I just finished giving (writing) a set of examinations for an MA in Sociology. This little project has taught me a few useful things.
First, how to take a project like this to conclusion. Any project which is going to last more than a few days or weeks is going to require a certain blinkered attitude. You cannot afford to think too much about the worth of it, for example. The MA in Sociology (or any subject, for that matter) is just a metaphor, and the principle may well be applicable to many an other long-term undertaking. If you want to only talk about doing MA degrees in a ‘distance’ mode, I only have to say that it forces you to read a lot of original stuff that you wouldn’t want to spend your time on normally. For me, it adds value in my work, in my writing, in my thinking. It also gives me an idea of what parts of these subjects are perhaps more interesting, useful, or sensible.
But you can’t stretch this utility aspect too far. Much of the stuff is actually irrelevant, much of it mere speculation, some of it errant nonsense. It is a sobering thought that the human species has actually survived all these millennia in spite of all this nonsense. That realization itself is worth all the effort. But if you stop to consider why you are doing this, you will probably be tempted to drop it midway. So once you have decided (in some whim of the moment) to start such a project, and you have invested a certain amount of time and effort, you need to just put blinkers on your critical eye and go through with it regardless of doubts. There is a verse to Agni in the Rig Veda which has the rather cryptic phrase “maa no ati khya”, which is translated as “do not show too much to us”. I understand this as the poet’s realization that too much information about the future causes a waning of the spirit; reveal not to us too much, let us do what we are doing in the faith that you are there. This is perhaps a portent of the Bhagavad-gita which exhorts action without attachment to the possible results. This is the attitude that will take you through a longish, and probably rather tedious, project of this nature.
The second lesson is to do things in bits and pieces. As far as doing a degree is concerned, one subject comes after another, one paper after another, one question after another, one paragraph after another… you get the idea. After some time you get used to the grind, and your mental stamina increases. This is probably one of the main benefits of entering such a programme.
Another benefit I see in taking up a long-term project, is that it occupies your mind, gives you a focus, and most of all, takes care of the dreaded existential question of what you will be doing with yourself every day. The worst thing in a person’s life is not having too much to do, but not having a particular job to look forward to day by day. Of course, any intellectual exercise like doing a course, or taking up a craft or hobby, is going to also exercise your mind and keep it alert and flexible. Sometimes it takes an effort to keep going, much as it takes an effort to get out and take a morning walk or jog every day. But as the stamina rises, it becomes easier, even enjoyable.
Even the physical exercise of going to the exam center, finding the seat and sitting and writing for three hours (for five days at a stretch) has been a fruitful experience. It takes you out of your comfort zone, and keeps some of your old faculties and abilities alive. I am sure other such undertakings will have their own, similar, benefits, apart from the thing in itself. And do not worry whether it is going to be really useful or anything… it hardly matters, that is not the point, and as long it is not harmful or troublesome to you or others, what the heck… you are entitled to your little adventures!