Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Never-ending Question Of Return

Once you left home, my friend told me, you can never go back.

I said I must, as I only wanted to travel to see the world. To learn, as I believed in Gu Yanwu's dictum - walk 10,000 miles, read 10,000 books. I went only as a student, as an adventurer who wanted to live in different places, speak different languages, learn different customs and make different friends. It was very different from wanting to migrate, escape from my roots: Far from it, I dearly loved my city, my house, everything that wrapped around my childhood.

Indeed, my friend had a point, despite the copious amount of beer he would have drunk before he said that. That is the perennial question in a non-resident's life, the question of return. There is a constant weighing of opportunities, the choices being made at every step, the desire of self-renewal up against the desire of being yourself. Besides, home is only an idea frozen in time, not a house just, but the people and the voices and the habits that reside in them. Once you leave, all changes. The people you expect to see when you open the door vanishes as if in magic, the voices change, the habits alter: The house may remain, but it longer remains home.

There is a counter-argument, that home is where love is. Home is that place where you can drop your guard, be yourself and live without conditions, surrounded by people you can call 'my folks'. But that is habit again. Love, in that sense, a habit, a pattern of expectations that you grow over a long period of time, and often based on conditions that you impose. You build friendships where you stay, often based on coincidences, sometimes based on interests. So, seen that way, a traveler builds homes all over the world, even when he is not rich, as he builds these friendships and moments of habit and love and a sense of being.

But I live in expectation still, that I can return. I know the place I return to will be different, but it will still be my journey's worth. I quoted Eliot elsewhere in this blog: 'We shall not cease from exploration/ And at the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time'. In a way, the return is the ultimate adventure, a knowing that was unknown, a rediscovery of my own self and identity. Seen that way, a return is the final reward of any traveler, regardless of how far and wide they traveled, because all of them were only searching for a way to rediscover themselves. All their lives, as is mine, are journeys of return. They always knew where they were going, but just chose a different path to arrive there.

I know my journey wouldn't cease till I return.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Reflecting On Practice

I have been asked to keep a journal for one of the modules in my MA course. I am now trying to force myself into the habit, though I am never good at doing anything when I am forced. However, this is only required for a short while, with the final coursework due in early September, and I thought I can keep trying it for a month.

I am expected to write about my Professional Practice and immediately the confusion starts. This is for an Education course and for the purpose of the course, I should possibly focus on the part of my role as an educator. Indeed, I teach Marketing Strategy to Post-graduate students one afternoon a week, and this is going to go up to one and half day a week starting September. However, this is only a small part of what I do. Teaching is my adventures in the chalk-face, an element in my exploration of models that I intend to employ, some day, in the Online College that I want to set up. So are other things - the administrative functions that I carry out as the Head of Education in our college, the constant evangelism that I have to do protecting certain values which I think are central to education, as well as the strategic stuff, exploration of opportunities, understanding government policies, that I have to keep doing for the college - form an integral part of my practice.

How am I doing as a teacher? I think I am alright as a presenter and a speaker: I have a salesman for far too long, and also have a wide range of interests. So, holding people's attention and engaging them for a period of come naturally. However, there are a number of things that I could do better. First of all, I suppose, I can be better prepared. Because I am not teaching often, I prepare materials class by class. I would love to sit down beginning of the term and write the whole course, rather than doing this piecemeal. I have a feeling that while each of my classes will be enjoyable and illuminating to people I am teaching, they may struggle to thread all of it together. It does not help that I see a group once in two weeks: This adds to the disjointedness. This is indeed the first thing I wish to address when I get a new group to teach in September.

Second, I suppose I need to give more feedback to the students than I do now. I am making them work on presentations, and give feedback in the class, but again, the activity ends in the class itself. I have a clear opportunity, particularly with Moodle, to create a conversation that continues beyond the class, which has not happened yet.

I think the key problem here is that teaching is not the focus of my role: It is something I do on the side. But it should not be so, I shall rather not teach if I can't correct these problems because that does not do justice to what I could possibly do. The students are currently happy and indeed they tell me that they want to see me more often, but that's exactly the point. I am sure I like the power and the privilege my position as the Head of Education offers me, but this also subverts my priorities. My priority is to learn the education process first hand - that's one thing I wanted to learn from this job and the MA course I am doing concurrently - and for this, I must be ready to give up the excitement of doing other things.

This is my first note and the frame of reference: I am hoping to take a backseat in the college and not be engrossed in any other thing at least till the end of October, when the intensive course I am planning to run is over.

So, that's another little experiment with myself and my life and I am beginning to enjoy this already.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Education is the Killer App

I don't remember who said this to me first, but it is something I deeply believed in and reorientated my career therefore. The premises are simple: In an uncertain world, in the context of post-industrial civilization, knowledge rules. Whoever thinks middle classes are gone, should think again: Despite the decline of middle class jobs in the Western countries, there is a huge increase in the numbers joining the Middle Class ranks all over the world, with similar aspirations, consumption habits and hunger for 'degrees'. Education is the 'app' that makes it happen: This is going to be the killer app for now and for future.

I am fully aware that in America, there is this discussion about Education Bubble. One can see clear economic reasoning, save one. It is improper to compare higher ed to housing, as the former is a super-portable merit good and the other is the model of illiquidity. You can't take your house along if you move to a better job in another city, so it must be sold, but education indeed does not tie you down in any way: In fact, it makes you move. Look deeper into the Housing Boom and Bust, and one can see the lack of mobility is one of the key reason for the crisis. Education stands at the opposite end of the pole, that creates a super-flexible economy and endows the individual recipient with global mobility - so its pay-off should be much easier to come by.

However, I shall possibly agree that the model of education that we have currently may need to change. While one needs to dedicate a phase of life to 'studentship' when education should come first, I am not sure sticking someone inside a classroom for twenty-odd years is the best way to do this. I am not necessarily talking about 'practical' experience, because this often leads to a diversion from the values of studentship: Being stuck in practical may mean that one loses the critical perspective of his/her surrounding. However, education should surely be more open. For example, college leaving should neither be stigmatized as a failure nor it should be irreversible as in Britain today. As Lord Rees was arguing in a recent seminar I was attending, people should be able to leave college with some 'credits' for whatever they have done and the education system should accept them back if they intend to return to studies at a later stage of their lives. Indeed, this is common in America, and saying 'I did a couple of years of college' is common: But, this does not work the same way in Britain, and other countries, and this is where the current model of education is not fit for purpose.

Besides, if education's great value is in enhancing mobility and understanding of diversity in the world, it manifestly fails to do so. Worryingly, higher education is being increasingly confused with training of advanced technical trades: Nothing wrong with the latter except that one needs a higher level of understanding of the world around themselves to function as a responsible citizen of a highly complicated world. Too much of technical training and one would not blink deleting voicemail messages secretly while hacking into the phone of an abducted schoolgirl, so to speak.

