Education has many doors of entry, but passion is key

By Ramnath Subramanian / Special to the El Paso Times

Posted: 12/12/2013 12:00:00 AM MST

Once I entered college, I never took any classes in English literature. In the Indian system of education, one chose one’s major at the start, and mine was physics. Consequently, my collegiate years were devoted entirely to physics, mathematics, and statistics.

Some people are surprised to discover this piece of information about me. “Your columns are so full of literary allusions that I assumed your schooling was in literature,” a friend said to me once. “Besides, you’ve had several books of poetry published. That does not fit in with the trajectory of a physicist.”

“I am self-taught in English literature,” I said. “However, I cannot discount the delectable immersion in fiction and poetry that I received during my high-school years. I could quote Emerson’s ‘Brahma’ just as readily as Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto.'”

The seeds of English literature were so deeply planted in me at an early age that even as I tackled the Carnot Cycle and Coulomb’s Law in college, I felt the compulsion, in whatever time there was left, to read books that led me dancingly from Apollinaire to Zola.

It was while I was sojourning in Germany and teaching astronomy for the international division of the University of Chicago that a registrar, who was well versed in liberal arts, half-jokingly suggested that I should take the GRE literature In English test.

This appealed to me for a good score on the test would point to mastery of the subject matter emphasized in the undergraduate curricula of English literature.

“It would earn you college-level credits, as well,” the registrar added, sweetening the idea.

I bring up these matters merely to point out that while a lecture on “Lycidas” delivered by a professor at Yale can be illuminating, it is not necessary for the understanding and appreciation of this pastoral elegy by Milton.

I have read this poem several dozen times, in diverse moods and milieu, and each time I have gathered new insights and new appreciation. Were I but a formal, degree-seeking student, it is possible I would have set “Lycidas” aside soon after the professor had rendered a grade.

Ironically, that which we are passionate about in non-materialistic terms, yields material benefits, if material be counted by the ambit of the mind.

For the record, I must state that I passed the GRE test with flying colors.

We may enter education through many doors, and more importantly, we may spin that education into the finest yarn and most regal of clothing, as long as what we take fancy to and our passion are walking side by side.

I have long held the belief that a primary and important goal of education is to get students enthused about what they are learning. There can be no doubt that a student who discovers magic in the subject he is attending to, will build a school for himself and become its most distinguished teacher.

A good education can land one in a great job and lead to a sanguine lifestyle, but it has another function and usefulness that is rarely talked about: to quote Thomas Fuller, “Learning makes a man fit company for himself.”

A student of mine who became an accomplished cellist once told me that she was most grateful for music for it was like a friend to her. “Whenever I feel sad or things are not going my way, I go to my room and play the cello. It smooths out the rough edges and brings harmony.”

I, too, found harmony in literary peregrinations. Many were the times when turning the pages of a trusted book or revisiting a poem of rare elegance and beauty took me to a place that was brisk with joy and rejuvenating powers.

Ramnath Subramanian, a retired public-school teacher, writes for the El Paso Times on educational topics. E-mail address: