The Legend of Phunsukh Wangdu

The 2009 film titled “3 Idiots” may just be one of the greatest movies ever made. Since I first saw it back in 2011, I don’t think my life has ever been the same. In the movie, three former college classmates reminisce of their student days as they undertake a journey across India in search of another long lost friend. But not just any old friend…this one had changed each of their lives. Being a traditional Indian bollywood film, this movie has it all: action, romance, tragedy, suspense, coreographed musical and dance performances, and many other genres all rolled into one. You will laugh and you will cry – perhaps even in the same scene. But this isn’t a movie review. I want to talk about education.

The character finally known as Phunsukh Wangdu, known throughout the film as Rancho, is what teachers would call a “non-traditional student.” From the second he sets foot on campus, he boldly demonstrates that fact. As the story unfolds, Rancho’s unique learning and teaching philosophy inspire others to literally change the way they look at their studies, and more importantly, their lives. Set at a prestigious engineering college in Mumbai, it is clear that many students are there simply to fulfill parental expectation and/or become engineers with the thought that it is the only way to make something of their lives. Referring to his friend Rancho, the character named Farhan Qureshi states in the movie:

“Most of us went to college just for a degree. No degree meant no plum job, no pretty wife, no credit card, no social status. But none of this mattered to him, he was in college for the joy of learning, he never cared if he was first or last.”

Engineering was what mattered to Rancho. The art and science of building machines and creating things. Not any of the things that Farhan mentioned. A job wasn’t important. Big house? Money? These things were secondary. Irrelevant. These would come, naturally. He was in school for the joy of learning. A motive that so many students in the movie, and in real life, lose sight of. Go to any university across America and you will find that Business, Finance, Engineering, Pre-Med, and other like majors of study are declared by students who in their hearts long to study the arts, humanities, or agriculture. But because the world has already determined what is needed to be “successful,” passions are ignored and dreams are diverted…even destroyed.

“Make your passion your profession, and work will become a game.”

~ Rancho

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the problem with modern day expectations in both the secondary and higher education realms. It’s the “book smart” mentality that ultimately discourages creativity and exploration. Professors demand textbook answers, non-applicable formulas, and encourage the development of theories and bulleted lists to explain things as basic as human communication and creative processes. A definition of learning is brilliantly suggested by Rancho: “Learning is not memorizing the exact words from the book. Learning is understanding it and being able to explain it in your own words.”  Unfortunately that is unacceptable today. Ironically professors are the first ones to disagree. But it is. It is so true.

On several occasions Rancho publicly humiliates his peers and professors trying to convince them that things like this were really happening. For example, one over-achieving alumnus works hard cramming to memorize a public speech in a foreign language, in which Rancho had replaced several words with profanities just prior, just to emphasize the point that (quoting Rancho), “Cramming may get you past 4 years in college but it will screw your next 40 years.” And how true that is. The list of examples could go on and on. I suggest that you watch the film.

“This is college not a pressure cooker.”

~ Rancho

Without revealing the twists and turns in the plot of the movie (because I know you all want to watch it now), I can say that Rancho becomes someone great. He becomes a great and noble teacher and mentor of youth similar to himself and is able to truly practice his techniques and ideas he so wisely exhibited when he was a student. He obliterates the status quo, and though he be a genius engineer, he is the first to discourage those who are becoming engineers who would rather do something else. He inspires one friend to pursue his life-long dream of becoming a nature photographer. With another, he helps them see the real motivation behind his endeavors: His family’s well being. And another he humiliates, perfectly demonstrating the true meaning of the saying:

“Pursue excellence and success will follow…pants down.”

And yes, in the movie that is quite literal. So, there is much to be learned from our friend Rancho, who’s real name Phunsukh Wangdu. Though he be a fictional character, he is a true representation of the passionate learners and creators in all of us. Don’t be a doctor if you want to own a restaurant. Don’t be a professional musician if you really want to be a basket weaver. Don’t become victims of the modern status quo. Fight back, make your mark. Study what you love. Become experts and allow yourselves to be driven by your passion in life. In so doing you will be blessed with a fulfillment you never before imagined, regardless of wealth or influence. I say we be more like Phunsukh, because if there were more people like him, the world would be a better place.

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