And, this is not about lecturing on moral science after all the required classes are over, but re-emphasizing the need for a good education to create and maintain stable and successful societies. This is where we are often getting it wrong: In most countries, 'training is the killer app' and education is dead and gone. But, the world is unlikely to continue as it is: The possibility of an American debt default is real unless the rich and poor go beyond their narrow self interests; the possibility of Europe imploding is real unless the rich Germans show an understanding of the plight of Greek pensioners; Climate Wars will happen with catastrophic consequences if India and Pakistan do not learn to share river water very soon. Everywhere one looks, one can see a complete failure of the model of education we have deployed so far and a crying need for a new model.

This indeed makes good business. I shall argue that there is a private solution to this. And, I sincerely believe that privatization does not mean junking the education ideals once and for all, but indeed preserving them. The wholesale transition to narrow technicality did happen under the public sector's watch, as the bureaucrats muddled through without knowing why on earth anyone needs critical perspectives on the way things are run. But that is unlikely to be the case when private entrepreneurs come in. We need a regulatory environment that is fit for purpose, and as in other industries, regulatory environments find the entrepreneur it deserves. So, if we get the regulatory environment right, which is the job of public intellectuals and concerned citizens, we would find innovative and accountable businesses in the education sector. This is exactly what we need now, in Britain and elsewhere, companies which bring the values of business (I am aware of the skepticism that surrounds 'values' in business, but don't think that's fair) to the long term life-changing game of education.

We can ill-afford not to have them.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Being A Student

I live with curious justifications. For example, I believe that since the leaps in medical technology in the last forty years added a good 20 years in average life expectancy of a person living a regular life, I am twenty years younger. Well, it works this way: I was expected to live 60 years when I was born, and can now safely expect to be around for 80, hence I am 22 years old. This makes some people jump, particularly those who have not been born by that logic, but they miss the point: This was a relative measure rather than an absolute one. They may accumulate as many years of extra lifetime by the time they may reach my age, but, for the moment, they are yet to earn it.

So, that is one way of extending my life: There is another. I keep coming back to this theme of living two days life in one day. If I could manage to do this everyday, this will eventually mean I end up living about 160 years' (80 real years x 2) worth, a pretty decent time to make a difference. But, indeed, sometimes I lose the days doing nothing, as I possibly did last week, struggling with a bit of depression that invariably caught up with me. It is of that existential sort, what am I doing with life kind of depression, and surely I am feeling this now as I have achieved some sort of objective that I set myself around this time last year.

That objective was to lie low and recover from the burn-out that I had from my previous job. As I have written before, I was tired, bankrupt, and exploited to the final degree in that position: I just couldn't go on anymore. My decision to go into the private education business was to stay low and reassess my life's priorities. And, accordingly, though I have not achieved much over the last year, I feel free, unburdened from the past, imaginative and happy. Altogether, alive again and looking forward to the future.

The problem, however, is I have not done much for this future over the last year. I contained my ambitions and necessities, and have been content, or pretended to be content, at the passenger seat of life. These months, structured in a predictable timetable of trains, recesses and meetings, were very unlike anything I have ever done before. Indeed, I pretended to lead the agenda for change at work, and everyone else, more or less, pretended to accept my rationale, but everyone around the table possibly knew this was a game being played: In my infinite wisdom, I kept playing though, since I had nothing better to do. The only conversation about future that I had during the time was with my brother and my wish to eventually go back to India, when my agenda of travel is over. But as he passed away in January, and all conversations ended abruptly. Since January, I have almost given up on India and did not even make an attempt to go.

So, at this time, when 'what's the future' kind of question has to be answered, I am suddenly at a loss. This, mind you, does not arise from any dissatisfaction about the present, but that it is ordinary and boring. I have done this before, walked away when life's got too predictable, but I am possibly older and wiser now to do it again. I shall survive doing what I am doing now, but this will involve a surrender to conformist dreams which I am periodically unable to do. That, for example, starts with the acceptance, nay feeling, of being old. But as I mentioned at the very start, I believe, seriously, in my own formulations of having earned twenty extra years and want to behave like a twenty-something sometime.

There, a note of caution: I am not after the lifestyle bit here, just the possibility bit of being twenty. I have given up on alcohol now, and this is going to stay. I have come to realize that my brother's untimely death was caused by his drinking habits, and possibly by his attempts to stop drinking towards the end, suddenly and abruptly. I am not a regular drinker, but off late, possibly due to the demands of work and social bonding, I was going out with work colleagues during the evenings and ended up drinking beer almost every evening. This prompted me to stop and think: I realized that it is perfectly possible to socialize without having to drink alcohol, though I am not struggling with the copious amount of fizzy drink I am having instead. I am not a party-going kind anyway, and if I like someone, I can't even say it for years, until it is very late and the person has gone away: So the fastness of twenty-something life fits me as well as a 28 waist-size jeans will fit me, and I am not aspiring myself into that.

I am rather thinking this way: Can I start again and learn something new? I am a student, doing my Masters, but this is a part time course which is not in the top ten priorities of a given day for me (except on the day when coursework is finally due). However, the only way I can look at the future is by bringing it up towards the top of my priority. I am close to the finish line of my Masters but I will have to write the dissertation still. This is actually a good time to see whether I can possibly live like a student, when studies come first and work second perhaps, and everything else afterwards.

I want to do this because I am trying to decide whether I should pursue my studies further and try to complete a research degree before I eventually go away from England. I came here not to stay but to learn, and completing a research degree before going away, and this may not be going back but going somewhere else to see the world, will be consistent with that goal. But I am also painfully aware that I lack certain key attributes a successful researcher must have: Discipline, focus, commitment are the three top things in the list. I haven't given up on these attributes, but I just know I don't have them. My best chances of getting some of them is if I force myself into a life where they matter: This is why I think I shall try out living like a student for three months.. not 100 days this time, but I shall try with 90.

The Battle Against Plagiarism

The furore over the blog post of Panagiotis Ipeirotis, a NYU Stern Professor, who vowed not to pursue cheating again (read the report here), is understandable. Cheating is seen as possibly the worst offence possible in a class environment, which undermines the trust between the teacher and the student, and makes all academic effort irrelevant. In my own experience, when I was given the responsibility of running the MBA programme in the college I work for, cheating was common, often perversely common. The colleagues in the MBA team wanted to do something about it, but didn't know where to start. Though there were clear guidelines on what to do with cheating, they were so punitive - mostly leading to an exit from the course - that the administration team will often desist from taking the final step. What made matters worse was the immigration policy: The UK Borders Agency mandates drop-out rates to be kept within 11% of the class, which is an unattainably low number for an adult education college primarily dependent on international students. And, somehow, the definition of drop-out was expanded to include all those who exit the course ahead of the scheduled time without an award: Understandably, the course team seemed unwilling to call cheating unless it was absolutely apparent.

The problem with such approach that this legitimizes cheating and therefore, undermines the whole academic process. This is the argument I used to focus minds on cheating. First, I argued that if we turn a blind eye to cheating, no one will bother attending classes, another UK Border Agency requirement for the international students we have. In fact, the college itself will stop bothering about class quality and go for incompetent tutors, who would rather tolerate cheating and try to get their students through. The whole model, in effect, will degenerate, and the signs were there. Second, passing someone's work as one's own is not the standard of behaviour we want to encourage in our students. Intellectual honesty is key to the process of learning, and without it, I would argue, there is no point in trying to train anyone at all.

