Friday, July 31, 2015

The Point of Failure (1/100)

Having failed a few times, I claim I know what it means. 

Knowing failure means a few things. 

First, it means that I know that there are degrees of failure. There is indeed that complete, catastrophic failure - the end - that most people think about when they think of failing. But the actual experience of failure teaches you that it can be far more gentle, and indeed reversible. Having failed, therefore, means many bad things but one redeeming one - overcoming the fear of failing.

Second, the experience of failure also teaches one to plan for failure. This is a departure both from the failure-as-catastrophe view of the world (in which case, no plan is really enough) and also the bravado of not thinking about failure. Indeed, this is not planning to fail, but planning for failure, so that if and when it comes, one has a Plan B in hand.

Third, failing leads to an optimistic view. This does not mean failure is nice - it is never so when you tried something that did not work - but that the realisation that failure may be unavoidable but it is not irreversible is rather liberating. This may lead to other good things. Like, one may fail, but it does not have to all go to waste - and one may derive a number of lessons from such experience.

Indeed, I talk about me as I write these things. I tried to create an enterprise which did not work, and I ended up spending two years on it, incurring debt and going nowhere in the end. But this was not the first time I have failed and I was quite prepared for it. I had a plan, which meant compromises and a tactical retreat but not catastrophe, which I fell back on eventually. This failure became my Business School, something I did not go to, with similar implications on my bank balances and hopefully enhancing my abilities. 

What makes failure worthwhile, I shall claim, is not the fact of failure itself, but what you do with it. My two years of setting up the business have given me an extraordinary range of experiences, of sales, marketing, finance, technology and people management. It did burn me out and therefore, the tactical retreat of taking on a more junior role was helpful - a year was enough to get back my bearings! But now I feel more ready to start again, and more equipped to make things work. And, this is possible because I have thought about the failure all the time through the last year, thinking about what errors of judgement I have made (there were several) and what I would do differently if I start again now. This was all connected - accepting failure as normal and not thinking it is my destiny to fail, and yet, accepting the mistakes I have made and regaining the appetite to try again.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Unlocking The World of Work

There is an essential disconnect between how we educate our young people and what we expect them do afterwards. 

When in education, we assume a world which can be neatly divided into a world of ideas and the world of action. In the university settings, the world of ideas is higher, neatly rational, one to be mastered through disinterested inquiry. And, indeed, the world of ideas is sets the norms, with which one should guide the world of action. 

However, after this, we expect those educated enter real life and work. At work, the expectations are little different. Here, ideas are important, but they are not the norms within which all actions must be taken, but the tools to use in action, and indeed, actions shape as many ideas in their turn. There is no disinterested inquiry, but the messy world of practice - where human interests, follies, emotions, all must play out - is shaped by engagement. 

While these two views are so different, our current systems of education and work are shaped around the assumption that the transition from one to another is not so difficult. When it does not work, we blame our young people, their lack of character, attention and morals. They are left to live the life of the socially discarded, increasingly socially deviant and outcasts. 

Any questions about the shortcomings of the education systems we have are emphatically answered as well. We can cite so many very successful people that come out of the top universities, notwithstanding the fact that a majority of the students there were already very privileged before they got there. We ignore the warning signs that our education systems are becoming a legitimisation system for social inequities, rather than the engines of social mobility they were to become. 

We know the problems and are looking for solutions, in better teachers, better technologies and better testing. We assume one thing to be the silver bullet after another. We are thinking opening up access to the best universities teaching and content, as exemplified in the MOOCs, will solve the problem, unwilling to admit that the students come in with huge social advantages. And, as we arrange the deck chairs, so to speak, our middle class assumptions start falling apart, the promises of social mobility wither, jail population increases and jobs go vacant.

The problem we do not want to talk about is that the current form of universities, and the enlightenment assumption about preeminence of ideas behind it, are out of sync with the world of knowledge-in-action that we live in. At a time when our predominant cultural life is economic, language is binary code, Oracular sage is a strangely-named Google and nemesis is an intelligent machine, the education-work dualism is really unsustainable. We have tried, since the end of Second World War, in the bonhomie of national solidarity (and independence for some countries), to fit an institutional form designed to perpetuate privilege into the new imperative of creating knowledgable workers (which, by intent, challenges the mind and hand dualism embedded in our other assumptions), but without necessarily fusing the world of ideas and practice. 

Indeed, there are exceptions. Everyone is moist-eyed when they talk about the German vocational education, created around a solid foundation of apprentice system, and productive possibilities that unlocks. Yet, various countries miss the key roles played by employers and trade unions, rather than educational institutions, in making that system work. Stories of Apprentice Schools (see here) appear from time to time - and we still miss the point of employer engagement when thinking about our own contexts.  

Before it is too late, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee - universities would not solve the chasm between education and work. They can do a lot of other things, including producing politicians and academics and excellent research, but their institutional form is unsuited to produce productive workers for businesses. And, not just universities, but all the education institutions that try to emulate the institutional principles of the universities, arranged in departments of disciplines, structured around classrooms and whiteboards, would eventually fall short. In that gap, one would hope, a new institutional form would emerge - one that unlocks the world of work to the learners. As a colleague puts it (and the same metaphor was used in the article about Apprentice Schools), this is about opening the employers swimming pools to the learners who want to learn to swim! One would not break down the task of swimming into a hundred different learning outcomes like breathing, kicking and arm movement, but do all of that together in the water, addressing those tacit needs of overcoming the fear of sinking at the same time.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Year of Travel

July and I complete a year of travel. I spent most of the year on the road, travelling mainly to India and sometimes to the Philippines. This was some kind of reset, just as my project in global education seemed to have stalled, which, at the least, allowed me to regain the confidence that ebbed in the midst of a failure. When I launched the previous project - where the cardinal sin was optimism and we set out despite knowing we were underfunded - I told my business partner that i felt confident that I could rebound from a failure, if it might come. This last year was just that, my effort to rebound from a failure, and I feel reasonably satisfied with where I am now.

Satisfied but not content, which is a curious feeling, as I know how much is still to be done. So, I am not counting the chickens yet. However, I needed to test some assumptions, restore faith in my own abilities, and clarify some of my own objectives, all of which I have done now. This meant three weeks of travel every month, experimenting with life quite a bit and losing the discipline of physical exercise and regular diet, which I regret. But, this was, as it appears at this vantage point, a great opportunity to imagine my life all over again, and knowing what I really want to do.

I have lived through periods like this before. Particularly as I did when I came to Britain and having no references or relevant experience, had to settle for a job at the end of the food chain. That was a year of reset in my mind, and I can still vividly recall the feeling - how I would count the number of days as I walked up the stairs to the office near Old Street, and promise myself to find something more meaningful in a certain number of days. I kept my head down and opinions to myself unless asked, and survived, with great success, in a rather marginal role which bored me to no end. This is one experience I cherished after it was over, not because of the content of the experience but as it bore testimony of my perseverance, that I could survive and work my way out of meaninglessness. And, indeed, what I really felt good about is that even under that circumstance, I did good work and built relationships - I would maintain long-standing relationships with people I worked with, and one of them, my Line Manager, would eventually become my Business Partner.

My big claim, when I thought about those years between 2005 and 2006, was that I could maintain my focus solely based on my sense of duty and professional commitment, even when I do not necessarily see a future in a particular job or commit myself fully in an endeavour. This is not a flow experience, like the one I had between 2010 and 2013 while building the educational institution in London (or earlier, between 1998 and 2004, in various roles building up an education network in Asia), but I have managed pretty well without the same for rest of my career. 

This one year, in other ways, was helpful though. For example, I can just look back at this blog and know what changed. I believe I made two key decisions during the course of the year. The first is that I am not going to return to India in a hurry. While I started the year, and the new engagement, with an objective that I should be back to India by the end of 12 months, and said as much, ground realities set in as I started engaging full time. I tried in all sincerity and discovered that I have to be better prepared to return. And, that is indeed the second thing - that in the course of the year, I concluded that I indeed want to return to India, as that is home, at some point of time. I set that date 4 years from now - and this gave me clarity about what I should do with my life.

I also went through a see-saw of emotions regarding what I do. I came to it having failed to continue much further with the enterprise I was setting up, and this made me think at various times whether I should pursue a career in Higher Ed. I deliberately worked myself in it for last several years, but my lack of institutional conformity, which life in Higher Ed is always all about, kept coming in the way. As I stand right now, I am doing the same short and long term thing as i did with where I live. I realise that I must play to my strengths about ed-tech and innovation, and keep my institution building aspirations for now. And, indeed, the moment of that will be the moment of return - when I return to India, it would be for Higher Ed - but everything else for now would be a preparation.

This year is also a year of friendships lost and friendships found, and those two must remain in different boxes. This is because the new friendships, as one always finds on the road, can never fully compensate the regret over the lost ones. And, particularly of those which one never wanted to lose, and where the essential goodness of heart transcended even the drifting apart, goodwill lived even when the contacts withered, and the regrets, sad and nostalgic, came just because it was lost but never wiped away. And, the ones I found, of those who subscribe to my aspirations and dreams, ways of looking at the world, must indeed be celebrated, but only in the backdrop of the fragility of context, in full knowledge of temporariness of all endeavours and therefore of all connections, and of the profoundness embedded in even a moment of human connection, however trivial that may appear at first. 

So, indeed, I read Montaigne as I turn the year, of his lighthearted but deep reflections on affairs of men, and he becomes my companion, just as he was to so many others before me. With him, I come to see that the great affairs of human beings are always about other human beings, connecting as the end goal of life and being connected, the supreme realisation of living. The loneliness of travel, being away from what one would call a daily life, where jetlag and changing perspectives scatter away the usual cycles of day and night and daily routine, and bestow an unchanging silence in the cover of ever-changing noise, brings up the essence of connections and conversations in sharp relief. I, for one, know, with no doubt, that life is a solitary endeavour, but at the same time, see what makes it worth living.

And, as the year turns, I imagine my life anew. Already broken down in those immediate goals and long-ranging ambitions, I crave for simplicity. I hope my year of wandering would be over soon, nay I want it to be over soon. It is that point again when my desires of wandering reaches its conclusions, of a boring, predictable life, but with something meaningful to do. I have always been divided between two aspirations - that of seeing the world and of being able to stand still - and this year of travel reconcile them perfectly. The world zips by as seen from a running train, and at this very moment, I see what is left in my heart. A picture, still, solitary, even melancholy, frozen as the essence of all those movements, silent to capture all those noise, sad to embrace all the gaiety. It is this moment when standing still becomes all the movement, my messy, book-laden working table the centre of my world, my guileless mediocrity the fountain of all possibilities. This moment, this year, this thought start all over again - but I have moved, taken an infinitesimal step in the unending journey to the center of the universe, but found it right here.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Man versus Machine - Should We Worry?

If we accept there is a tipping point for any trend or fad, that is now for this conversation about man versus the machine, or, more specifically, what impact automation would have on jobs. This is an old conversation, dating back centuries (Luddites, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes and Leontieff - all made their point), and the fear that machines will take over our jobs is not new. And, indeed, the counter-argument, what the Economists call the Lump-of-Labour fallacy, or the mistaken notion that there is only a fixed amount of work to be done (and, therefore, a job for a machine means one less human job), is extremely well-known. So, one may ask - what is the fuss about?

Indeed, it is quite a fuss if you call it so. As The Atlantic visualises a World without Work, the Foreign Affairs says Hi to Robots and wonders whether humans will go the way of horses. Harvard Business Review tries to look beyond automation and allows Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, the High Priests of the Second Machine Age, to explain the Great Decoupling, where GDP growths may not mean jobs any more. Reading all this, one may think that old Marx is laughing in his grave - and I am planning to visit Highgate to check if that could be true - because this may be that Marxian moment when Capital wins over labour, by making it completely redundant! 

Some Londoners are thinking the battle is not over yet, as they struggle through some of the tube strikes, and wish it would be soon, so that they can enjoy the night tube without having to lose some of the day services on working days. But even there, the jobs, like the Train Drivers, which earned respectable wages, are increasingly becoming redundant. The entire London Waterloo station has lost all its manned ticket offices last week, and it did not need a Robot, just some computers and software, to make an army of ticket office staff redundant. It is indeed a lump of labour as the Ticket Offices are concerned.

But while this is an important conversation and worth watching, at the heart of the current conversation, there are two misplaced emphasis. First, the entire debate is being carried on around Robotics, which gives this a sci-fi flavour and makes common people treat this as a distant, nerdy staff. However, automation is far more pervasive than AI - the ticket office staff at Waterloo station did not need a humanoid multi-function Robot to replace them - and this is reaching a tipping point to affect today's jobs and careers, not just tomorrows. Even the innocuous Microsoft Word is capable enough to wreck middle class homes and lives.

Second, the entire debate is framed as a man-versus-machine one, and being drummed up for that apocalyptic moment of arrival of the self-aware Skynet! One should really see what this debate really is, one of priorities. Technology itself is value-neutral, and entirely dependent on what we employ it for. Indeed, we should step backwards one step and ask - why is it more important to fund algorithms to better match dating profiles than to put the funding on developing Ebola vaccines? Seen this way, one can possibly see that this fighting against technology is a ruse, and the issue here is really one of prioritisation, of asking what really matters and how we decide what matters.

Once framed this way, we should figure out real reasons for us to worry about. The Technological Unemployment - the term Lord Keynes used - is not a distant event, but is already here. And, the machine is not the enemy! For all those who lost their jobs for automation, their righteous rage towards machines is as misdirected as the Luddites pointless battles were. At the core of it, it is about democracies and how we prioritise social decisions. All of us can indeed participate in a grand scheme of a few, owners of Capital and Technology, at the end of which they take all the winnings home, or we may become self-aware early and start to understand the game we are in. Technologies, still very much a tool, a creation of and for human will, do not shape our world by themselves, and the losses of work are not due to them.

It is rather connected to democracies, those systems that get rigged for people not to pay taxes and free-ride on public services (the banks are indeed the biggest benefit scroungers when you consider all the costs of defence and policing that protect their interests). The priorities of building a more human world - as Steve Hilton is suggesting - must be put back in the public agenda, and we should be the ones to put it back. The question is indeed who will own the Robots, as MIT Technology Review, joining the rest, asks. If we are able to answer the question democratically and for greatest social benefit, we can perhaps continue the cycle of prosperity that we have seen in the past. Otherwise, when this process is rigged and benefits skew towards a few, the dystopian possibilities may come to be.

It is not man versus a new machine, but man versus man, as it always has been.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Legitimate Aspiration : India as the 'HR Capital of The World'

The Indian Prime Minister unleashed a big idea in his big speech last week, India as the HR Capital of the world! Speaking at the launch of Skill India campaign on the World Youth Skills Day on 15th July, he laid out the goal of making India the Human Resources capital of the world. This was a sound objective, something that is suitably aspirational for a statesman and rather obvious at the same time. There is a looming Global Workforce Crisis, using a term coined by Boston Consulting Group, which may notionally cost the global economy upwards of $10 trillion between 2020 and 2030 - and India has the right raw materials, young people, for a solution. 

It is also India's  opportunity to lose. The country's 'Demographic Window of Opportunity', a period when at least 55% of its population is working age, opened in 2015. When population of most other countries are ageing - both United States and China would start to have more retirees than working people within the next few years - India's Window has just opened and would remain so till 2050. With the possible exception of the continent of Africa (and Nigeria in particular), where major public health and security issues have to be tackled, India's demographic strengths in the coming years will be insuperable. Some estimates project that India will supply a quarter of the global working population by 2025, and most agree that India will in any case have the largest workforce. 

But, Mr Modi's aspiration should be larger than the mere logic of demography. The idea of being a Human Resource capital is more than what India was - a source of Babus and Plantation Workers for post-slavery British Empire - or has been of late - the home of Offshore services! Implicit in it, if we read it right, an aspiration to lead with knowledge, something that translates the number of people into a source of prosperity and prominence. Therein lies the biggest challenge of India - how to educate a large population effectively to unleash a productivity boom, and to move up the global value chain of knowledge and power.

So far, India's response to this challenge was pedestrian. While the previous government recognised the demographic strength and thought up large scale skills development agenda, something that Mr Modi is carrying forward, there was little imagination involved. Even disregarding the implementation difficulties, customary inefficiencies and usual corruption, the Indian project tried to borrow the skills development models from the developed world - and widely missed the mark. The world would be a different place in 2025, with a perfect storm of globalisation, automation, urbanisation and occupational changes, and the skills and abilities that would be required in this whole new world are completely different from what we needed in the 1990s. Despite their current dominance in the new Indian workforce, the Programmers and BPO workers are on their way out! The millions of process-based jobs that India created in the last wave of globalisation, the experience that shaped ideas of Mr Modi's predecessors, will increasingly become automated. The new millions of jobs that Mr Modi want to snatch from an increasingly expensive China, the aspiration that informs his 'Make in India' slogan, are being shipped back to the developed world, where nimble manufacturing is enabling a new convergence of production and consumption. The worker of 2025 that India needs to fulfill its HR Capital vision is so far missing in action in India.

One could, and should, talk about overhauling the Indian Education system if the Prime Ministers vision has to be realised, but the challenge is broader than just effecting a quantitative and qualitative educational change. Other, more complex, questions will also need to be addressed. For example, adapting to the global context, as this new worker must, would require an open approach to new ideas, and abrogation of 'Not Invented Here' mindset that one spots so readily while engaging with India. Most of the new workforce in India would come from regional, racial and religious minorities, and the country's educational hierarchies have to be reshaped, shedding its elitism. And, it has to accept the role of women in the workplace, and discard the stigma associated with working girls. It must be noted that these ideas, however obvious, run somewhat counter to the ideological transformation of India that Mr Modi's government wants to affect. The HR Minister wants to create a more Indian system of education, which will be centrally controlled, and reject the Western ideas embedded in the system. The ruling party wants to establish the Indian identity based on the majority religion and language. And many ministers publicly said that they would want women to return to their traditional roles and have more children (presumably to support the demographic agenda further, but with wrong consequences).

In conclusion, therefore, the Prime Ministers comment needs to be seen in this perspective. If these comments were meant to convey mere demographic information, one should recognise the limits of this rhetoric - and that it could be self-defeating. It must be recognised that the demography is not destiny, and the future must be actively imagined and brought into being. And, this, in a rapidly changing world, can only be done through realism, openness and engagement with the world.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Higher Ed in India - Educating For Democracy

I wrote about the need for a paradigm shift in thinking about Higher Education in India and the pointlessness of carrying out the discussions, and drafting policies, without answering the question what this is all for. I alluded to the innovation of Morill Act for its boldness, but did not literally mean that is what India should now be doing. The discussion in India needs to be conducted in the current context of development of the country, and its specific challenges - how to build mass provisions for Higher Ed without allowing rampant fraud and profiteering, how to combine its heritage and global outlook, how to reconcile the variations of regional and religious thinking into an overarching Indian identity - and it would be an act of imagination, not mimicry.

The current paradigm in Higher Education thinking is defined by three factors, the requirement of employable graduates, the need for an educated technocracy and the role of the State as the protector of public interests and keeper of standards. While the words used in the current discourse may be more specific - skills, for example, is the buzzword - I used the generic words to illustrate how little the discussion has really changed in the last 150 years or so. The point of the education system imposed by the Colonial Administration in India in the mid-nineteenth century was to create a class of natives who will be able to fill the administrative ranks, help the English run their far-flung empire by taking up overseas positions while allowing the colonial administration define the curriculum and methods of learning. Indian independence may have changed the ruling class, but the thinking, famously articulated for setting up the IITs in 1950s, was to create an elite class to lead an Indian economy whose commanding heights were taken up by the Government and Public Sector enterprises. The framework, state controlling all aspects of higher education, an education designed primarily for public services with elite institutions at the apex, tasked with creation of an elite technocracy.

One would wonder why the agenda of Higher Education never included the imperative to create a democratic society. While the Founding Fathers of Indian Republic, and particularly Nehru, were committed democrats, they helped form a patriarchal state where democracy was imposed from above. Consequently, Indian democracy became as good as its leaders, saved from extinction by the chaotic checks-and-balances of complex system and the coalition of interests imposing a collective lethargy to try anything new. Unlike the United States, where Higher Education for democracy became a stated agenda, and even more so after the abolition of slavery and the Civil War, it rarely featured in the discussion about Indian Higher Education.

Sixty years into the experimentation, Indian democracy is seriously endangered. This is not just because of the ascendancy of Hindu nationalism, which is a definite threat, but also because the coalition of interests of the middle classes is now more clearly defined than ever. This is the sort of coalition one needs to change political systems - or start a civil war - and such convergence of interest, based on material well-being at the expense of everything else, India lacked for a long time. Somewhere around 2010, there was a tipping point when Indians in general started losing pride in their democracy and wanted to become more like China, perhaps due to the failure of its government. Often, lack of sympathy, order and community engagement of Indian middle class surprise an observer. And, pure technocracy shows its limits in the businesses like Information Technology, where lack of capable leaders and imaginative professionals often limit how far these businesses could compete.

In a way, the unique challenges of Indian Democracy can indeed be the key questions for Indian Education. How do you make a vastly poor country proud of itself? How do you integrate a people with a multitude of language, faiths and caste affiliations into one modern identity? How does one preserve values which the people are comfortable with, but discard the superstition? Can one be proud of his heritage but be open to absorb the knowledge of the world? Would it be possible to transcend the traditional hierarchies and cultivate respect for other human beings? Can the traditional values of sitting still and exploring the inner self (which, by the way, all traditional societies, including the Europeans, shared) be superseded by an urge to see and understand the world?

And, besides these, there is the question of the State. It is easy to notice how Indians blame democracy for the failure of the state, and as a remedy, want to embrace greater statism like China. The limits of Indian democracy is really its dependence on the State. Instead of being one of the people, the Indian Republic, as conceived, was to be facilitated by technocrats. At the core, despite all the democratic instincts of the founders, this was anti-democratic. They may have followed this route being averse to chaos, and impressed by the orderliness of the Colonial Civil Service (which they maintained), but it was chaos in the end, and not orderliness, that saves the Indian democracy. The limits of such dependency on the state are fully exposed now, as Indians are painfully aware of various scandals and corruption that afflict the state sector. And, yet, the state is seen as the keeper of the standards - the only one in a society which refused to participate in its own well-being!

