In Aziz Ansari’s new TV series, Master of None, the comedian’s father dishes some hard-hitting advice to his indecisive son. He shares this cautionary Sylvia Plath quote:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree . . . . From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. . . . I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.
Watching this segment, I thought – save for those lucky few who harbor a single, burning passion from the day they’re born – what young person hasn’t faced a similar dilemma? Whether choosing a college major or a career path, or deciding where to live, the array of life choices can be overwhelming. Now teaching a university seminar for first-year international students, I found the quote pertinent to my class as well.
In my seminar, most of the international students are Chinese, and many were mystified by our university’s insistence on a liberal arts core curriculum. In fact, only a few had heard of the term “liberal arts” before, and – even after we thoroughly discussed it – some still seemed perplexed. Their confusion led me to wonder: just how different are the processes through which foreign and American undergrads choose their courses of study?
After a little research and reflection, I understand better now where the students are coming from, both literally and figuratively.
I think back to my own undergraduate experience and my “fig tree” problem of the period: declaring a major. I had applied to college as an undecided student, after having gone through the brochure a hundred times. When I finally arrived on campus, I thought I’d study computer science like my mom. A single introduction to Java class quickly set me straight. I then veered into economics, spending countless hours staring at mystifying graphs and figures. Eventually, I acknowledged I’d only ever be a mediocre economist at best. My final, serious attempt was French language and literature, a subject I ended up both loving and succeeding at academically. Ultimately, I graduated with a double major in economics and French, the culmination of a winding journey which also included rest stops at the departments of English, history, art history, Asian studies, astronomy, psychology, sociology, hotel administration, and – last but not least – plant pathology.
Greedy me ended up plucking two figs after having taken a bite out of almost all the rest.
When I contrast my experience to the experience the Chinese students might have had, had they gone to Chinese universities, the gulf boggles my mind. Much ink has been spilled over the feverish process by which high schoolers get into Chinese universities (the process by which they prepare for the make-or-break gao kao, China’s national higher education entrance exam) — but considerably less attention has been paid to how they choose a major if indeed they pass.
As it turns out, Chinese students usually select their major around the same time they take the gao kao. Instead of sending application packages to various schools, they complete a single form indicating which colleges they prefer and naming a few majors which sound appealing. If they’re lucky, their gao kao test scores will qualify them for one of their chosen colleges, and the college will return an offer of acceptance with one of their listed majors. The vast majority of students are then locked into the major, given the laboriousness of the procedure to change majors at most institutions.
This is akin to speculating about which figs taste best, then eating whichever one happens to fall in your lap.
At this point, I need to try to rein in my personal biases (as well as my panic at the thought of an alternative reality where I had to take the gao kao). I have to concede that both the US approach and the Chinese approach have advantages and disadvantages.
In short, the US system allows those like me to indulge in a bit of dilletantism, in the hopes of broadening students’ perspectives, instilling certain values, and fostering creative, interdisciplinary collaborations. But this approach comes with the danger of dawdling beneath the fig tree.
Meanwhile, the Chinese system allows young people to delve deep into their specializations, without the burdensome distraction of taking classes in other subjects. Of course, the downside is that students don’t necessarily receive the lauded benefits of a liberal arts education, and they may end up studying something which no longer interests them or doesn’t suit their abilities.
It all makes me wonder: isn’t there a middle way? How do we get at the fig that’s just right for us without wasting too much time putzing around?
Before I’m accused of viewing the French system en rose, let me just acknowledge that it has its own set of deep and troubling dysfunctions. For instance, only 50% of students in France’s public universities successfully pass their first year of study. But – if we examine only the process by which undergraduates choose their majors – we can see that they offer something of a middle way between the American and the Chinese systems.
Starting in the penultimate year of high school, French students are asked to think broadly about which discipline they’d like to pursue. Students are then split into 3 tracks: the ‘L’ track (for literary studies), the ‘ES’ track (for economics and social sciences), or the ‘S’ track (for the sciences). In general, though, the track they choose isn’t particularly limiting. It determines which version of the bac they will take (another national higher education qualification exam), but the bac isn’t widely seen as a demanding exam. As long as students get a passing score, they can enroll in public universities.
When students start university, that’s when they choose a filière or major. Generally, ‘S’ students can pick any major, including those in the arts and humanities. Meanwhile, ‘L’ and ‘ES’ students might have difficulty breaking into the sciences, but they enjoy pretty much every other option.
And if it doesn’t work out? Students can change course to a different (but related) subject after the first semester. If they want to do something which deviates more drastically, they can also decide to retake their first year.
In reality, as many as 30% of students retake the first year (including those who fail as well as those who want to change majors). Since annual tuition is only a couple hundred Euros, many can afford the option. Furthermore, since French universities grant a bachelor’s degree after only 3 years of study, retaking the first year simply puts the repeaters at 4 years, a common degree duration worldwide. It’s not a perfect system, but students largely end up studying what they want — even if they can’t take a bite out of every fig.
Outside of the formal education system, what I really admire about France is the deep-seated culture of the liberal arts. In France, being a talented engineer doesn’t exempt you from having to argue philosophy at the dinner table, and being a financial analyst doesn’t mean it’s cute to be clueless about the latest exposition at the Grand Palais. This is a society where the tradition of the “public intellectual” is still alive, even if everyone rolls their eyes each time Bernard-Henri Lévy makes a television appearance.
Maybe this is the answer to the riddle of the fig tree.
Maybe we can taste some and describe the rest in poetry.