I have noted with interest the reason why Professor Ipeirotis does not want to focus on cheating is because it lowers the academic achievement. But this seems quite dubious and an attempt to put academic achievement ahead of academic honesty, the same box of tricks we blame banks for using. It seems strange that he seemed to think that the drop in academic achievement is due to his focus on cheating, when it could be due to a number of reasons, including the way he was handling the cheating cases.

I am certain that a huge amount of time in any teaching institution goes onto catching the cheats, when the methods have become increasingly sophisticated and practices widespread. The sophistication of search engines and translation tools have made it quite difficult even for software like Turnitin to catch plagiarism. I have recently had a case where it sailed through the system but was caught later by a vigilant examiner as he spotted the dissertation was an exact replica of something written in Swedish; the student admitted that he used a translation software to translate the material and then only corrected the English. Catching this was surely a fluke, but an institution must make every attempt to stamp out plagiarism, and must therefore look beyond Turnitin. This, I shall accept, puts a strain on an organization's resource and distract the tutors from tutoring, precisely the point Professor Ipeirotis is trying to make. However, a stretch on resources is not a reason for allowing an obnoxious practice: Few people will agree to a government taking its eye off burglary because there is less money for policing (precisely the kind of discussion we are now having in Britain).

So I think we can't afford to take the eye off the cheating problem, but given the size of the challenge, we must look new ways to fight the problem. Turnitin is a good start, but it is not sufficient. I think one should start with the institutional culture: Emphasis on outcome, the degree, rather than the process, learning and knowledge, where this problem always starts. The suggestions to make coursework more social is welcome, but that will surely not solve the problem. The implicit requirement of academic honesty is up against another value which is equally ingrained, that the performance, and performance alone, matters.




Thursday, July 21, 2011

Humanities under Threat?

Last evening, I attended a seminar at the British Academy under the title 'Humanities Under Threat?' which was immensely interesting. This was organized by the University of Cambridge and Arizona State University, and was attended by a great panel. Among the speakers was Jonathan Cole, whose Great American University I have read earlier. There was Stephan Collini too, whose history of intellectuals in Britain is an immensely interesting read, as well as Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University, Robert Post, the Dean of Yale Law School, the famous British Cosmologist, Lord (Martin) Rees and Adam Roberts, the President of British Academy. Altogether, it was a greatly distinguished panel of depth and diversity, and the discussions adequately reflected that.

My impression after the listening to the lectures is that there is indeed a great divide between science and humanities. Most speakers, with the possible exception of Adam Roberts and Stephan Collini, denied that the humanities are facing any threat at all. Indeed, that's what it seems on the ground, with the economic argument dominating the education discourse, but the panel looked at it differently. A number of speakers, Robert Post most eloquently, spoke about the lack of a sense of discipline in the humanities: He pointed that most humanities scholars tend to see themselves as charismatic artists rather than experts of an academic discipline. His criticism was pointed and argued with eloquence and reason, but perhaps unfair, because if someone claimed that he had discovered the final word in history or literary criticism, he would be regarded mad. The 'expertise' in science is distinctly different what could be expertise in humanities. Dean Post did acknowledge this difference, but did overlook the fact we, as in public, go by a fixed notion of expertise, that of scientific experts. Instead of changing the notion of expertise among humanities scholars, a task which will have serious disciplinary challenges, an effort must be made to explain what humanities do.

Stefan Collini's point that the current mechanism of resource allocation, particularly the tyranny of external funding, runs counter to the spirit of humanities. Adam Roberts pointed out various other challenges that humanities face, not least as the hegemonic argument about education centers around economic competitiveness, and not social advancement. It was interesting to note the distinctive British-American divide, particularly in the speech of Michael Crow: Whereas the British discussion always centers around what the government is doing, the American universities receive less than 15% of their money from the government and therefore, couldn't care less. Michael Crow was explaining that the American universities will typically see the state as an investor, one of the many: This is indeed distinctly different from how the British will see things.

Lord Rees talked about the great convergence of science and humanities, as was Jonathan Cole. Lord Rees was indeed talking about the great scientists like Darwin and Einstein, and his points were well received. However, Jonathan Cole's suggestion that scientists need humanities and would help preserve it may not have many British supporters; if anything, the attitude in Britain is that the scientists are doing everything they can to undermine humanities. And, indeed, while most speakers took issues with the 'humanities under threat?' label, humanities are indeed struggling in Britain, particularly under the weight of scientific take-over of humanities agenda.

I found it interesting that none of the speakers decided to address the impact of humanities on the political systems and vice versa. This being a British-American event, it was possibly assumed that democracy is the only political system possible in the world. However, one could argue that while humanities studies are critical in preserving and advancing democracies, democracy as a system undermines humanities: This is because, at least in the modern times, the governments are trying to find justifications of public expenditure constantly, and within the framework of justifications, that of economic well-being, it is hard to see how humanities could be of any value.

Finally, my one take-away from the evening was this interesting, though as an aside, point made by Jonathan Cole about the decline of German universities in 1930s. The question in my mind is why did the German university system proved so fragile in the face of Hitler and his thugs: Is the same problem threaten the modern universities? This is something I would love to explore at some point of time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Elegies to Lost Love

I see time as a brush to paint my life's canvass with. So, nothing is ever lost: All the moments become a brush stroke as they seem destined to be. There will be no regrets either: There will be no claims to finality of a final masterstroke. Seen that way, life, my life or anyone's, becomes a beautiful rainbow of colours and possibilities, its each corner filled with a story of what could have been and its each ending filled with a tinge of beautiful sorrow.

The portrait, which must be hung on the wall one day and possibly take the form of my own face - old, lined with little spaces marked by each of these stories - can and should be somewhat anticipated. The little creases build up over time as all the people that loved me step gently in the background, some go sooner than they should have, some linger a little, some leave a mark, some don't. But they must go, as is the rule perhaps, and every brushstroke must reach a conclusion, and the endings be laced with a feeling of inevitable melancholy.

And, it is also true that life is a search of new possibilities, new colours and forms, which must be enjoined together as long as it goes on. Moments that construct this narrative must have their own little makings, and not just appear pointlessly on the canvass: Each brushstroke must have a purpose, which should look as if premeditated, though it tend to start as randomly as autumn rain. And yet, there will be other moments, which are stories of the moments themselves, the reflexive points in our narratives, such as this one, when the melancholy of this life must be savoured, felt deeply inside.

Such thoughts are needed: The lost moments of life are not infidelities towards the present, but indeed what makes us feel the presence of the present. For, I recall with a certain intensity the moment when I woke up, an awkward teenager in my first year of college, with the desperate longing of not wanting to lose the girl I just fell in love with: Indeed I never mastered the courage of telling her, not then, not ever, what I felt, and just imagined her to be the love of my life. But, despite the apparent absurdity, that was a moment of love, full of intense sadness, which I never felt ever again. I remember that waking up moment, with a sinking feeling, knowing what would be, in the darkness of my tiny student room without windows, sweaty, suffocating, completely devoid of any possibilities. I shall remember forever stepping out of the room soon thereafter, in desperation, only to see that the sky darkened with storm clouds, heavy, deep, endless; Then the first wind of storm will reach me, a cold breeze laden with the smell of fresh rain, as if to console me, as if to give me a message. The same message that the music, played on radio in a nearby house, was conveying : A lover's urgings for forgiveness, for forgetting the message of love. I remember this as if this was yesterday, because that was possibly my first moment of love, a deep stroke of ashen blue on the canvass which will live forever.

