On the value of formal education

This week, I'm sharing two essays that will form a part of my application to a Master's program I'm hoping to join. Here's the first one.

Prompt: Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of your formal education and any relevant experience outside of an academic setting. How do you hope to benefit from the curriculum and the mode of teaching at St. John's?

My past educational and professional experiences have enabled me to address what could be described as well-defined problems. “How to craft a marketing plan?” or “What are the steps involved in getting a job at Company X?” or even “How do I build a successful tech startup?” are all examples of well-defined problems. Although challenging, these problems have discernible solutions.

The same cannot be said of ill-defined problems like “What is the purpose of human existence?” or “What does it mean to live a good life?” These problems are abstract and nebulous without clear answers, yet no less important.

So while I find myself equipped with practical business skills that have helped nurture my entrepreneurial instincts, I am yearning for deeper philosophical introspection and exploration. I hope to address this through the unique educational approach offered at St John's.

Preparing for the corporate world at NYU

Completing my undergraduate degree in business in 2010, NYU Stern provided an invaluable platform for me as an international student. Although largely limited within the narrow scope of finance and consulting, I found ample job opportunities, which turned out to be critical in a shaky labor market still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis.

The atmosphere at NYU Stern was palpably competitive. My peers, all chasing ambitious goals, pushed me to explore unfamiliar terrain. This frequently meant venturing into projects or goals that weren’t entirely aligned with my interests or values but were opportunities for growth and lessons in adaptability nonetheless.

Overall, the business education I received at NYU served as a kind of reality check, providing a glimpse into the demanding world of corporate America. It emphasized the need for dedication, resilience, and perseverance, qualities that have been important in navigating real-world challenges.

However, there were considerable downsides. The predominant lecture-based “sage on the stage” teaching style made learning feel passive and uninspiring, hindering my ability to connect with the material. I recall one class where we were being taught from PowerPoint slides that were nothing more than a digital regurgitation of an already painfully bland textbook.

The relentless emphasis on grades, typified by the infamous “Stern curve,” was counterproductive. One could get an objectively high score, say 90 out of 100, and still end up with a B. While the desire to maintain high standards and competitiveness is understandable, it came at the expense of overshadowing the intrinsic joy of learning. Classes frequently turned into a strategic play for better grades rather than the genuine pursuit of intellectual growth.

A subtle yet pervasive homogeneity also existed. Surrounded by peers with similar outlooks, the breadth of perspectives often felt restricted. Every problem and concept was dissected through the myopic lens of business and economics. Monetary success, often at the cost of well-roundedness, became the unspoken goal for many.

In hindsight, this should not have been surprising. I chose to go to business school. And I chose to do it in the capital of capitalism no less!

Broadening horizons and learning to think independently

In contrast to NYU, the St Johns ethos is refreshingly distinct. It’s precisely what I'm seeking for the current stage of my life, after many years of experience honing my practical business skills.

My recent experience as the co-founder of an education startup, Edgi Learning, has taught me the enormous value of thinking from first principles. Our mission was bold – to reinvent education for high schoolers. Although the venture failed to achieve commercial viability on a large scale, the time I spent working on it was the most enriching of my professional life.

Through numerous trials and errors, I witnessed firsthand the potential of an education system rooted in self-motivated learning. It also reignited a latent desire to follow my curiosities, wherever they led me.

My attraction to St. John’s stems from this very experience. When I discovered the program on the Philosophy Bites podcast and visited the website, I remember thinking “Wow, this program is made for me.”

The clear vision and simple yet effective curriculum, devoid of any pretenses, resonated with my newfound appreciation for interdisciplinary, foundational knowledge. Here is an institution offering what I have been seeking – a first principles exploration of timeless texts and engagement with profound ideas that have shaped civilizations and attempted to shine a light on the fundamental questions of our existence.

The teaching philosophy at St. John's—where tutors and students jointly navigate intricate ideas—is particularly appealing. Such a dynamic learning environment, built on dialogue and in-depth discussion, promises a fresh and engaging way to understand the world and myself.

In the long term, I have an interest in creating spaces where anyone can engage with philosophical ideas in ways that are accessible and relevant to their lives, because I believe they can serve as an antidote to the politically charged climate we find ourselves in by exposing our common humanity. I’m hopeful that the experience at St John’s will enhance my ability to achieve this vision in ways that I can only begin to imagine today.

Ultimately, I see St John's as a bridge between who I have been and who I aspire to be. It symbolizes my transition from a phase dominated by chasing externally validated achievements to one pursuing a deeper, more authentic connection with life’s biggest questions.