It was the summer of 1993, and at 16, I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I had to choose either biology or mathematics, or as the system put it between ‘pre-engineering’ and ‘pre-medicine’. There was no way, that I could study both. I did not want to be a doctor, or an engineer, instead I wanted to study chemistry. I protested against the system, but I was told that there were no options because ‘it has always been this way’.
Torn between these two choices, I sought advice from a lot of people. After a lot of discussions, I decided to opt for pre-engineering or simply mathematics over biology. Fast forward two decades later and I realised that it was the right choice given bad options. But it didn’t have to be so. The choice between mathematics and biology is artificial, unnecessary and in today’s day and age, highly counterproductive.
As a researcher at the interface of mathematics and biology, I find it sad that we are still forcing our 16-year-olds to choose between two subjects that, over the years, have seen a deeper connection. Any way you look at it, these areas have become major engines of growth in countries from China to the US, from Germany to Singapore.
Unfortunately, we are headed in the opposite direction. While innovation is what our country needs desperately, a recent ‘innovation’ in our curriculum is forcing our 14-year-olds to choose between biology and computer science! While I am cognisant that the growth opportunities in computer science are many, however, it cannot and should not replace a fundamental discipline in ninth grade. I have seen a number of high school education models, but nowhere in the developed world or even developing world for that matter, is computer science offered in lieu of biology. Perhaps, our boards feel that the society has matured to the point that we are now giving our 14-year-olds the same absurd choice that we were giving our 16-year-olds.
I am not suggesting that everyone studying science in either grade 11 and 12 should be required to study both mathematics and biology. That would be a travesty of the same magnitude as the current system. Instead, I am only arguing that we should give the opportunity to those who want to study both. Those who opt for this would have a world of opportunities in front of them at the very least. They will be the torchbearers of biotechnological innovation in Pakistan and will have the potential to address the most pressing health challenges of the sixth most populous nation in the world.
Now, let us for the sake of argument, look at the long-term impact of this option. From the technology side, our country is in desperate need of innovations in health and medicine. Whether it is improving the health technology infrastructure or coming up with novel medical solutions, the era of biotechnology and biomedical engineering demands us to think seriously about these fields. Put simply, if you have never had biology after grade 10, there is no way you can create a cadre of biomedical engineers that we desperately need.
The argument for allowing students to study biology and mathematics does not end here. Our doctors can also benefit from learning a little bit more mathematics. Not studying mathematics, in any form, after grade 10 is absurd. As a result of these unnecessary barriers, we are stifling creativity at all levels. Our engineers are unable to address problems in biology or medicine because they are suspicious of the discipline and unable to consider biology as a quantitative subject. On the other hand, our medical professionals have an unfounded fear of all things quantitative. This mutual distrust of disciplines has created a huge gulf between our schools of medicine and colleges of engineering. They are unable to join forces and sit across the same table to address national issues even when they are less than a mile apart from each other.
I am sure that the officials at various boards across the country will give practical reasons of logistics for having the current system. But I ask them, since when did logistics trump national interest? Why do we allow artificial reasons of practicality to dictate education, innovation and development? Just because something has always been done a certain way, does not mean that it has to be that way, particularly when it is stifling growth, creativity and innovation. The education system needs to cater to national needs and interests of development, not to the status quo.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 18th, 2012.