There are many such moments. I remember that phone call too, from someone I desperately loved and desperately wanted to get away from. She said that she hated me, and I was so happy: It was almost poetic. I always told her she must hate me, fully and intensely, to be able to go away, and she never could. Through the time we were seeing each other, I always wished for the moment she could hate me, because I did not want to see her unhappy. So, when she told me finally that she hated me, I knew she would be free and also how much I loved her: Again, a moment of being set free, a moment of eternal bondage, melted together into a sense of being in love, an indelible brush stroke in the canvass that must be preserved.

So were the moments of belonging, when the little girl I deeply loved told me that she had this terrible dream of me going away, being lost forever. I loved her, with a certain affection I didn't know before, and wanted to protect her forever from all the sorrows, all such waking-up moments. It was one of those points in life when I knew exactly how much I meant to someone else. Also, I knew exactly how she felt, as I had my waking up moments myself, and made a pledge never to go away. This would become my base, the container of my existence, a love that enveloped the meaning of love, a narrative which must form the fountainhead for all others, something that would define everything that I say or do, want to have or have to let go, and eventually who I become.

There are so many such moments. A mistaken mail, an unfinished song, a chance encounter, a long conversation that almost never ended: And there are those people, who, all intently painting their own canvasses, must leave a mark on mine. Each moment will appear to be eternal, each one with claims of a certain finality, an ownership of a kind of the space on the canvass: Like each word of a beautifully constructed story, or each stone in a magnificent structure, each of these are essential, climaxes all, keystones all, without which the painting would never finish. And, each will melt into the other, blue and yellow merging and emerging into melancholy green edges perhaps, to give a shape to a new meaning of love, longing, and belonging.

This moment, when I step back to adore the canvass, my story thus far, I see a pattern though: I see love not as the feeling at the time of togetherness, but of the moment of absence, of memory. It is not the brushstrokes but the edges, not the pure colour, which may have been lust, or affection, or attachment, or friendship, but the melted, subverted edges, of moments as painted and preserved long after they occurred. It is the recollection of the moment rather than the moment itself, the reflexivity that goes with a sentient existence, the brush stroke in full form. I see the humour, how, at the moment of love, we forget the frailties that define us, the fact that everything must end to give it a meaning becomes obscure. But that must be the magic of love: It is that potion that enhances the moment to obscure all the possibilities of its ending, but emerge itself only in the ending, in all its beauty and possibilities.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What India can learn from, er.., Finland

India has an education problem. A massive one. Its education system is broken, so bad that an official in Prime Minister's Office recently said that India has an examination system, not an education system. Most children in India go to schools that don't teach, and most adults will go to colleges which are desperately out of sync with modern world. Its education infrastructure is at the breaking point. Government's solution to this was to introduce, unthinkingly as governments do, privatization. So, basically, the government will let go the control and let the invisible hand take care of the problem.

What complicates this is that in India, no one really is in charge of education. It is in the joint list, which means both the Federal (Central) government and the State governments get to dabble in it. They can pass the blame to one another, and do nothing. But also that they don't want to let go - they fear that giving up control over education is giving up control over public opinion. Also, it is too fat a cash cow to be just given away for India's various corrupt leaders. So, they have created a hodgepodge of semi-market solution, a nowhere house, where politicians park their corruption money, leading to even poorer quality of education and a degree inflation.

Only 2% of India's graduates are employable in a global company. Indians take pride in their IITs, but expanding it to a limit is making some of them 'just another engineering college' as a government minister recently stated. Amid all of this, India's huge bulge of young people, its demographic dividend, is missing out on a worthwhile future, and turning into 'demographic dynamite'. India must find a solution to its education problem fast.

I shall argue that in order to search for a solution, India should look at one of the most unlikely places, Finland. I am fully aware that Finland has a small population and limited diversity as compared to India, but a lot of similarity: An omnipresent state sector being one of them. Finland's education infrastructure was breaking down in the 70s, and it could have had its demographic nightmare just as its neighbour, USSR, suffered around the time. But, by with determined bi-partisan action and innovative thinking, Finland managed to build an education system that's become world's envy, consistently putting Finnish students ahead of their counterparts from other European and North American countries in academic ability tests. Not just this, but Finland built an economy, with some great companies, based on innovation and enterprise, something that India desperately needs.

So. what did Finland do that other countries don't? Finland focused on its teachers, making it one of the most respected professions around. Not the best paid, of course, but a profession can attract the best people when it goes up in public esteem. This is an important lesson. One can look at Britain for a contrast, where teachers are vilified on a regular basis and seen as money-grabbing lazy gits at best. The politicians make it sound like that, and the media laps up those stories, an errant teacher making it to newspaper front pages all too often. Though the indiscreet journalists and corrupt policemen have granted the teaching profession a reprieve at the time, but this will all come back again: Teachers, along with transport workers, seem to be Britain's favourite whipping boys.

In India, as in other countries, there is little discussion on expanding country's teaching capacity. The teacher training infrastructure in India remains at the stage it was twenty years back, and the teaching wages have hardly risen. Every successive government tries to grab a slice of teachers' pensions (as in Britain) and spend it in vanity projects, like Defense or subsidies to well-connected businessmen. The expansion of education on the back of politician's black money led to a systemic de-professionalization of teaching. And, this runs across the board: Philip Altbach and others chronicled the fall of the teaching profession globally in their excellent The Decline of The Guru. Finland, in contrast, put money in professionalizing teaching. So, the expansion of their education capacity, or the reform of the existing infrastructure, started with expansion of the country's teaching capacity. Indeed, this is not newspaper headline grabbing stuff (Contrast 'New Teacher Training College opens' with the possibility of 'Prime Minister announces setting up an IIT in every village'), but this is the sort of change that really creates a country's educational capacity.

Finally, Finland also shows a flagrant disregard for testing, scores and rankings (and yes, balanced scorecards) that dominate education sector in other countries. This is counter-intuitive; all other countries seem to believe that competition and ranking solves everything. In Britain, school scores are everything: The government wants to export the system to higher education lock, stock and barrel. Americans invented the university rankings, and though Malcolm Gladwell may argue it does not work in the current form, the university life in America revolves around the same. The Chinese have now started their own rankings, and so is every other Asian country which cares about Education (and India has a dozen or more rankings already). What certainly gets missed, as Finland would show, that the education experience is certainly about the teacher, whatever more we can throw into the mix, and it is personal. We tend to disregard these simple facts when we hide behind rankings, and selectivity trumps teaching quality in the college's report card. I am not sure how you can measure and then average student satisfaction, except for some make-believe scorecards filled in by a few bored students.