The history of every society has a definite breaking point, often painful for the contemporaries but a decisive turning point for those who follow, one which usually become visible with the passing of time. It would always be a speculation to say when that moment arrives. But we know one thing about these moments, that it is either brought on imaginatively or unleashed unsuspectingly - and its outcome, which is invariably painful but also full of promises, always depends on the intentionality of this change. Thereon rests the case of thinking afresh about Indian education, and indeed re-imagination of Indian democracy.



Monday, July 13, 2015

Higher Ed in India - Incremental Improvement versus Paradigm Shift

Higher Education has become a subject for Prime Time TV in India. This is not because there is a sudden awareness that the system is not working, but rather a string of other events - the closure of a high profile institution which operated without a license for many years (see my earlier post here), a scandal that exposed Civil Services examinations in one state were rigged for a long time, a Nobel Laureate Economist writing about Government meddling and limitations of Academic Freedom - that brought the subject to the fore. The conversations, stoked by temporary concerns, would almost certainly fade away again, once these issues become old news. But, it is worthwhile to follow it while it lasts. [See one Indian-style talk show, where everyone talks, here]

One could claim that this is not new and the question of Higher Education has got political attention throughout the last decade. The Presidents and the Prime Ministers regularly talked about it. There was a huge expansion with private participation since 2006, which is still continuing in some states. The current Indian President keeps talking about the lack of high quality Indian Higher Education institutions - he points to Indian universities not making to the top table - and the previous Indian government expanded the public Higher Education provision so very significantly. The current government also treats it as important, and floated several ideas to reform the sector, which mainly meant to them greater government control. 

The talk show referred to above (appropriately named The Big Fight) is worth reflecting on as this does not only highlight the key discussions in Indian Higher Education, it also underscores the frame of reference. And, here, I shall think, lies the problem. A country like India, poor and populous, desperate to catch up with the rest of the world, may not have any ready-made solution for its Higher Education challenge. For all standard questions - whether one should accept Western values, whether one should educate for jobs or development of human beings, what roles tests and assessments should play - may have different answers for India, because its context is vastly different. And, therefore, a meaningful discussion in India will have to be an act of imagination, one that shifts the paradigm than trying to imitate the experiences of the West (or, for that matter, of Modern China).

The discussion I love to hate is indeed the question, rhetorically repeated by the presenter during the show, regarding where the Indian Oxfords and Harvards are. I face that a lot in my work, not just in India but many other countries, particularly in Africa. For a start, this is based on startling historical ignorance - not just these institutions are hundreds of years old (someone in the Indian show imply that some of them may be thousand years old, but none of the Western institutions may fall in that category), they have indeed evolved. One does not just set up an Oxford, it happens over a period of time. Just as one can not create heritage, it is a meaningless discussion. Worse, it overshadows the more meaningful and productive discussions about the right values and objectives of a modern education system, and obscures the need for any paradigm shift.

For example, India is a vast country where 12 million students are seeking to enter university education every year, and that still is a fraction of the number that potentially could. Add to that millions of mid-career people seeking lifelong education, and one quickly gets an enormous scale. Now, transpose these figures against the scarcity of competent teachers, let alone classrooms and seats, and one knows that India needs to seriously think how to make available legitimate and high quality online Higher Education, and yet this would never feature in any discussion. Yes, indeed, we know that there is a complete system failure in Online Education in India - this bit is the most corrupt and mostly ineffective - but this is exactly where the rest of the world is galloping ahead.

America went ahead of the pack in Higher Education because the pioneers in American Higher Education created an American model. Part of the ideas were borrowed from mother country, but also from Scotland and Germany, and the Research Universities were created. But, at the same time, in an act of extraordinary imagination, the studies of Useful Arts were encouraged by Morill Act of 1862 and the creation of the land grant institutions. India also needs such acts of imagination at this unique point of history of its development. That would need a wholesale abandonment of the search of incremental improvement within the existing frameworks and copying other models, and embracing a whole new future informed by a whole new imagination.



Sunday, July 12, 2015

Causes and Me

I was in the United States when the news of US Supreme Court disallowing gay marriage bans hit the wire. I did not follow all the developments, but picked up the news dinnertime while looking at the TV in the dinner hall of the hotel. Delighted, I turned to colleagues sitting at the dinner table and declared my joy at such a landmark judgement. The two other non-Americans present at the table obviously agreed, but only American colleague present shook his head in dismay - I am shocked! he said. In the ensuing discussion, I picked up the reasons for his objection, stemming from his belief, some perfectly justifiable ones once you accept the basis - the religious belief - to be valid. And, I do, as I am aware that my delight is also informed by my own preference (and belief) that people should be free to choose who they want to marry! The fact that I continue to believe my colleague is a perfectly decent, rational and reasonable individual, even if he disagrees with what I think one of the most fundamental liberties human beings should have, disqualifies me from being a cause-warrior!

This is important, because I am asked to participate in one cause or another all the time. One could possibly pick up the hint from my blog that while I may not have participated in institutional politics, I have a politics. The person I idolise, though I have never met him, is my uncle, gave his life to revolutionary cause, shot by the police in his sleep! I am an idealist, often chasing goals beyond the norms and requirements of my middle class life, and my reading list is full of books by idealists talking about a better world.So, it is indeed natural to expect me to participate in various protests and struggles, 99% against 1%, Gay Rights, Gender Equality, Atheists against religion, Environment Protection, Animal Rights, Privacy so on and so forth. And, indeed, in most cases, I sympathise, for reasons ranging from general preference of the underdog, to moral outrage in marginalisation of legitimate voice.

However, I have not become a cause-warrior of one kind or another, because I have developed a certain view of any kind of causes. First, I have come to realise that the case for any kind of cause is almost always overblown. This is not because the cause may not be worth giving attention to, but because of the nature of attention in our age, fragmented, momentary and shallow. To attract attention, one must shout - and overstate their case. So, the cause-warriorship is rarely about truth and consideration, and mostly about shouting the hardest.

Second, the underlying assumption behind cause-warriorship is often that there is one correct answer to most moral dilemmas. So, for each group, there is an ideal world, a Nirvana, worth fighting for. But, if one has taken lessons from history, this is rarely the case, and while many prophets have promised us many different paths, we always found out that human life is an imperfect one, with approximate moral answers, which vary in space and time. This does not mean that we should not have desirable standards, but the point is that we would always have many such standards, and the ideal would have to be achieved through negotiations, trade-offs and engagements, and not through breaking down and fighting everyone else.

Third, the business of cause-warriorship is a business, and often, though not always, driven by self-serving interests of the few leading men. While the cause may indeed matter, but the structure of institutional cause-war revolves around the visibility, fame and often money for some interested parties. In that way, it is not unlike usual businesses, and is about turning other peoples surplus time into the service of ego and prosperity of some.

So, the question for me is what else is there other than the bystander option? There is indeed nothing moral in being a bystander in a highly imperfect world, and while there may be no perfect solution, the need for engagement is still there - and in fact, more necessary - in the absence of such. Everyone, seen that way, has an obligation to have a stance on these causes, though, unrecognised by the cause-warriors, this includes being silent about some of them. 

