studied in a formal educational institution before or after that (I was later to go back to university and do a PhD) could come any way near what I learned in that relatively short period. The valuable insights into life and the life-skills that I gained then helped me immensely later—in my academic life, in my career as a ‘social scientist’, and above all, in enabling me to adjust to a variety of situations and in relating with people from different backgrounds. It was because of all the amazing experiences I had in those two years that I learned to be at home in almost any place. I also learned to rough it out and to gradually distance myself from the suffocating middle-class environment in which I had been carefully socialized.

I spent most of those two years in villages, working with various rural-based NGOs in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which are among the poorest states in India. I don’t know if the organizations I worked with and the people I ostensibly worked for benefitted much, if at all, from my presence, but I certainly did from theirs. From them I learned about many realities of life that I would never have if I had not dropped out of college.

I had done a degree in Economics, wasting three years pouring over boring tomes, simply to get a degree. I had studied about endemic poverty in India—merely in the form of cold, lifeless statistics, however. Those two years brought me face-to-face with poverty as a brutal reality, and from hundreds of desperately poor people I met (and some of whom I befriended) in those years I learned at least something of what poverty meant beyond sterile textbook definitions. I had, till then, only read about the caste system—it was barely mentioned in our textbooks, and it was treated as if it no longer existed or mattered. Travelling through some of the most remote parts of India, I learned how deeply entrenched this system remained, and what it meant for people, both at the very top and at the bottom of the caste pyramid.

At college, we had studied—almost just in passing—about the crisis of rural education. But teaching for a few months in a school in a tribal village, I learned first hand how the system of education was almost completely irrelevant in such places! The ‘development experts’ have sought to impose it on people who have a completely different culture and sense of history. At college we had heard only vaguely about the problem of communalism, but interacting with people of different faith communities in the field provided me with an empirical understanding of both the stark reality of communal prejudices as well as powerful ‘folk’ religious traditions that sought to subvert orthodoxy and religious idiocy, and to break down barriers constructed in the name of caste and creed.

The rich insights I gathered during this period proved to be of enormous help when I decided to get back to university—the pull of the middle-class dreams of a ‘successful’ career proved too much for me to resist after a while. I enrolled for a Master’s degree in Sociology, and I honestly believe that my ‘success’ thereafter—through years of further academic studies, in which I excelled—had much to do with the knowledge, skills and confidence that I gained in those two years that I had spent out of college in an environment utterly different from the one I had been brought up in.  Now that I have opted out of academics altogether, this may not count for anything any longer. But what still does is the invaluable and lasting impact that the experiences of those two crucial years have had on me as a person. So, today, if a young student heading to college were to ask me for my advice, I’d strongly suggest that he or she drop out of college for a year or two (or even more) and travel about, as I did almost thirty years ago—to learn the many invaluable things that you can never learn in any other way.