Finland's education is a largely unreported story (Except, perhaps, for this brilliant piece). It will remain so, because this does not fit into the hegemonic belief that market solves everything. We tend to believe in these theories more than what practical reality shows: If market solved the problem, why are English and American children doing so poorly, on average, on most educational measures? Indian policy-makers should wake up and start looking for solutions for their education problem, and they will do well to look at Finland's model.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

After the rains

I am feeling free now. As free as the blue sky that showed up after the day of rain, unburdened.

I was weighed down by various things, the deadlines to turn in coursework for my Masters studies, the intense pressure on the private sector education in Britain due to the absurd immigration regulations, and the battles I had to fight with vested interests at work. On top of this, I had a very bad start of the year: My brother's death meant turmoil in my family life as well as implosion of a business I was trying to set up in India. It didn't help that this was immediately followed by other deaths in the family, and a rather prolonged sickness of my grandmother, who I love dearly.

None of these material problems have been resolved. I turned in some coursework and have a six week pause, but there is more on the way. The UK Home Office is intent on destroying the attractiveness of UK Higher Education - they don't care as it is not their department - and their campaign is continuing in all its viciousness. I have won some battles at work, and some of the people who were blocking all progress decided to go, but it is like reversing a running train when we have to discard our existing business model altogether and go into another. The news from home continues to be depressing, though the arrival of my niece added the much-needed distraction for my father and my grandmother. I decided to shut myself off completely from India - I don't even have a current Indian visa at this time - which meant losing all my contacts, at least for the time being.

But, it is the sort of complete break with the past I needed perhaps. This trial by pain rids myself of the complete burn out I suffered from the meltdown of the earlier business on the wake of global recession. I needed the break, which I found in the godsend opportunity of being in somewhat academic environment for last 12 months, during which time I almost took a break from my normal professional life. I didn't want to travel - a strange thing given that I define myself as a traveler - and settled into a predictable office-going life I derided so much during my working years. I wished for this period of hibernation: I seem to be coming out of it now.

One sure sign, I feel the hunger to do things now. I am interested in ideas again. I have stopped remaining indoors and started connecting with people again. I feel that I can now forgive people from the past and move on. My head is again buzzing with ideas. Most importantly, I want to travel again, the surest sign that I am getting normal.

Also, it did help that I read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows recently and decided to restore my reading habits. I was using computers and phones too much (indeed, I fell in love with iphone, like millions of others) and lost my reading habits. I don't know whether this is a case of neuro-plasticity, but whenever I tried reading a book, my mind will jump back and forth between references and quotations, as if I am scanning a web page, and soon it will become all too difficult. I have understood this and now found some book-reading time early in the morning, at the expense of regular blog writing and other Internet browsing activities, and this is certainly helping me to feel better. Also, an opportunity to use a nearby swimming pool, so that I can spend half an hour without doing anything but swimming, is immensely helpful and make me feel fit again.

So, in all, I am ready for life. I am ready to have a go yet again, and not give up. I shall reconnect back with India and my lost friends in the next few days, complete the mountains of pending paperwork and get back to life as I always lived it. I feel hungry to learn new things and technology and I shall not postpone anything anymore. I had a few bad years, but I am choosing to make the next 12 months as worthwhile as possible.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Return to Radicalism

The economic crisis, that we lived with for the last few years, is finally changing the intellectual landscape: After years of conformity, radicalism is again back in fashion. It is no longer daft not to be at the centre, no longer funny to believe in some sort of world's end theorem - grand narratives are back in fashion.

Is this a neo-modern turn then, in our history? The post-modern thinking, the grand narrative that established the absence of grand narratives, robbed us of beliefs to live for. The fragmentation of working class - every man as an island bounded by mortgage - was complemented by a theory of doing so. The pursuit of happiness, the grand narrative that it is possible to be happy by winning a lottery ticket, took over the mantle of the struggle for rights that the earlier generations waged.

Indeed, there was nothing to fight for. The shopping malls were there, the bewildering choice of objects as a proof of existence of happiness: The TV laid out the perfect life and the theorem that if you couldn't make it, it was all your fault. All the press and all the politicians agreed on almost everything, except for such arcane details that no one cared to understand. The only thing worth knowing was who's sleeping with whom, and suddenly there was a lot of news of the kind, including the Presidents and Would-be Presidents misbehaving. But this touched our lives too, as the taboo on sex was somewhat lifted, and our lives were pleasant with encounters of various kinds, and therefore, busy. In one way, the struggle for equality, happiness, indeed survival, were farmed out to the lunatic fringes of our society and out of fashion.

The economic crisis, as it invariably must, has changed all that. Suddenly the grand narrative that the powerful had usurped, is over. The Presidents and Prime Ministers look shaky. The saving at the banks which we were told to die for look temporary. The mortgages not so forthcoming, the interest rates, held artificially low, staying where they are precariously almost. The world news suddenly puts a lot of disaffected people on the street defying guns and tanks, and a theory of Arab spring is just around the corner. Radicalism is back at the centre of our lives.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Strong and Weak David Cameron

The Economist explores the two sides of David Cameron's leadership: He is self-assured and confident in the matters of High Politics (read, making speeches), but radar-less and weak when faced with the raw politics of mass fury and indignation. Examples abound: His approach to the crisis in Libya and war in Afghanistan is markedly dissimilar to his handling of NHS reform and now, the News of The World saga.

It is possibly easy to see why. David Cameron is a showman rather than a politician. His skills of communication, something akin to Tony Blair and far ahead of Gordon Brown, hides an important weakness: He is indeed out of touch. His government has so far done a good job painting a grim picture of economic crisis and unveiling the Welfare State under the cover, but the success of this depended more on 'selling' the story to gullible public than taking thoughtful action.

The great flaw in Cameron's governance style is that his publicist instincts make him follow the public opinion, rather than leading or shaping it. This makes him vulnerable when he gets it wrong: Because he is trying to be all things to all people, his messages become confused. This is possibly one crucial difference he has with Tony Blair: Blair, for all his faults, was decisive and rather Presidential, and used his skills of persuasion not just to stay in power, but to change public opinion. Indeed, Cameron has to cope with his coalition partners all the time, but Blair had a greater problem with Gordon Brown, which he handled rather well.

Most of government's policies so far are deeply muddled and half-baked. Its NHS proposals have to be withdrawn. The Pension reforms may yet stall. It is so far getting away with immigration reform, but one would suspect this is deeply damaging to the British economy. The government went ahead and cut Higher Education funding too much too fast and one could expect chaos sooner than later. Despite the apparent self-assurance of the ministers, the British economy looks as weak as ever, racing towards a double-dip recession later this year while maintaining a high inflation. The interest rates are abysmally low, capital formation is down and productivity growth, which used to lead Europe, has all but stalled. Despite government's talk of unleashing enterprise, its confused approach would only discourage entrepreneurs as the access to foreign talents become limited and social unrest takes hold.

The twin strategy that kept the government in power - the blackmailing of clueless liberal democrats and the frightening of British public - may come to implosion by the end of this summer. Lib-Dems may just wake up in time for their conference and kick their offending leaders out to save themselves a slender hope of surviving as a party. A more confident Labour party may eventually emerge, calling the Government's bluffs and forcing action.