Besides this, there is one other thing. No cause should be big enough to incite hatred and violence, because those things are inherent markers of power, the same oppressive power that these movements are designed to resist. There is indeed great temptation to imitate the ways of the powerful, because the powerless often form their ideas of power around those tools and methods, but it is self-defeating, because, any fight worth fighting is about removing the oppression that those tools bring about. This whole idea that if-you-are-not-with-us-then-you-are-against-us is one of the tools of oppression, often used by cause-warriors, and one of their biggest mistakes. Causes can unite as well as divide, and instead of a pure solution (which is, by any means, undefinable), one should perhaps look for causes that unite. This can work - indeed worked for the Civil Rights movement in the US - where appealing to good nature of human beings worked wonders rather than the aggressive divisiveness that many of the activists now display.

Let me illustrate this point. When arguing for tolerance and diversity, as in cases of gay or minority rights, if one is intolerant and allow no shades of opinion, they undermine the same values they want to promote. When campaigning for a voice, when activists try to gag any dissent! they defeat themselves. Animal rights warriors scarcely believe that their fellow human beings, who have a different opinion or do not consider their causes highest priority, deserve the same decent treatment and respect they want to win for the animals. Each in its own bubble, many activists disengage from the wider world in search of pure opinion, and undermine the very values they seek to promote.

This, then, sums up my attitude towards causes. Yes, I am an idealist and believe in human capacity to change. I believe that we are capable of building a more just and inclusive world. However, we may not build it by being in our cocoons and seek pure solutions - there will never be heaven on earth - but rather by expanding our capacity to be human, to include, engage and listen to each other, by building capabilities to reconcile our imperfect abilities with goodness of our intent. This we do by connecting, engaging and including, not by fighting and being angry, not by rejecting or excluding. My work is on causes that connect, and it is informed by the variety of causes, and diversity of opinions, that we must live with. I am not the worm in horseradish for whom the world is a horseradish, but a human being with frailty, imagination and aspiration. And, this - looking for causes that connect - is indeed a cause by itself.



Friday, July 10, 2015

Can Countries Tax Businesses?

Greece proposes to raise the Corporation Tax rates from the current 26% to 28% (and possibly to 29%, if needed) in the plans submitted to its various creditors, alongside other measures such as tax rises and pension savings. This immediately draws the usual complaints - that businesses would have less money to invest and create jobs - and makes an interesting contrast with the UK, where the Chancellor has proposed a reduction of Corporate Tax rates, all the way down to 18% by 2019. The rationale presented is simple - that this would attract businesses and create jobs. Both countries are technically in austerity, though in completely different economic positions. Though the welfare cuts in UK were no less severe than those proposed by the Greeks, the two countries are taking two different lines as far as businesses are concerned. Greeks are proposing to raise corporation tax - something that is completely out of fashion at this day and age - while UK is trying to become, almost, a tax haven.

So, can countries tax businesses?

The two sides of the argument are pretty clear. On one hand, it is a question of fairness. Businesses must bear their fair share of the public expenses. They indeed benefit as much from all the infrastructure, schools, health services, public pensions, security that the State has to provide for. Besides, it makes little sense to let them go free when everyone else is paying taxes. On the other, one may argue that this means they do not invest in the jurisdiction at all, do not create local jobs. This is indeed the fashionable view, one taken by George Osborn, but media loves this as do the companies. The development through investment from abroad, where the question of tax attractiveness really comes in, has become the reigning orthodoxy of policy making in developing country, and in India, a new government has just won an election on the basis of this promise. 

Reading through these arguments, one knows that the fairness argument is a moral one, appealing but less persuasive than the practical logic of the country attractiveness. Creating jobs is essential in a modern economy, which is constructed around consumption and exchange, rather than Walden-style restraint and self-reliance. Framed in these terms, the case for making countries attractive to companies is a no-brainer.

But there is more to this debate which we usually overlook, perhaps intentionally. Being a tax haven does not necessarily create local jobs, though certain professional trades - accountants and lawyers - may somewhat benefit. Companies invest in countries, particularly larger ones, not because they are tax havens, but because they have one of the two things - plentiful human or natural resources, or a large consumer base. Both of these are pretty geographical, perfectly in control of national governments. It is not just fair, but also practical, to tax companies which want access to these - local resources or local demands - and allow the proceeds to go to further development of skilled and healthy workforce, for productive capacity, and physical and institutional infrastructure, for consumer demand. 

Now, in all fairness, it may be different in George Osborn's case as he may be thinking more about investment banks, which are vastly more mobile than the other businesses which need to produce something. But, the usual jobs argument usually do not apply to investment banks, because, at the very least, they employ people who would anyway find employment (the impact on the wider economy is much larger, per dollar of revenue, of any other enterprise compared to an investment bank). 

One may make taxing businesses sound like the North Korea option (or the Greek option, soon perhaps). But, in all proven cases of development, tariff barriers and business taxes played a role. Taxing businesses who wants access to local markets or resources create a space for local businesses to grow, which is really the experience one should take from the developing countries like China and India. Some may have used the tax money well whereas others may not have (and one could indeed argue that there are more of the former kind), but the existence of at least one - my favourite example is Botswana - may prove that the model is workable. 

In conclusion, being well-informed today is defined by the ability to understand what the media does not say and why. Business taxes are one clear example, where policy-making reflects power balances, rather than common sense. And, therefore, the arguments in favour of it, repeated so many times in the media, reflect merely the need for justifying it over and over again [If this worked, one would make an open-and-shut case - this happened in Country X and we know this works - rather than talking always in future tense, as they do, that jobs will happen!]. Countries can tax companies, they do, and should continue to do so - and it is indeed a fair and sensible policy.


Thursday, July 09, 2015

Disrupting Internships

Joanna Venator and Richard Reeves makes an important point about the relationship between Social Mobility and Unpaid Internships (see here). While it is an apparently great way of connecting employers willing to allow young people work experience with students who can afford to do this for free, this gets in the way of social mobility. Not just richer and more connected parents get their children better quality internships, the very fact that some people can afford to do unpaid internships while most others can not, make the all-important difference. The equation is simple - employers hire for experience over anything else and internship provides a way to buy, as one still has to be able to afford to be an intern, experience.

This is the way it has been, one could say. The other way of looking at it is that this is one aspect of education ripe for disruption. Internship is a product, which many can not afford. Its value is well established, but there are many non-consumers. And, while one may not be able to beat those 120-hours a week monstrosities in investment banks easily, there are a number of organisations which could offer internships digitally, allowing young people to build work portfolios without having to live somewhere else. Indeed, they would not be equal to the real thing, but at a time when work is going digital, at least in some important sectors, the digital internships may be that good-enough alternative which may turn non-consumers into consumers.

This is somewhat less ambitious than changing the whole structure of the degrees, embedding real life work experience into the education process itself, and in some cases, upending the traditional education process completely with a competency-based model. That model is of greater value than just opening up internships to those who can not afford. But that is also more difficult, given the different cultural and social meaning that are embedded in education. A majority of British undergraduates still rate Social Experience as the main reason for choosing a college, deferring the career worries only until later. The higher education as a middle class ritual is far more complex to challenge than the internship as posh privilege, which middle classes want to get a share of.

Can a meaningful intern experience be built online? At the least, this ought to be easier than replicating a whole university out there, which other people have done. This may need to go far beyond just connecting candidates with opportunities, including providing a managed space where the work could happen, and the candidates can get feedback and earn credits that they can later use with employers. This can also be the space they can learn useful job skills, communication, collaboration, prioritization etc., and connect with recruiters looking for their areas of expertise and experience.


Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Indian Poet, English King and A Case of Infantile Nationalism

The Governor of the Indian state of Rajasthan has a new issue. He thinks the Indian national anthem is somewhat not right, as it praises the then English king, George the Vth. He has a specific, poetic suggestion to make - he wants to replace the word Adhinayak (meaning Leader, though he thinks it stands for Ruler) with Mangal (Good) in the lyric (see the latest here).

Governorship is political retirement, but some people refuses to fade away. The governor in question, Kalyan Singh, presided over the demolition of Babri Masjid, the coming-out party of political Hiduvta which now triumphant in India, when he was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. That was the crowning contribution in his career, one that he would be long remembered. He seems to be trying best it now, by dismembering the National Anthem - and by implication, its writer, Rabindranath Tagore, a bĂȘte noire for nationalists for good reason.

Though the poetic suggestion is a new thing, the accusation is not. The song was written for the occasion of Calcutta Convention of Indian National Congress, then a loyalist organisation, and was first sung in December 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George the Vth as the emperor of India. Besides, Tagore was long accused of being somewhat aloof and disconnected from Indian Nationalist movement, despite his close association with nationalist leaders, such as Gandhi and Nehru. He was active in the agitation against the division of Bengal in 1905, but then decided to withdraw from political life, citing his unsuitability in institutional politics. While he remained a deeply influential and internationally visible figure (he is the only Indian Nobel Laureate in Literature), he was never comfortable with nationalism and his lectures to that effect attracted scornful criticism in Japan, China and United States in the heady days of pre-war nationalism. That he was not a nationalist was rather clear and self-proclaimed, and therefore, his work, Indian National Anthem, was always a suspect with extremist nationalists like Mr Singh (and strangely, with the Communists too, who accused him of loyalty to the British, though they themselves supported the Colonial administration even in the dying days of the empire).

I have written about this song and its lyrics before (see here). Any reader familiar with literature (as distinct from propaganda, that is) would be able to recognise the subtlety of Tagore's art, as he sought to use the occasion of the Imperial coronation to talk about the God of India. Though he was no nationalist, in this song, he invokes a very nationalist theme - Dormission of nationalism, or the sleeping nation - and portrays India as one in deep slumber, which will be awaken by this unifying Leader and will be led to its destiny. Mr Singh is indeed in that zone of confusion between the literal and the metaphor, where so much literature gets slaughtered by plain minds. Tagore indeed stands accused - only of being a poet!

To illustrate this point further, good literature may mean more than what is apparent. Put aside for a moment the infantile nationalism, of European heritage as I must add, and one could almost read the song as a prophecy, for the coming of Gandhi (who would unify the nation), or Nehru (who would lead to its destiny) or even Mr Modi (who claims to awake and protect), justifying its position as a national anthem - a deeply religious vision of a religious nation! In a rather virtuoso performance, it is a God which no one could really object to - an unnamed, abstract God, quite unlike the ones the animistic Hindus worship to, quite like the absolute God of Christians and Muslims - and a God of India is one that even the most ardent nationalists, the ones criticising the anthem, want to build temples for. In a way, this is an anthem which combines Indias past, present and future, ties together its many varieties, puts its misery in context and its hopeful vision.

One last observation. Marx observed history repeated itself, first as a tragedy and then as a farce. Tagore wrote the national anthems of two nations, India and Bangladesh, and wrote the lyrics for a third - Sri Lanka (an unique feat which highlights his influence on South Asian nationalism). Tagore drafted the music and lyrics of what would become the national anthem of Sri Lanka in 1938, which, his student, Ananda Samarakoon (who spent a short time in Tagore's school), would eventually translate. This song was officially adapted as the National Anthem of the newly formed nation of Sri Lanka in 1951. But then, its words were found to be inappropriate by the Sri Lankan nationalists and the words - Namo Namo Matha were changed to Sri Lanka Matha - without his consent. Samarakoon could never come to terms with the changing of his lyrics and committed suicide in 1962, allegedly for this dismemberment of his most famous song. That was the tragedy. Now, it is time for a farce.


Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Economic Consequences of Greece

It may be a cliche to say this, but common sense was increasingly uncommon. As Thomas Piketty maintained, the current approach to Greek debt is driven by astonishing ignorance of history (see here). The fact that Germany has actually never paid its debt - not after the First World War (when it started another war not to pay) and after the Second (when rest of the world saw sense in not imposing austerity) - is important, despite the claims that German debt was different (see here).

History is indeed the big elephant in the room. However, for many people, the question of debt is a moral one. But this, the moral question, is less straight-forward than it appears. Historian and TV Presenter Simon Schama, after the Greek vote, went on Twitter to say that he might as well vote not to repay his Credit Card debt and ask the banks to restructure it. Even allowing for British humour, this is a surprisingly ill-informed view. A country is not a person, even though Margaret Thatcher and her successors may have taught the Anglo-Saxon world to think in those terms. Often, this is not about voting about your own credit card debt, but your uncle's! The moral question is even more convoluted when your grandfather forgave debts of the same person, who is now hounding you to pay your father's dues. (No wonder 85% of the 18-24 year olds voted No in the Greek Referendum, but 45% of those over 65)

Morality is also complicated when one considers how to pay a debt. A country often pays its debt differently than a person, because it can print its own money and make people work for it. Any usual country will have several tools, inflation, adjustment of exchange rates etc, to pay off its debt, the options the Greeks do not have. They do not have it because they are in the Euro, a commitment they are not wanting to abrogate. European Central Bank, in turn, has an obligation to the Greek banks, to make sure that they can meet their payment obligations, which it is quite eager to get out of.

But, morality is not simply one of obligations, but also what brings the best outcome (this may not be the German view, but certainly Anglo-Saxon). The Germans made the French pay for its 1871 war, and the French, in turn, insisted on huge German reparations after the First World War. In contrast, the Debt Conference after the Second World War, where Greece participated as a Creditor, forgave Germany's debt as it was unsustainable - and because, it was for the best possible outcome. Germany was vanquished, without option, a land left destroyed - and it needed to move forward. Greece is indeed not quite in as bad a position, but it still needs to move forward. There is no morality in trying to destroy the future of entire generations, for history's sake or otherwise.

It may be easy for German technocrats of this generation to let Greece go from the Euro, but they are being both oblivious of the past and ignorant of the future. History may not play out exactly the same again, but one may soon have a Greece outside Europe and Nato, permanently embittered and propped up by Russia or China. This may effectively mean the European project has failed, and next time, when Spain comes under pressure, the markets assume that the Europeans would not stand by them. Forgiving the Greek debt does not mean encouraging others to behave badly (quite the opposite - not helping Lehman Brothers meant bigger bank bailouts later), but demonstrating the resilience of the European project. 

Finally, imagine the future! A debt conference, not just for Greece but for all European countries, leading to greater financial discipline and investment in the future (as Piketty and others have suggested), would finally let Europe transcend the recession and move forward. Greece is at Ground Zero, which is where one is if the GDP shrinks by 25% even when the cities are not bombed, and it would have this enormous potential to flower again, creatively, socially, economically! It did happen in Greece, when Solon's reforms let the Greeks out of debt burdens and slavery (593 BC) - a debt relief started the whole European civilisation in a way! It is time to prove that this has not failed altogether.


Monday, July 06, 2015

The-Capitalist-as-Philanthropist Or Why The Business Will Not Save The World

I was recently forwarded an Wall Street Journal article (see here, may require subscription) arguing against the Ford Foundation pledging $11 billion to fight inequality, by a colleague. I was not sure whether to agree or disagree with the claims of the article, as, at one level, the claim that businesses should spend their money doing business, seems entirely justifiable. But, there is a bigger, and implicit, claim - that the businesses can solve the problems of the world by doing business - which I can not disagree more with. 

