On the Purpose of a University Education

This article was originally published on the author’s LinkedIn on May 2020. It has since been reprinted for Treehouse with the author’s permission.

As the curtain falls on my second year of university, I felt compelled to reflect on the past four semesters that had seemingly gone past in the blink of an eye. This sort of introspection might be beneficial once in a while, and I’ve since come to realise how I had certain misconceptions about the purpose of a university education prior to my matriculation in August 2018.

I’d known that I wanted to major in chemical engineering for a long time, perhaps since I was 15 or so. I always had a keen interest in the natural and life sciences, and was fascinated by the prospect of getting to design and build new things. These traits and tendencies I exhibited were key hallmarks of a prospective engineer. My goal was hence to enrol in the National University of Singapore (NUS), where I could gain specialised knowledge and receive vocational training pertaining to my discipline. To me, this was pretty much a given. If you’re an engineering major, you take courses that provide you with the technical knowledge required of an engineer. What else could one possibly be going to university for?

In stark contrast to my decision to major in chemical engineering, my application to stay in Tembusu College was largely done on a whim. Admittedly, I didn’t have a very compelling reason to stay on campus, apart from the fact that I’d be a stone’s throw away from the university’s engineering faculty. The fact that the college boasted an academic programme promoting multidisciplinary learning was interesting, but this merely intrigued me at best. I’d be lying if I said that my initial motivations for living in Tembusu College were born of conviction, instead of convenience. As fate would have it, what I did on a casual whim eventually turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and the experiences I’ve gone through over the past two years have been nothing short of fulfilling.

If you asked me a few years ago what I envisioned myself learning in university, my response would invariably hover somewhere along the lines of transport phenomena, reaction engineering, and process control. While this is still true (and man, this stuff is hard), I never would have expected to learn so much about philosophy, law, sociology, public policy, or even literature in my university journey. Naturally, this was an inconceivably arduous task for somebody who had been a “Child of Science” ever since the day he was born. Many of my neighbours taking the same modules in Tembusu College were majoring in disciplines directly relevant to the topics introduced in our seminar classes, which understandably intimidated me to no end. I hadn’t even seen any of Shakespeare’s classics prior to university, so you can imagine how confused I was when my first college module introduced me to Jungian psychoanalysis and its application to literature through a 13-week crash course.

Despite feeling like a fish out of water more often than not, I somehow managed to pull through all the modules in the college programme. While I cannot deny that I went through a fair bit of stress in my countless attempts to grasp and understand the content, I must emphasise that taking these classes have been an incredible joy. More importantly, they opened a wide array of possibilities and my eyes to numerous new fields of knowledge that I didn’t even know existed.

A talk hosted by Tembusu Polity in October 2018, where Minister Ong Ye Kung and Senior Minister of State Chee Hong Tat were invited down to Tembusu College for a dialogue session. (Photo Credits: Chong Kia An)

The residential colleges in NUS emphasise multidisciplinary education, but the term “multidisciplinary” is commonly misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, a multidisciplinary approach isn’t designed to elucidate how possible it is to tackle certain issues from varied perspectives. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Most of the time, complex global problems are necessarily multidisciplinary in nature, in the sense that no single field of expertise can be used to analyse and mitigate these issues in silo. An inevitable consequence of this insight is that two seemingly unrelated disciplines have a good chance of being inextricably intertwined in the grand scheme of things. As an example, the current COVID-19 pandemic is one situation whereby efforts in vaccine development need to be accompanied with sound governance and policymaking. Only then, can infections be carefully controlled whilst minimising economic repercussions in the meantime.

This brings me back to my main point: A university education is certainly designed to produce graduates who can contribute to the workforce through rigorous training in their respective fields of expertise – but that’s not all. What I’ve come to realise is that a university education is also meant to provide you with a comprehensive general appreciation of various other disciplines, and the knowledge of how to augment your own field of expertise with them. Just as different teams of experts need to be consulted to offer unique recommendations to mitigate large-scale global challenges, it is crucial to inculcate each professional with a broad understanding of various other disciplines. In doing so, this diversified knowledge could prove to be a valuable asset in evaluating the feasibility of each proposed solution, by taking various trade-offs into consideration.

And yet, a general understanding of various other disciplines might also compromise depth in each one, given the limited number of modules allocated to general education. In Socratic terms, perhaps a university education is also meant to teach you that you know nothing, both within and outside of your major. Providing a short introduction to other disciplines through general education provides just enough information to intrigue students and dangle a figurative carrot in front of them, encouraging them to conduct independent research to deepen their mastery in each field of choice. And perhaps, promoting this unbridled pursuit of truth is in itself another desired learning outcome.

As I pack the last of my belongings and prepare to move out of my room in Tembusu College for the last time, a wave of nostalgia sweeps over me. I’ve had to say many goodbyes over the years, and this one isn’t any easier.

Tembusu College will always have a special place in my heart as somewhere I could call home for the past two years. Not just because it physically gave me a room to myself, but also because it nurtured me and exposed me to new perspectives, through which, I learnt how to learn.

And this, might just be my most valuable takeaway from university.

Feature image of University Town by Joshua Vargas from Wikimedia Commons.

About the Author:

Jaryl is a third-year undergraduate student majoring in Chemical Engineering, but is often told that he looks more like a Business/Economics student. Naturally, this makes him question his major much more than he already would under normal circumstances. Research suggests that the human body is about 70% water, but rumour has it that 70% of his body consists of coffee instead.