It will only be good for Britain if this happens sooner.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Coming Home: Globalization in Reverse

Santander's decision to bring back its call centres to UK should not come as a surprise: The bank had a bad record for complaints handling and something had to happen. However, this is part of a wider trend which should worry Service Outsourcing and Contract Manufacturing companies everywhere.

It is interesting to note that the global economic meltdown led to shortening of supply chain by European and American companies, rather than rushing to find lowest costs elsewhere. What is happening is indeed globalization in reverse, a far cry from the go-go days early in the millennium. In fact, Mckinsey is now talking about 'Globalization Penalty' after noticing that companies that stayed home are continuously outperforming the big multinationals who are struggling to pull together their global subsidiaries. If we thought the world is flattening, surely it is going round all over again.

Add to this the protectionist thinking in Europe and America, and increasingly right-wing approach to immigration in Europe and now possibly in Canada, globalization looks a lot less sexy than it did before. These emotions are mixed up still, even comical (read this delightful piece by Lauren Collins in New Yorker), but very real. The public sentiment has swung, at least for the moment, at the opposite end of multiculturalism, and it will take a while to restore sense in public life and start being open again.

This is bad news. This can indeed be the indicator of a step change: We are reaching the end of one cycle and entering another. There is also no denying that apart from the bad publicity that outsourcing companies received, there were some serious shortcomings in the business models of globalized business. Speaking from experience, in India, outsourcing was somewhat akin to Tulip mania: Everyone with a spare room wanted to set up one. Everyone who had a cousin or a friend in Europe or America tried to get in. The infrastructure was faltering: The people were not there. Most of these businesses indeed failed, but not before they seriously dented the perceptions of a few clients here and there.

But, this is not the time when anyone wants to see a dip in global economic activity and integration. The threat of a double-dip, another prolonged recession when there isn't any stimulus around the corner, looks very real. Global interest rates are low and inflation is running out of hand. The economies of China and India are seriously overheated and are struggling to patch the internal social strife. Banks everywhere are seriously on the brink and the middle class consensus that kept the Western societies going since the Thatcher-Reagan days is disintegrating. This is not about power shifting to the East - to China and India - but a civilizational inflection point where our assumptions and models have to be revisited and rebuilt.

So, at least for a while, we may see the return to localization. I would argue that whatever is the economic logic, if there is one, this is primarily driven by psychological factors: when we feel threatened by uncertainty, we attempt to return to the familiar. May be, we ventured too far too fast with globalization, and we must trace back our steps now. But that is invariably the way of history: See-saws of a kind where occasional stepping back is part of the game. Perhaps we are at such a point now.

End of the News of The World and The Beginning of Cameron's Watergate

So, shutters down at the News of The World, and welcome, probably, to Sun on Sunday. It is not just the saddest moment of British journalism, a trade that sustained the world's oldest surviving democracy and helped, I shall argue, to make the case for free speech all over the world. It is an epiphany about what happens when a trade, a profession loses its purpose, and becomes a tool of production of profit and power. Lessons have to be learned, not just by the Murdoch mafia and their cronies, but by the man on the street perhaps: That the freedoms we take for granted are hard-earned and must be protected every day, and such.

But, first the bad news. News of the World paints an astonishing picture of a business at its worst, when responsibility was thrown out of the window in pursuit of profit and power, and little people, sadly and cynically engaged in keeping their jobs, carried out heinous crimes, no less serious and offensive than sex abuses and murders they reported, at the behest of their bosses. And, there is more: It sat cozy with an obliging political patron, who owed his power to the wheeling and dealings of the Murdoch clan, who hired, who else, the main architect of the criminal gang that tried to control our lives by hacking into our most private sensitivities, to run his own empire of spin.

When the news of misdeeds broke years ago, suddenly no one knew nothing. Indeed, everyone was involved: The political bosses, the corrupt policemen, and the international media mafiosi tried everything they could to suppress the story. And, in a stellar example of journalism, and as an exception, as most professions fail to self-scrutinize, some parts of British media, notably Guardian, pressed on. Indeed, one can be cynical and point out that they are part of big media too, and this is just commercial competition, but so be it then: They saved us from staring at the abyss by calling the scandal. And, because of their persistence, horrific details of phone-hacking, bribery, bad dealings came out.

But, as it looks now, nothing will actually change. Murdoch empire will keep going. They have closed News of The World and now they will start destroying the records. They would keep going in another name - Sunday Sun - a technique they may have learned from the Pakistani terror gangs. Everyone will keep their jobs, except the little people. The Prime Minister, who implicated himself by making plain how dependent he was on the Murdoch media by hiring Andy Coulson as his media czar, will continue to preach responsibility to the British public and the rest of the world. Give it a few days and the public will forget, the same message Richard Nixon banked on: Indeed, we are firmly back in the Watergate territory.

If you are disbelieving, don't. It is the way things are. The great weakness of democracies is that public memory is fragile and manipulable, and people like Rupert Murdoch has used this cynically to build the business empire that he managed to build. In business activities and political interference which would have impressed the Borgias, he built this global empire to dumb down the English-speaking people (more or less) around the world and create a dumbed down political culture to go with it. You can buy into his empire, watch his fare on TV in the evenings and spend the rest of the day talking about it. You can vote for his politicians, and keep your sex life going on the back of his daily staple of Page 3 girls and sordid stories. To achieve this, there will be people, exactly like you, who will be bought over, body and soul, to hack into people's phones and lives, and pay them off if something goes wrong; to bribe politicians and police officers, destroy the reputation of anyone who wishes to cross them. And, in a stunning display of hypocrisy, you can decree free speech to stay out of your office premises, and truth from the lives of your owners and family.

The only question in my mind now is how far the scandal will go and where it can possibly reach. David Cameron did well to suppress this about a year back, but it seems to be going out of control. Usually a confident man, he is fumbling a little for he is indeed cozy to the Murdoch hierarchy, and at the least, its main beneficiary. For all his skills, this may be his Watergate moment.

Monday, July 04, 2011

How To Teach Creativity: Six Lessons

I just read a piece by August Turak on the Forbes blog (read it here). My takeaway is the six lessons on teaching creativity that Turak claims his mentor, Louis Mobley, embedded in the IBM Executive School. It affected me deeply and made me think; hence, I am trying to reproduce these six lessons here:

One, the linear methods of teaching - books, workshops etc - do not work in teaching creativity. This is not about giving answers and formula, but about encouraging a person to ask questions. Radically different questions! And these need to be generated in a non-linear way.

Two, teaching creativity is more about 'unlearning' than 'learning'. So, the whole experience was designed to be a humbling experience, even in a frustrating, infuriating way. The end objective was to make people feel - wow, I never thought that way before!

Three, one does not learn to be creative; one must BECOME creative people. So, the learning experience was designed so that no answer is ever adequate. The objective was to open the learners to an alternative mode of thinking, and to make them live with it.

Four, the fastest way to be creative is to hang around with creative people. Completely agree!

Five, creativity is highly correlated with self-knowledge. Mobley's school was designed to be one big mirror.