Before I return to the subject of the article, I should elaborate why I have such a dim view of the capacity of businesses to solve all the problems. Businesses are usually good at one thing - focused efficiency - but this is not the only thing that can solve all the problems. In fact, the businesses often create more problems than they solve. Before we jump into this conclusion positing the Capitalist as the ultimate Philanthropist, we must carefully examine at least three limitations of business thinking that come in the way of doing good.

First, as Milton Friedman said, the business of business is business - and that remains true. By this, one means, turning a profit - and, this requires disciplined prioritization on where profits could be found. Despite all the talk about the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, the logic of business dictates that it should prioritize on markets where the margins may be higher. Regardless of the talk, this is how businesses operate, focusing on places and markets with greatest rewards, and this is how it is going to be, always. This is why we may find capital to invest in Kenyan Gaming Companies but would never find money or time to develop treatments for Ebola, at least till it is very late for many people. 

Second, if one can not rely on the businesses to tackle problems where returns are uncertain or unsure, the same applies to problems where the benefits are long term. The businesses operate with a defined time horizon, which varies with investor perspectives and return expectations. In fact, most public businesses are quite short term, as the retail investors want them to be. This means they can not really do fundamental research, which will be both long term and uncertain, and also that they can not efficiently run long-term businesses such as education. Most For-Profit businesses in education, for example, focus on areas that may have immediate pay-off, IT, Law, Business etc., and ignore areas which may have longer term value, both for the graduate and the society, such as English Literature or Humanities. 

Third, and finally, what works for businesses when they are doing business - accountability towards their shareholders - works against them when they are trying to solve social problems. The businesses have no accountability to society at large, and modern businesses, most dematerialised, have no roots in the community at all. The most efficient structure of the business today demand no offices, no regulatory jurisdiction, no taxes and indeed, if it was possible, no people - and all these developments indeed eroded the accountability (or the sense of it) towards society. Many businesses today are a combination of an algorithm with clever lawyers, contracted staff and a set of symbols, managed to minimise human interactions. If the force of accountability is needed to make a business do well, there is none when it comes to solving social problems.

At this point, I must also return to the article in question to refute its one example of how businesses can spend their money to do good in the society. It is claimed that instead of giving money to charity, the Ford Foundation should perhaps spend money making it easy for entrepreneurs to start businesses. Can they? Most of the time, the established businesses spend their money putting up these barriers in the first place. In an unequal society such as ours, the people at the top of the food chain may invest in some start-ups, but they would effectively do more to stop the entrepreneurial challenges to their domain. It is big businesses that keep sectors or industries, think Pharma or Media, locked down, effectively combatting even the most common-sense changes so that their dominions are not affected. This is what the businesses are good at, and no complaints, this is perhaps how they should be. But claiming that this is good for the world is a travesty.

Finally, what will save us then? I find Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 - 1971) most appropriate here. "Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be save by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness." (as quoted by David Brooks (2015), The Road to Character)

The European Test

Finally, we have what we have been waiting for - Democracy versus Capitalism! 

It seemed we took two things as one. We expected people to be pliantly follow the subtle commands of money or debt, which became instruments of choice instead of machine guns, for international dominion. In one Greek Sunday, suddenly, the cozy deception came to an end, and the game was exposed.

We have been told that Democracy and Global Capitalism can not coexist within the context of a nation-state. This was the thesis of Dani Rodrik of Princeton, proved accurate in many cases, but hushed up because it is rather inconvenient. But here it is now, the cat is out of the bag!

The extraordinary sacking of the Greek Finance Minister, precisely at the moment of his triumph, is perhaps how these things go. It is an indication how little leverage one has if someone has given in to International Financial interests. It only works for the rich - it is okay to look after German voters but the Greek ones - and if a country is poor, someone needs to save it once it has signed up for the global game (because the God can not). 

Now, the Greeks will perhaps discover a truth - that democracy does not really matter! Poor Greek voters are indeed no match for privileged Bankers and Ministers of the Eurozone, and indeed, they must be punished. This is fast becoming the fault line of International Capitalism, and in a more serious way than one would imagine. A potential Greek exit, after a popular mandate, may mean not just existing the Euro, but also EU and NATO, and an uncomfortable detente in Southern Europe! Besides, Eurozone becomes an unstable entity now - Spain is perhaps next - as its inability to adjust to its own regional divisions will become plain. France and Italy are said to be sympathetic to Greek demands - they better be, because their numbers may be up next too!

There is an irony in this debt versus democracy thing. It is Solon, the Athenian statesman, who crafted the first debt-relief in history, and laid the groundwork for a great flourishing of Athenian intellectual life, in 593 BC. He effectively released the impoverished Greeks from Debt-induced slavery they were selling themselves to, following the laws drafted under Draco, the first legislator of Athens, which gave us the expression Draconian. We now see history in reverse, its European neighbours imposing on Greece some Draconian measures and the latter trying to wriggle out of it for one more time.

Greece may be another of those defaults which we got used to. It may have less impact than those melt-downs in Wall Street, because we had preparation time. But, that is only short term impact! Its long term impact may be much greater - the political fall-out, the instability of Eurozone in foreseeable future and this whole debt-versus-democracy issue on the table - and it may resonate for a long time to come. This is that penny-dropping moment, the test whether one can indeed fool all the people all the time, and Europe, very deservedly, is at the precipice.


Sunday, July 05, 2015

On Institutional Politics

I consider myself political, but find it difficult to align myself to institutional politics. It has been a constant battle since I was in college and was expected to pledge allegiance to one student union body or another, in a very divided and political state, and utterly failed to choose. In terms of institutional politics, there is nothing equivalent to 'open-minded' and therefore, I firmly belonged to the 'confused' group, or worse. Over time, I have learnt to accept this as a compliment.

This is because institutional politics is confusing, and if one is confused, one is possibly thinking. I can perhaps cite many examples, but the one closest to heart is the ongoing debate, somewhat cutting across party-political lines, about abundance and Armageddon. While these ideologies are not on the ballot by themselves, they are clear markers of political positions that inform ideas, and taxes, that are on the ballot. On one side, there are people who believe that we are in a phase of exciting technological change when Moore's Law would step up to solve all our problems, including world hunger, epidemics and educational disadvantage. On the other, there are those who argue that we are pushing it too far with our consumption and desires, and coming up fast against a climactic precipice that will set the clock back on progress.

Indeed, looking at the evidence available right now, it is rather easy to take exactly opposite positions right now. Technology has done very little to solve the problems such as hunger, and indeed, helped worsen it by growing inequality. And, for climate change, while there are some noticeable changes, one can not be absolutely certain that these are anything abnormal, as we don't have any definitive trends yet. And, this is indeed part of the argument of the opposing sides, as they claim the others to be definitely mistaken. And, for their own views, they defend these by pointing to the human incapability to properly see over longer term. The changes in technology are baby-steps today, and we are going to see exponential progress soon, we are told. The changes in climate are baby steps today, and sure indeed, we are heading towards disaster, the other side claims.

This is where a 'confused' label suits me well, as one can see the irony of the extreme positions, and indeed, all extreme positions. At the same time, there is a irony of ironies, that there is no road outside these extreme positions. If you want to be a technology Utopian, you can not doubt its possibility. If you are a climate warrior, surely you need to have unshakable faith that everything is going wrong. Yet it is an irony because one knows those extreme positions will solve nothing and inform no one, because all meaningful human actions must start with a collaboration. In fact, these extreme positions are nothing but jockeying for advantage in the coalition, because it will take all of us to make technology beneficial, or reverse climate change.

