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Assuaging Anxieties: An Alumni Diary

Nishant Kauntia, UG ’18

I was having a pretty dry Sunday today, to be honest with you, until I happened to open this fascinating email from Professor Raja Rosenhagen, the Dean of Academic Affairs at Ashoka and my beloved Philosophy professor. ‘We want YOU… on the Website’, it was titled, and inside the envelope were two possibilities.

The one, he wrote, was that I was disgruntled and was happy to be done with Philosophy or the department at Ashoka. In that case, all the best to me and I could stop reading. Well maybe that sounds just a little bit like me, I thought, but I wasn’t going to stop reading. That’s not how Ashoka brought us up. The second, was that I was not disgruntled, and would be willing to share some information about where I was in life – an exciting job, higher studies, etc etc. It would be, he wrote, “good to assuage the anxiety of parents (and some students) who worry about the value of and one’s career prospects after doing philosophy.” What a great idea, I thought. Let’s use my holiday today to assuage some anxieties. So here goes –

*taps mic*

*tap tap tap, okay we’re good*

Dear Parents and Students,

Good evening, and welcome to the website of India’s best liberal-arts university. Do you notice the perfect use of the hyphen in the last sentence? If it was a university of liberal arts, no hyphen. But liberal-arts university – very much hyphenated. Almost the whole world wide web gets that wrong, but that’s exactly the kind of smug detail you might learn and then feel superior about at Ashoka. I hope you cherish that goddamn hyphen because it might just be the most expensive one on the planet – my parents would know.

I’m kidding. Am I? *sobs* No, I am. Let me just say this flat out – Ashoka University has been a life-changing educational experience and I could not have asked for a better one. If I had to go back a thousand times to make this decision, I would choose Ashoka every single time. If I have any influence on your decision today, let it all be used to affirm that you’re at the right place. You just are. I don’t know how college feels like in other places, but I know this one, and trust me, it’s phenomenal.

I came to Ashoka thinking I might pursue Computer Science or English Literature. I did not fit the mould of STEM or Humanities, I was interested in both. In the very first step at Ashoka with its liberal arts curriculum, I felt understood in more ways than one. Millennials, right? We can be an irritating bunch, I get it. And to top it all off, I ended up majoring in Philosophy. Are you having the what-a-tragedy-what-will-happen-now gasp? My parents did, but at that point they’d started to trust me with making my own decisions. Either that or they just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I prefer to go with the former version.

What was I thinking? Mainly that Philosophy was like, kaafi fun. You’re probably thinking that you would’ve been a cricketer if that was your idea of a career – fun. And then you would’ve been broke. And parents get criticized for reacting this way, but I know that’s a valuable intuitive response, because it protects you from some dark shit. I didn’t have that response then but I think I know it now. It’s something to really think about before taking the plunge.

Truth be told, I was in love. Did you know it’s possible to fall in love with majors ? I discovered that at Ashoka. I’m not using the word lightly, I was in love. I felt understood and I wanted to spend every living second in the embrace of my discipline. I locked myself in a classroom for 12 hours straight ideating on a paper – that’s how much I was into it. Ah, to have years to think about the true nature of the world and how we must act in it – it was paradise. I also got annoyed at it, felt like it didn’t listen to me, that sometimes it talked too much, that it could be too irritatingly rational, the whole package. But I loved every second of it, and I was good at it too.

By the end of my third year, though, we broke up. What can I say, it just didn’t work out – we lost the spark. There were many reasons, and one of them was the lack of financial security. And then I was in a bit of a tough spot, because I’d spent my college life orienting myself towards this career, and suddenly I didn’t feel so good about it anymore. So as I graduated from Ashoka, I had in my hands a leather bound file with a degree in Philosophy and no plan for the future.

I had no way of earning money, so my Dad gave me some to set up a house in Delhi. For a year then, I banked on the only skill I had, which was to do Philosophy, and became a teaching assistant at Ashoka. It paid my bills, and stalled the question, “What are you doing with life?” for a bit more time. That year is over, and truth be told, I only know a little bit. Not really, not for sure, not with conviction, but I know a little bit.

So now I do non-fiction writing sometimes. It’s not something I’m very skilled at, but I think maybe I love doing it. I do feel like I’d do it even if nobody was paying me to. And it’s not like anyone is paying me much either. I earn just enough to pay my own bills from side hustles. Here’s another way to put it – I’m basically unemployed and a bit lost and knocking on doors that aren’t very promising. I think, perhaps, your anxieties are not only assuaged but have vanished altogether. You’re closing this tab and sending your kid to FIITJEE.

I don’t care what they tell you, an education in Philosophy by itself will not guarantee you a straight, safe, financially secure life. If that’s what you’re looking for, the Philosophy department is not for you. What the Philosophy department is for, though, is to get you thinking about far more profound questions, like – Is it a worthy goal to not be anxious when making a decision about your life? Or is it perhaps our anxiety that a lot of times keeps us from making our most rewarding decisions?

Despite all the troubles that Ashoka education has brought me, I would go back and do it a thousand times. If for nothing else, then for the simple reason that I almost never missed a Philosophy class at Ashoka, and most of them didn’t have any penalties. There was just nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. I was in love with what I was doing, and to discover that work could feel like that was life-changing. Looking back was just not an option. It’s not everyday that you encounter such a thing, and I consider myself lucky that my threshold of passionate work is set by the infectious energy of my faculty and peers at Ashoka.

This is the bug that infected all of us at Ashoka to some degree, I think. I see my friends from college and we’re all struggling, in some way or another. You could look at that and go like, man, this college is a real wrecker. And some days I feel that way too, I do. But I also know that we’re not lost because we don’t know how to handle real life. We’re lost because we’re asking far more from it than it’s used to being asked for. We want to work smarter, and we want to love what we do. Life at and after Ashoka is predicated on the faith that we can ask this of our lives, and that it could be a hellish struggle but in some way or another, life will give it to us.

This, of course, doesn’t offer much to you if you’re looking for relief from anxiety. It makes me anxious too sometimes. Maybe it’s the case that I’m naive, and I have unrealistic expectations. I have deep, genuine respect for people who prioritize stability and security, whether for not being able to afford instability or just general pragmatism. But I tasted something at Ashoka. I’m now hungry for it and I’m determined to find it in this strange outer shell, referred to by Ashokans often as ‘the real world’. It makes me broke and struggling and anxious sometimes, but that’s okay. I’m hoping it’ll all be worth it, and taking the leap of faith. Maybe you should too?

The writer is former Editor-in-Chief, The Edict.

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