Finally, a pre-condition of creativity is to be able to be wrong. One good idea comes from ten, even hundred, bad ones. Failure is the seed-bed of creativity.

This is my five minute summary of what I just read. Off to the gym then!

Sunday, July 03, 2011

My Life in Britain

I left India on 2nd July 2004, and traveled through Singapore to Britain. It was a rather strange day, not just because the day lasted almost 30 hours due to my traveling route and English summer; I was embarking on a journey completely unprepared and in a way, unnecessary. In a way, I was okay: Had a decent job in a decent company, just moved back to Calcutta with my parents after a stint overseas, and been rigorously advised, by my parents and friends, to start a family. I was 35 then - so my chances of playing with life were written off - and had no particularly transferable skill, as my computer skills were largely forgotten after years of working in a General Management role.

I ignored all the advice on the contrary and came to Britain. It was a wrong decision, I knew instantly. I knew no one in London, except an old friend from my Bangladesh days who migrated earlier and who tried to find me an accommodation in one of her boyfriend's flats (which did not materialize). I had an introduction from a kind relative to a Sikh businessman who he did not really know, but was somewhat connected through another distant relationship. I was picked up at the airport and was left at a Gurudwara, which, speaking no Punjabi myself, was quite a challenge. This was a place, I shall suspect, which housed a number of illegal immigrants, as I hardly saw any of my co-residents at any time of the day. I obviously knew they were there, and heard the noise of their living during the evenings, but no one ever came out of their rooms or spoke a word even if I passed them at the door. I indeed didn't know that one could drink tap water in Britain, and therefore, spent the first two days looking out for a water filter as one would find in India. It was only desperate thirst that made me drink tap water for the first time.

It was also very strange. In my 35 years of life spent in India, and then traveling in Bangladesh and other countries, I was hardly been alone. The space around me was ever so forlorn, so quiet. I was living in Southall then, which had a buzzing, not very unlike New Delhi, marketplace. But I had hardly any money to spare and all I wanted a job; I was not welcome by the shop-owners who would often people of their kind, who can at least understand Punjabi. This will go on for two weeks before I shall find a shared accommodation with the brother of an ex-colleague who was in Britain working for a software company. That would be a life-saver: Having people around me and be able to talk.

But even after moving into a more sociable environment, there was no job in sight. I had Internet access having moved to this other place, and started trying out the online application route. I had no clear idea how to find work in Britain. The Jobcentre was too confusing and being a migrant, I didn't fall into their remit. The High Street employment agencies were unfailingly rude, some not even allowing me to enter into their offices as they answered the doors. My 700 job applications only brought a few regret letters, which I was still storing on the advice of my immigration lawyer (as a High Skill Migrant then, I had to at least prove that I was looking for work). It would take me a full four months to find any work.

By then, my reserves were running really low and I was regretting the decision to come. No one seemed to take any cognizance of the qualifications I had and knew about the companies I worked for India (today, the situation is very different: These companies have acquired companies in Britain and have become known names within their respective sectors). I was very quickly descending into being a very poor man in a very rich country, after having lived, mainly due to the company expense accounts, as a fairly rich man in a poor country.

It would be a stroke of luck that my ex-colleague, whose brother I was sharing the flat with, would also come to Britain, and would find this Cash-and-Carry who wanted to create an online catalogue (with the intent to have a subsidiary retailing operation). He needed someone to help him, and I was hired to take the photographs and do the data entry. This was an interesting job, right into the Asian underbelly of British commerce, where things operated very differently from what you would expect to see in a company. One of my first battles erupted when I tried to get stock status for the Online catalogue: I was told I couldn't have a stock status. When I argued that no one would do an online purchase if this couldn't be fulfilled immediately, the owners of the cash-and-carry shop still didn't budge. After a protracted negotiation, which we were careful doing as this could unravel the project which was my sole sustenance, I came to realize that they maintained quite an opaque stock keeping system presumably to evade VAT.

I moved on from that job soon thereafter, because I learned to be flexible and to accept whatever comes rather than sticking to what I wanted to. So, I ended up being an e-Learning salesman, selling to NHS and other public sector organizations. This was an extraordinary piece of luck, yet again: I understood e-Learning better than most other people vying for the job, but had no idea about the public sector sales. Thinking back, my presentation probably impressed the two directors of the company as they were entrepreneurs themselves: Whatever I could or couldn't do, I was no stranger to risk-taking, and I could prove I have always had an evangelical career: I was not spreading God's word, but I was preaching technology to tech-heathens all my life.

This would eventually become an impossible struggle. I was learning the job and the country at the same time as chasing the monthly targets. I did quite badly, though got at least two clients for my employer, who would, over a longer term, become large accounts. However, the short-term, volume-based, sales was not for me. I did many other things for the company. I contributed in terms of marketing, more strategic inputs, ideas of products and solutions: These are things which I always do well. But my sales numbers were disappointing, and my commissions were next to nothing. I was hoping that the two large accounts I cultivated would pick up in time to save my job, but when I realized that they would still take months to actually complete their pilot projects and place larger orders, I started looking for another job.

The next job I got, with a small e-learning software company in the City of London, was in many ways taught me the things I needed to learn. I started at a similar role, as a Sales Executive, but this time, I had months' preparation behind me and knew the sector and the job. So, while it was another transitional job for me, I was doing much better. The relative stability of the job allowed me to invest time and acquire a qualification in Marketing: I was also starting to connect with people and building a network in London.

In a way, I never gave up on my entrepreneurial ambitions, and while I was working in e-learning, I was also talking to some of the English Language training companies to take their products to India. This was an offshoot of my earlier work in India: While I was in technology training, just before leaving India, my pet project in the company was to develop an English language offering. I knew how much this could help the students we were training. I never gave up that dream, even after I left all that and migrated.

So, this time around, I was planning, with someone I knew from my days in Bangladesh, to set up an English Language training project across South Asia. Today, when I read the Business Plan I prepared that time, I laugh: I was completely out-of-my-mind optimistic. My plans were perfect and they impressed the people we were talking to then. But in terms of my expectation how much money would actually be put into a project of its kind by an investor new to the sector, I got it wrong. Hence, despite making progress in terms of getting interested partners, the business eventually didn't happen.

While I understood the shortcomings and quite happy with my work at the time, I couldn't resist when someone who I made my earlier English training presentation to, came back and offered me a job. This was a project I wanted to do; besides, this was about putting my past experience in action and traveling to territories known and unknown. So, I left the job I loved and took up this job. The good thing about this job was that it meant traveling to India and elsewhere. Everything else was bad.

For example, we didn't have a product to sell. No one wanted to adapt the training programmes to the markets we were going to. I was supposed to sell the boxes as it existed. We kept negotiating prices, to be able to survive in the Indian market, but still remained out of reach for most Indians. The company I was working for, the distributor, was after a few fast bucks, and was pushing me somehow or the other to sell a few quick franchises and pass on the responsibility of selling to them. This is not what I ever learned to do, or I was prepared to do. My pleas about developing a suitable product will go mostly unheard: In return, I would be subject to a racially motivated treatment sustained over a long period of time. By then, I did set up a few pilot franchises in the hope that this would allow me to persuade everyone to develop the products we need, but I overlooked the fact that I was in the company of mercenaries. This was painful: I was caught out in the middle - I didn't wish to leave the franchisees stranded nor I could do much to push things forward - and I remained in the limbo for more than three years. In the end, I shall come to a point of no return, when I had to accept that the inevitable and leave, not least because, by then, the franchisees in India and elsewhere also lost patience and started to close or start doing something else.