Those who win in politics, then, are those shape-shifting opportunists who glide from issue to issue without commitment or understanding, leveraging soundbites but hollowing it out of content. The ideal positions in institutional politics are so untenable that all ideals are excluded for good reason. This does not help, as it solves no problem. In the example I cited, technologies are allowed become self-serving and anti-human, and the climate is allowed to be a divisive issue and degrade at the same time, only some people using both to climb career ladders, enacting about-turns when needed, pursuing rhetoric as they please. This is what institutional politics came to mean to me - an ironic combination of extreme positions, which lead to a vacuous no-positions game - of which one can be confused, or more suitably, utterly disgusted.

Reflections and Interests - A Quiet Year

This weekend, one that just ended, was one at home after a few months, and I spent it that way - at home! I stepped out only a little, for a habitual trip to the library and some shopping, but spent most of the time adjusting my body back to the UK Time Zone. I have now come to live in a permanent state of Jet-lag, dozing off at times in the middle of reading or even writing something, and this was my desperate attempt to call some place home. 

But such quiet time, rare as it is, was useful for reflection too. It has been a year of constant traveling, and a year in which much has changed for me. A year ago, I was struggling to make my concept work, somewhat clueless on what is to be done and starting to doubt my own abilities. A year on, as I spent time in the markets and tested my assumptions, I know what works and also what I want to do. My ambivalence on where I should live is somewhat settled, and my interests, though it moved somewhat, are now clarified. In essence, this year on the road somewhat settled my ideas - or so I hope.

Looking ahead, as I did over the weekend, I want to have a quiet year. This is unusual in a way, because I never quite look for quietness, but possibly this is that rush of common sense that usually follows a disaster. By quiet year, I mean a year of silent plod, of collecting experience and expertise, of keeping focus, of unspectacular inching forward with practice. I always aspire to make the next year better than the last, but this time around, it is about boring steadiness hoping to lead to greater things.

There was also one realisation, which is perhaps crucial. I had this somewhat naive desire to be a global wanderer, the kind which pops up in different places from time to time. But, instead, I am too often treated as an India expert, as if my all other knowledge and experience, other than those gained from birth, is useless. I have somewhat loathed the label of an India expert, which I never wanted to be. The penny-dropping moment, however, tells me that this is what I am - someone who knows India and can not cut the ties - and the easy route to earn a living is to just accept the label. Indeed, I disagree with most of the things that go with this India expertise business, particularly the idea that a few business leaders could lift India out of its poverty and self-imposed immaturity. The idea that India will follow the path of Britain, or other developed nations, and affect a new industrial revolution to join the ranks of developed countries, seems worse than wishful thinking for me. The promotion of India business is informed by imperialist thinking in a different package, under the assumption that the salvation of India would come from the investors from abroad. I have no desire, given what I believe and how I think, to play any part in this game.

But, this is exactly what I wish to do in my quiet year, and become (or pretend) to be an India expert! This is far from the ideal of being true to myself, and one could possibly even call this deceitful. I have, however, come to accept the many compromises of an immigrant life, and this one perhaps is least hurtful. Playing this part - and I take it more as a game than anything else - should allow me enough time to achieve my goal of mastery. And, indeed, I have an unique opportunity right now to work in Indian Education, but remain outside it and engage with some of the new ideas of the field, and develop my skills and ideas.

My long term aim is to achieve mastery in Experiential Learning. This is a combination of my studies and my work, that I have come to realise that changing the mode of learning, and aligning it with day to day life experience, is the most liberating thing in education. Mastering the hard-to-reach texts is a way of keeping learning away from most people, and the idea of learning from everyday life, which everyone has equal access to, is the most democratic thing one could do. If social justice through education is the goal, one can not achieve this through the educational paradigm we have, one built around institutional custody of knowledge, which will always remain unequal. However, the idea that knowledge is anchored in everyday life is the essential liberating idea, and the basis of social justice.

So, the work I am doing now, setting up experiential learning programmes with various employers, prepares the ground for my eventual work, which will be to use experiential learning in its broadest possible context, that of life itself. I am not ready yet, as this has to be a full commitment, requiring me to move back to India and setting up an institution of my own (which will require adequate financial and social capital) - but this one quiet year can set me on its path. 


Wednesday, July 01, 2015

21st Century Skills - Are We Missing Something?

The discussion about 21st Century skills is a bit confusing, because they sound a lot like 20th Century skills. 

Consider the talk about collaboration, critical thinking and communication. We have been talking about them for a while. Did we not know the value of critical thinking after the horrors of the Nazi takeover of Europe? Did we not need communication skills in the golden age of advertising? And, in fact, most twentieth century innovations, and one could claim the middle years of the century as some sort of golden age of innovation, came through great collaboration. If we were not talking so much about these then, it was only because our thinking about skills and abilities are always retroactive. The rote memorisation of knowledge, which seems, by common consent, the point of what we now think twentieth century skills really were, had been dead in the water long time since, not just at the point of conception of the Internet. We somewhat forget that the Newspapers and Libraries became ubiquitous in the dying days of the Nineteenth century, and the day we dealt with information changed since then.

It is reasonable to allow a bit of license in coining of terms such as 21st Century skills, as change in human societies do not follow any calendar. However, when such indulgences interfere with our ability to see ahead, we must take caution. This may indeed be the case with this term - 21st Century Skills - as we try to capture in this term what we missed for a few decades at least, catching up on some things that we should have seen but, at the same time, being fixated on the rear view rather than being able to see ahead.

And, this is why our conversations about 21st Century skills are framed in terms of more of the same, and not based on the key challenges and opportunities that are likely to come our way. Our talk of 21st Century skills, at its heart, have a company man with a successful career in business, though this is an increasingly rare phenomenon. The projection of skills are essentially embedded in the idea of how one would live, and the underlying assumption of our skills talk is a consumption-centric life just like in 20th century, even though we know that such aspirations are not sustainable. Even when we are acutely aware of the climatic limits (and know that if everyone lives like an Average North American, we would need five planets), our skills thinking do not factor in frugality, renunciation or self-control. Even when we know that we are living in an increasingly unequal world, it does not include empathy or ideas of sharing. Though we know that we are confronted by an age of smart machines which are likely to take human jobs (or, more precisely, are already taking human jobs), our ideas of skills do not encompass any consideration of value judgements about the technology deployment.

The discussion about 21st Century skills is carried out in seemingly value-neutral, technocratic terms. The conversation is like - we missed this before and we must do it now! But, at the same time, it includes the claim that this is for the future, which is inconsistent with the proposition that the future will not be anything like the past. If anyone really talks about the future and explores what the various projected realities - hyper-urbanisation, globalisation, automation, climactic limitations - we seem to make the assumption that if we catch up on skills requirements now, it would be fine for the century!

The point I am making is that the 21st Century is not an extended version of the nineties and what we label now as 21st Century skills are those we may need right now, but they may be insufficient to effectively negotiate the future. We need more - more sense of history and foreboding, deeper value system and ethical judgements, greater empathy to humans in general, commitment and responsibility towards our planet, a scientific attitude that transcends mere technicalities, a commitment to diversity and openness - and these things never get discussed, or as is fashionable, gets lumped as character, somewhat of a nice-to-have thing. That, indeed, is missing the point.

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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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