Everything Left to Learn

by Charis Loke (Brown University ’13)

From my time in college, I’ve learnt the value of shaping my own education, of learning widely from everyone and every field, and knowing how much I don’t know.

I chose to attend a school that’s not too well known in Malaysia, one often overshadowed by its Ivy League peers despite a dedication to undergraduate teaching, because it promised that I would be able to chart my education however I chose, including taking classes at a neighbouring art school. And it promised that through learning to make those choices, I would be well-equipped to face life after college.

For someone who went through 10 years of sekolah where most of my choices were made for me and society expected you to follow a certain track if you were of a certain academic calibre, this was all I needed to hear. “Freedom!”, I thought. At last.

When I left Malaysia to go to Brown, my understanding of its beloved Open Curriculum amounted to “choose each and every class you want to take; you won’t have to take a class just because someone else decided that you should have to. And everyone else in that class is there because they want to be there.”

That’s true. And being with people who want to learn is extremely important. But after four years at Brown, I have a deeper understanding of this whole business. Choosing my own education is more than picking five classes a semester to take. It means many things.

It means accepting the responsibility to ask myself hard questions that do not necessarily have answers, questions like:

“Why am I doing what I do?”
“Why do I want to study this?”
“What do I need to learn?”
“How will I use this to help other people?”
“Am I taking this class solely because it’s easy? Should I?”
“Do grades even matter?”
“Can a grade accurately describe my experience in a class?”
“What do I look for in a good class?”
“What is a good class?”
“How will this class/ activity/ professor challenge me and help me grow?”

Once, while I was discussing my potential classes with my faculty advisor, I observed aloud that it did not seem like I would have enough time to devote to my art. “If I were you,” he remarked, “I’d rather take a B in an introductory physics course and still do art.” He probably did not mean for me to take it as literally as I did (sorry, physics prof), but he made me think hard about what I valued. And I’ve found that this awareness is important outside of the context of a classroom or academia as well; it helps guide everything from my career choices to how I spend my time.

Shaping my own education also means actively looking for ways and places and people to learn from. I may be a Biochemistry concentrator, but I can say with confidence that I learnt more from my Animation, Illustration, German, Medieval History, Comparative Literature and Computer Science classes. From making a web game with fellow students and presenting it at Zynga. From my co-workers, from travelling whole days to attend art symposiums to meet inspiring artists, from creating and teaching classes with my peers, from working at lab benches, from books and computer games and late night conversations in dorm rooms.

I learnt to be interdisciplinary, to engage in various fields. To not put people into neat little boxes, or assume things like “Scientists cannot do art”, “Art students don’t know much about science” , “Literature has nothing to offer science”, “The humanities are too easy”.

This seems painfully obvious. But in¬†sekolah menengah¬†I used to hear comments like “Art stream students are stupid” and “Humanities subjects are useless”; I have to remind myself to be aware of stereotypes ingrained in me. Because that’s what they are – stereotypes. Nothing more.

I’ve had the good fortune to know professors who themselves transcend boundaries – a neuroscientist taught us to read Old English, the professor in the biology lab I work for received her undergraduate degree in English Literature with Honors, and my illustration professor knows more about science and history than I suspect I ever will. My peers go from cognitive science lectures to art studios to economic sections, all in a day. They study philosophy and write about quantum physics. I use scientific ways of thinking to approach art-making, and vice versa.

The only walls boxing us in are the ones we build ourselves.

After all, science is not about absolute answers. If your ideas are proven wrong, you come up with new ones. Neither is art solely based on personal whims. We have time-tested techniques to tell stories with images, to direct the viewer’s focus, to make them feel specific emotions. (When you see a Pixar movie, ask why the characters have the basic shapes that they do.) Artists do a great deal more thinking than they get credit for.

A recent Brown president said that the greatest thing college can teach you is just how much you haven’t learned and will never be able to. I think it’s because you’ll have the mindset that comes with knowing that you can never have a “right answer” or a final say to anything, an openness to different perspectives, the willingness to experiment and fail and play and try again. And from my four years of college, I certainly hope I’ve learnt that.

Charis hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that she’ll never be an undergraduate again. For questions about college life, Brown, and writing application essays, or simply to borak about illustration and animation, you can reach her at charisloke [at] gmail.com or through Facebook.

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