Personally, this was a strange time for me. It was a time when I felt the full glare of racial discrimination, but beyond that, living with deep frustration of not being able to do the most obvious thing easily moulded me somewhat. From my big company experience, or even in the smaller e-learning companies I have worked with, if you could prove something is rational and makes business sense, and if the company could afford that, it got done. This was all different in this English training business. Even the smallest thing took a lifetime. There was no money available to do anything. Besides, no one cared about the little people - employees, franchisees, students - we had to deal with in India.

Later, thinking through this, I would conclude that my mistake was to stay on once I knew that the business was going to happen. But, then, I always prepared myself not to leave at the first instance, but to stay on and try to change things. This was what I tried to do. I would have to pay an enormous price for this failure. My savings would be decimated, as I had to make loans to the company on and off to keep the overseas operations going and to fund traveling costs, and I would not be paid back. My credibility would be questioned, as some of the franchisees saw it as a personal betrayal that I couldn't deliver what I promised. The stress would affect my health and I would be unable to complete some of the courses I enrolled for, losing money and opportunity even further.

So, last year, when I finally walked out of this job, I was all but ready to give up and go back to India. By then, I had a British passport, and I thought I could come back and see the world - my original motivating factor - at any other time. I was almost going back: I started looking for jobs in India, and I started a business with my brother set to run it in my absence. But, then, I decided to try again.

It was almost telling myself to make a fresh start and go back to my cash-and-carry days. I am better off now, as I know the country and the industries, have good local qualifications, can drive etc. I was ready to do whatever came my way. In a way, this was to become my second coming, starting off all over again. I would wipe the slate clean and go forward.

I was lucky, as I almost always was, to find a job which would be interesting. I would accept a lower salary, and endless working hours, and employ my skills of infinite patience in the face of stubborn resistance to change and my experiences in the fault lines of global training, to bring change to an organization which was caught out in a rapidly changing marketplace. This would prove to be my most interesting career challenge yet. With time, this will help me restore my sanity, my health somewhat; this will teach me yet another set of lessons that I needed to learn about living and working abroad.

As I settled into this new role, I postponed my plans to go back to India for a few years. By now, I lost my mother and my brother, and I had not much to go back to India to. Besides, I am painfully aware that I have to live in a different city, and not in Calcutta, to make a living in India. London, in a sense, is as good as Mumbai for me. I am also constrained by the fact that I am in my final stages of completing my Masters degree in Education at the University College London, and enjoying the intellectual life in London, the conferences, symposiums, idea sharing, to the fullest. If there was one reward for giving up international travel and staying home, this is what it would be. My father is most willing to travel and come and see us: I am hopeful, in time, he would be able to spend more time in London than he did in the past.

So, I stay put - I want to give myself at least another three years like this, working on this education project that I am into. I am enjoying it, and despite the challenges, this is transformational for me. I am learning things enormously. I am hopeful that I shall be, along with other colleagues, able to steer this forward and make this a 'small great company'. Whatever it is, it is an experiment worth doing.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Evolution Versus Revolution

Keynes said - in the Long run, we are all dead. Let's leave this evolution business to God: If we want to get something done in our lifetimes, let's go revolutionary.

I am a rather placid character. I don't like violence. I don't even play the World of Warcraft. I cringe at the sight of blood. But, when it comes to doing things, I never thought evolutionary mindset would work for me.

The reason is that everyone knows evolution does not work, but want to hide behind it. Because it is easy to do so: That's the way everything else work. If we follow nature's rule, we look natural: Won't we? But this is an excuse for inaction. Remember Louis the Fourteenth, looking at the bread riots in Paris and thinking that at least his time would pass. It may, but we are most likely to be caught up in the revolutionary mess as we are born towards the end of the twentieth century.

This is because revolution takes less time to make these days. This is because while you are thinking evolutionary, someone, in your sector/ industry/ city/ village/ profession/ party, is already thinking revolutionary. If you are not at the crest of the next revolution, you will be crushed.

I was quoting Einstein to my colleagues: A problem can't be solved at the level of thinking it was created. It is not about thinking better, it is about thinking different. It is about pushing your assumptions aside. It is about getting a fresh pair of eyes. It is about forcing yourself to your discomfort zone. You don't need bloodshed: All these are revolutionary.

People wonder why I am doing what I am doing. They almost assume there is something wrong with me. Why am I not trying to go into a bigger company or a better job, I am asked. Sometimes, almost out of pity, someone will whisper an opportunity to me. When I turn down and say I am alright where I am, they think I am queer, in terms of my aspiration.

What I can't explain is that I wish to be part of a revolution. In a modest way, not in a world- changing-way: I am trying to craft a small great company within a sector which is undergoing revolutionary change. I have all the ingredients of revolution here: Courage, the ability to dream, the political negotiation that enables change one step at a time, a revolutionary team.

Yes, and a fuzzy goal, I can't explain what I am after, but neither what I do can be explained by the reality around me. Because my job is to dream. You indeed dream about things that weren't.

Does it really matter that the reality is messy? Does it really matter that most people don't want to dream? Even that some people are afraid of their dream. Some others are plain hostile, because it threatens the cozy life they built around doing little or nothing. Does it matter that my dreams make no difference, and that it is the world around us - technologies, legislation, ways of doing things - is actually leading the change I aspire? No, it does not. I make no pretension of being a revolutionary: I am happy to be its chronicler.

So, what revolution? After the discovery of table, we have just discovered the next big thing in social connection, the social Internet. And, after the discovery of classroom, whoever managed to do that first, we are tinkering on the edge of next big thing in teaching: The social, networked classroom. And, politically, the state suddenly feels it is okay to give up control on Higher Education, as the whole subversiveness of the business seems to have been effectively demolished, and hand it over to the private sector. So, this juxtaposition of revolution in media, revolution in teaching and revolution in how and why education is delivered present an interesting opportunity for anyone who cares to play: An open field to change the world, only if one public square at a time.

This is the big revolution I am playing for, but there are small ones. This happens in daily installments of trying to change the place I work in. It is an interesting dance, two steps forward one step back, as Lenin would have said, and I shall add, a few sidesteps then. The key is to remain focused on big picture, all the time. It does not matter how I get there, but as long as tomorrow we do one thing better than we did yesterday, and nothing worse than we did before, we move forward. That isn't evolution: This whole sense of dream-propelled progress is revolution at a place where people feared dreams. That gives me pleasure, kicks!

So evolution is for the wimps: I have always been cautious, observant, but these are not things you do when thrown in the middle of a changing world. At the turn of a long term business cycle, an upside-down society, when the war of the religions is a possibility in a world where God is almost obsolete, it is time for me to declare independence from evolution. At last.

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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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