Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Purpose of Education

C. is staying with us now, and she forced this discussion on us : Who would you call an ‘educated’ person? As one thing leads to other, the thought trail went further – what is the purpose of education anyway and how does it affect anyone individually and also a society as a whole.

Big questions, these. Also, one needs to be qualified to answer such questions. But there must be layman’s answer: A sort of a generalist view, which may not earn a Ph D, but something which can be understood and can be used to explain some of the maladies of lack of education.

When the question was asked, a Sanksrit sloka came to my mind, which says Education gives you humility, which leads to success, fame and money. A very concise statement on the purpose of education, but slightly dated perhaps. Humility is not COOL. It is OUT. Self-advertising is IN. It is a Brand You world, as Tom Peters will say. So, has the purpose of education changed?

But if you look at the process of education, and the format of it, you will see quite a bit has been retained since the ancient ages. For example, the teacher refuses to go away, despite the internet. Education, as opposed to training, is often about learning things, which may not have a direct practical significance, not at least in the short term. So, has the purpose of education really changed?

Not quite, I would say. I would try the best answer that I can reconcile with my Hindu upbringing: education is about knowing the unknown, and removing the fear of the different. We all have our cosy corners, as a child or as an adult, and education is the process of initiating us to the world. It is about making us open, and humble.

Yes, it is not about qualifications or grades. Neither is it about the time spent or number of books read or numbers of pages written. Nor about being an expert. It is about the ability of stepping out of one’s comfort zone and meeting the world. Knowing that people, and places, are different. Our lives are inevitably narrow – in terms of time and space. Education is about introducing the existence of the wider world in our lives; it is indeed about imbibing a long view, of ourselves, of our societies.

An educated person, then, is one who respects – others, otherness. One, who knows the advantages of humility, as Hindu sages so pragmatically advised. One who can question what J K Galbraith called ‘conventional wisdom’. One who imbibes the open and enlightened approach to morality with the humanist respect and general good behaviour. S/he is one who does not hide in the classroom, but meet the world halfway down the road.

I must admit, as it is plain to see, that a deliberate attempt has been made, in the last thirty or so years, to move education away from this format. I see no conspiracy, let me assert, just the general blindness that comes with success. The ‘conventional wisdom’ is that in those thirty years, human civilisation has achieved a lot, more than any other previous centuries. A sense of perspective would have prompted a question: Was the invention of making a fire a less arduous discovery than the process of creating usable atomic energy? Or creating the first wheel any less significant than creating hybrid automobile engines? However, such confidence in ‘the way it is going’ has prompted a move, in format as in substance, from the education which initiates one to the unknown, to a format which is for creating experts - a narrower comfort zone and false confidence combined with essential short-termism.

Let us return to C. again, for a final thought. Her Ph D thesis is about Innovation, Flexibility and Competitiveness. How coincidental, considering that her world view prompted us to think about education in the first place? I say that as innovation is so intricately related to the openness than comes with good education, the art of humility and long view. I am sure that she will disagree with me vigorously regarding my views on education, but I hope that, in the end of her Ph D, she will return to the advise of my Hindu sage – I paraphrase – Education gives humility, which leads to openness, flexibility and finally, competitiveness.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Room to Read

I am now reading John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Change The World and am hugely inspired by it.

This is a story of his leaving a cushy job in Microsoft in China, and setting up Room To Read. This tells the story of his encounter with school children in Nepal and promising to come back with books for their library, tapping in his hotmail contacts, and finally going on to set up Room to Read.

I must admit I am inspired, and I wish to do something similar in India. I can see what a revolutionary role free public libraries can play, and know about Andrew Carnegie and his project. While I set up the English Training business, I see this as a worthwhile project to get involved in.

There are t-s to cross, and i-s to be dotted. But I have now got started on this - setting up a chain of free reading rooms in India. I am talking to a few Rotary clubs, and intend to speak to Indian businessmen as I meet them.

Calcutta Moment

Don't blink, or you go under.

The policeman sleeps,

The eve teasers hang about -

The eve is trying apple juice in the corner shop.

Buses everywhere.

A queue forms in front of the ATM.

Another, in the panipuri shop nearby.

This is Ekdalia.

The corner of joy.

An eternal Calcutta moment frozen in a frame.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Keep Going

There are moments when you think,
Life's not worth living.
Either boring or compulsive,
All is tedious, and repulsive.

These are moments when you see
What we live for, is the key.
Money matters, but we know,
There are limits it can go.

So is love, or sex if you please,
Happiness appears more of a tease.
Friendships matter, but waver too,
No one lives just as you.

These are moments when you choose,
To keep going or cut loose.
All of us have habits to keep,
Even on board of a sinking ship.

So, keep going, keep going till you die,
Because you can't change, nor can I.
Head down, and throw up hands,
Or say, let us dig in sands.


So what do I do? When I get into a conversation, the question inevitably comes up.

I have noticed I try to answer this differently every time: 'I am a business man, setting up training business', 'I am in International Business Development and setting up a training business' and 'I am a training professional, setting up a training chain'. There may be another few variations but I don't recall it at this time.So, when I thought of getting used to one straight answer, this is what I arrived at - I am Englishwala, and my job is to set up a business of training English.

Yes, worldwide, and as my job title will say - India is included. I always wanted to do something worthwhile with my life. My Calcutta childhood did not show many possibilities, and my indifferent academic results did not inspire others to think of anything other than a standard office job for myself. So, I did - as destined - start off as a computer operator, gradually moving into customer facing roles, and then by a stroke of luck, in training.

IT Training it was - and yes, I was more or less at the right place at the right time. In 1995, APTECH was leading the industry with several new ideas. Indian IT just started becoming a serious industry, and APTECH, a clear No. 2 in the IT Training industry, turned heads by one initiative after another - creating franchise models to reach smaller cities, using a partnership with Zee TV to start training on TV, working with Zee TV and Apple Computers to create Neighbourhood Learning Centres, creating multiple specialised training brands like Arena for Multimedia Training, Hardcore for Hardware training etc. They were the first ones to create an online learning portal - - back in 1996. Also, International Franchising - APTECH moved to Bangladesh and several African countries during that period. All these initiatives, backed by a very intelligent and aggressive campaign 'We are No. 1', suddenly put NIIT, the market leader, on the backfoot.

However, APTECH's challenge did not last long. After a few sparkling years, by 1997/98, its influences were waning as NIIT gradually regained its market. I shall talk about this fascinating yeo-yeo game later in this blog, and also say how I managed to play a small role in this shift. But, for the moment, I wanted to say how much that APTECH stint made a difference in my life.I learnt the Challenger's art in APTECH, I always say. We did a lot of new things, and explored new ideas. I learnt my marketing in APTECH, though I never publicly admit it. Later when I moved to NIIT and waged a war on APTECH, I used the techniques I learnt there.

Once, I was told by a very senior NIIT executive that I am one of the best education salesman in India; a compliment I accepted without embarassment. Something I did not acknowledge then, but know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I learnt most of my trade in those short, impressionable years at APTECH.

This is not to say that I did not learn anything at NIIT - I learnt a lot about operation, people management, systems and processes, documentation, franchise management. I combined the best of my learnings at both the places, and wanted to become the best Education Businessman in the world.

From there, to this Englishwala role. There are lots of stories to be told - of that journey, of this journey. That's what I intend to do here.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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