Senior Orations: Meenu Krishnan

Today we are featuring the senior oration of Meenu Krishnan.  Enjoy it!

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An Education, Or Something Like It 

I found myself in fairly improbable circumstances the first time I seriously considered the purpose of higher education. Slogging knee-deep in murky waters through Mumbai to meet with two filmmakers at a roadside café, I remember thinking that coming to India at the height of monsoon season may not have been the best plan. Despite its logistical inconveniences, however, India’s monsoon season truly is beautiful — a time when the land cleanses and reinvents itself.  Though I had previously visited the city, this time, I had come alone to study one of its most visible, but least understood, industries — Bollywood.

It was the summer after my freshman year, and I had come to India after taking a first year seminar on South Asian films. During the course, I became more curious about what was occurring behind the camera lens. What constituted the daily lives of the individuals working on the films? So I headed to Bollywood to interview art directors, sound mixers, costume designers, and many others, delving into the workers’ struggles to unionize in the face of unfair labor practices.

This project was also a homecoming of sorts for me. Upon sporadic family trips to India, I often felt adrift among a people who theoretically, were my own. But those three months showed me how I could navigate my often-conflicted identity as an Indian-American. That brings me back to my opening story, where, with my pants muddied and drenched, I emerged from that café after having spent two hours with filmmakers only a few years older than me, with a newly acquired appreciation of the very similar struggles we were confronting. They told me of their attempts to revolutionize filmmaking, to retain artistic integrity and combat lingering gender and class barriers. In short, they represented a marginalized group asserting itself against the mainstream, and after all, albeit in a much smaller way, that’s what I was trying to do too.

And as I left the café, I realized that this is what higher education should be: intellectual curiosity sparked within a classroom, triggering a desire to critically explore beyond the classroom. What had begun within the gates of Wake Forest took me ten thousand miles away, to a place at once profoundly familiar and dizzyingly foreign, to learn what I simply could not in the classroom. And I was reminded of our most humanist of mottos, pro humanitate, distilled to its purest meaning — to recognize the humanity in others, to learn from it, to convey it.

It took me a couple years after I returned from Mumbai to realize how much I had left to learn about the purpose of higher education. We hear so often how much college is worth, how we students are blessed to walk these hallowed grounds. And we are. But I wish that we would also acknowledge higher education’s limitations, recognize its inherently exclusionary nature, and make amply clear that students’ four undergraduate years are merely a springboard to something much larger. Without a doubt, Wake Forest has been a time of incredible intellectual growth for me. My professors and mentors have encouraged me to seamlessly combine my academic interests in history, politics, journalism, and the arts. But I fear that higher education today has become less an intellectual and humanist pursuit, and more an insulated, job-oriented venture.

Though I believe deeply in higher education’s power to expand our horizons, to expose us to texts that reveal greater truths about humanity, I also think we need an education with a greater sense of purpose. I am reminded of a powerful essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” in which the writer recounts a particularly unsettling moment in his life: when he hired a plumber. Realizing how alien the plumber’s experience was to him, the essayist writes, “I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.”

Last fall, I experienced something similar working on a presidential campaign here in Winston-Salem. Though I had lived in this town three years, canvassing took me to neighborhoods I didn’t even know existed, far beyond the wrought iron gates of Wake Forest. I visited public housing projects with living rooms smaller than a dorm room at Wake. I talked to single mothers who had been laid off due to the recession, veterans moving from town to town in search of employment, and apathetic 18-year-olds who felt that politicians could never truly represent them. And to these individuals, I represented merely a transient blip on their radar — swooping in to register them to vote and leaving just as quickly, as if I were never there. My education up to that point, an amalgam of class discussions, research papers, and internships, seemed to count for little in the world of overdue electricity bills and bounced checks. Though I had fancied myself an activist after my summer in Mumbai, here I was, finding it difficult to relate to people in my own backyard, impeded by the very education that had brought me there. In those moments of powerlessness, I thought once more about higher education, and I wondered what the hell we were doing. Higher education today breeds us to continually scale an already exclusive ladder, and we sometimes forget how our education comes across to those for whom it has never been a possibility.

After four years of thinking about higher education and all its paradoxes, I have not arrived at any easy solutions. I find it impossible to undervalue the tremendous opportunities I have received at Wake Forest, but I have also found that higher education can create and widen disparities among us. But we must remember that we hold the seeds of reinvention within our gates. Over the course of its history, this university has weathered tremendous change. We desegregated from within. We accepted women. We established independence from our religious roots when we sensed it might not best serve our educational mission. Amid the magnolias and Georgian red brick buildings, this university is home to extraordinary people who can help redefine the purpose of higher education for generations to come, fostering a group of young thinkers and advocates to tackle challenges both here in our neighborhoods and in faraway countries. Let that be one of the missions for the next chapter of our history: recasting students’ four undergraduate years as not the bookends of an academic journey, but rather the catalyst for a more enduring, humanist one.

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