UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2004
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Profound effects of higher education transcend monetary gain

By Uday P. Sukhatme
Dean, University at Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences

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Illustration by Chris Lyons

It is my belief that the earlier in life children begin to value education, the better the chances are that they will achieve their maximum intellectual potential. Good education is not about learning facts, it is about learning how to think—how to ask the right questions, formulate problems, study the dependence on the variables involved, experiment, draw conclusions and increase knowledge.

From a monetary viewpoint alone, higher education is an excellent investment, certainly at public universities like UB, and even at private universities, where the tuition is four to five times higher. Studies show that averaged over all the working years, the annual increase in earnings is $20,000 for those having a doctorate or master’s degree compared to those having only a high school diploma. Assuming that one works for 50 years, this means those receiving graduate degrees today will earn 50 times $20,000, or $1 million more during their lifetime as a result of acquiring this higher education.

Beyond the monetary benefits, an individual pursuing higher education can derive priceless satisfaction from using his or her intellectual abilities to the fullest. This is more likely to happen if one’s intellectual curiosity is cultivated and nurtured beginning in early childhood. I come from a background and culture that has a long tradition of respect for teachers and elders. Academic excellence is valued and much appreciated in India, where schools are proud of the scholarly achievements of their students. Indeed, it is clearly understood that although sporting and extracurricular activities are important, academic programs have top billing. It is a question of priorities. However, even in modern India, conditions are such that many rural students do not have the money or opportunity to seek higher education.

In my own family, education has always been highly valued and pursued. My grandfather moved from a small town in India to the larger city of Pune so that all his children would have an opportunity to study. He had the foresight to recognize that the welfare of the family would be best served through education. My father grew up in relative poverty when he and his brothers often read books outdoors under the streetlights to save on the family’s electricity bill. My father did very well in school and college, and eventually took a loan to study in England. He was the first doctoral student of Sir Ronald Fisher (1890–1962), who is usually regarded as the founder of statistics. My father himself did pioneering work in the field of statistics and was an excellent role model.

I know a great deal of the older family history through an autobiography written by my grandmother, even though she never went to school—education for girls was not considered important in those days. She learned to read and write secretly at home, using her brother’s books. When she began to write her autobiography, my grandmother was already 75 years old. She was encouraged by my father to write her story as a way of using her time profitably. I was then a college student in New Delhi.

My grandmother recovered sheets of paper that I crumpled and threw into the wastepaper basket and did her writing on the unused sides—a reflection of her frugal past and her days of poverty. In the evenings, when I came home from college, she used to read to me what she had written that day. However, when she saw that I had homework and was studying at my desk, she never disturbed me. She used to quietly come and leave a snack—some raisins or cashews—an indication to me that it was important to feed the body, as well as the mind.

My siblings and I always understood that we would pursue the highest level of advanced education we desired and were capable of reaching. That is the way we were brought up. I recall a relatively minor event that illustrates this point: When I was 11 years old and my younger brother was six, my parents had planned to take both of us to see a major boxing championship event. Having never seen a live boxing match before, I was quite excited. It was almost time to leave, but my brother was still doing his homework that was due the next morning. I was distracting him by continuously telling him and my parents that it was time to go, or we were going to be late. “He is just in first grade—so what if he doesn’t hand in his homework tomorrow!” I insisted. But my father calmly replied, “For us, first-grade homework may seem trivial, but remember, for your brother, it is very important, and he needs to recognize this.”

Likewise, we have always been taught that spending money on material goods is not the same as investing in learning. The former gives short-term satisfaction, while the latter affords lasting, long-term value. This philosophy is reflected in the often-quoted saying: “Give someone a fish, he eats for a day. Teach someone to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

The profound reasons for seeking higher education transcend the financial benefits that can be documented or observed in our modern society. “Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity,” Aristotle told his students in the third century B.C. In 2004, these are wise words to ponder at all stages of our lives.

Uday   Professor of physics and dean, Uday P. Sukhatme oversees 30 departments in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences and an array of centers and institutes.

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