Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Being in the Middle when the Average is over

How does it feel to be in the middle when average is over? The middle classes know: They feel squeezed, and clueless, as the fusion of ubiquitous globalisation and pervasive automation push the economies to the tipping point of making people in the middle redundant. The middle class values, of moderation, patience, of deferring consumption and long preparation, continuity and persistence, are all baggage in this brave new world of superstars. Bragging, not modesty; consumption, not savings; street smarts, not preparation; opportunism, not commitment; the things that win are instinctively abhorrent to the middle classes - or, the old middle classes, more correctly. They have been left behind, comprehensively and irredeemably, in the world we created.

But this means more than just the decline of a class of a people: It may mean a change in the way of life. Civilisation is a big word, but it is not altogether inappropriate to say that we did build a whole civilsation around the emergent middle classes in the last 150 or so years, which now lay wasted. The reasons are far too numerous, though the global equalisation of consumption leading to scaling of production, hollowing out of the traditional organisation structure, process driven management leading to automation of great many tasks, and the value system that put corporate profits ahead of stable communities, have gradually led to a superstar economy: Few winners, lots of losers, and no place in between. In a world where 150,000 people Kodak goes bankrupt and 13 employee Instagram is ever ascendant, there is no place in the middle.

Besides, there is a political dynamic to contend with too. It seems that the death of petite bourgeois is linked with the death of its supposedly great enemy, state socialism. With the failure of an alternate state form in Soviet Russia, the roll-back of welfare state became politically possible in the West: All those middling professions which lived in the safe shadows of the great state started disappearing just as soon. In fact, the greatest prosperity of middle class in these modern times is precisely in the land of the cultural revolution, where a great state looks over intently over all activities.

But if the state made the middle classes, middle classes made the state it was, as they did with all the institutions we know: Our universities transformed themselves from bastions of piety or privilege to the factory of possibilities, a middle class mantra; the banks found nirvana in mortgages; the royal suppliers lost their place of pride to department stores; and paperback fiction and Coronation Street (and its likes) took over the high culture and dinner table conversations. The world we live in, all its artifacts, is steeped into a vision of middle class life: The same redundant, ineffectual, pervasive, boring life.

So, for the opening question - how does it feel like - the answer perhaps is that being middle class today is like observing one's own body after death: As a ghost, one should feel totally ignored and redundant, watch life going on without slightest trace of concern or consideration for the person departed, new relationships forming and old ones falling apart around the emptiness one left behind, so quickly that one may feel their existence made no difference. If such an imaginary position was ever possible, one would have watched their possessions taking a new form, an old favourite discarded, a silly junket taking over a vantage point in one's own room, a new life emerging almost in a vacuum. One may resent it with full knowledge that such resentment is as redundant as one's self; one may be amused but such amusement is also meaningless. And, while such ghostly existence is only an imaginary, that may be exactly what being in the middle is like today - to see one's own institutions, language, values and cultures moving on as if by themselves, morphing into something previously unknown, in a form whose only intent may be to make its own lineage redundant.

Change is good, perhaps. Nostalgia is a boring game old men play, perhaps. The ineffective but pervasive, intrusive but insensitive, repressively colourless middle class life is perhaps dead for good. But in the brave new world of constant change, there are not many winners: Rather, those millions of the middle are now dispossessed, not just of what they owned, but their dignity, just like that ghost who fell short of redemption and was forced to observe their own bodily demise. Indeed, such things happened before, an entire way of life ended, and the middle classes were the people ascendant then: Then, too, ghosts were invoked to describe the feelings (read Walter De La Mare) and the house of memories is still celebrated in popular culture (watch The Grand Budapest Hotel). However, it is time to turn a new page and write the obituary of the middle class now. It would be like walking through a grand house with many clocks all of which stopped working at various times for the want of wounding, or walking through a vast unread library whose books are dust-covered but untouched: It is time to start mourning what we all were meant to be.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Culture, Power and Learning from Experience

As I work on implementing project-based learning in different countries in Asia, one objection, that this 'idea' is not Asian, comes up all too frequently. Citing anecdotal evidence, my correspondents tell me that the Asian students are taught not to challenge and to ask, and that this approach to learning, built around a passive and respectful learner-teacher relationship, is too Asian to be swept away anytime soon. Correctly, they point out that the Asian students often behave the same way when they study abroad, at least initially, attending the lectures and displaying unquestioning respect for the teacher, trying to photograph every slide, note down every word. 

The usual argument is that the same students will start learning differently, if exposed to a different system of learning, should be investigated in the background of these observations. Because, this discussion is not just about teaching methods, but learning: A Different approach to inquiry may lead to a different outcome (see my earlier post here). In fact, observers report engagements based on discreet learning events and respectful engagement leading to a number of 'if-then' conclusions, but not enough of 'what-if' experimentation which ought to be the essence of experiential learning.

The challenge, seen this way, seems to go beyond mere structuring of learning experiences: In fact, recasting Peter Drucker's observation that culture could eat strategy for breakfast, one could say that the inherent cultural factors may produce unintended consequences from even the most carefully constructed experiential learning engagements.

Yet, I shall claim culture is the wrong place to look. That Asian students are naturally subservient and given to followership is a wrong conclusion, easily disproved by a number of anecdotal examples defying this stereotype. Many Asian students at Western universities amply demonstrate a high level of pragmatism in learning the ropes quickly enough to overcome the barriers of language and different upbringing. In fact, many Asian students acquire second or third languages quite adeptly and continue doing business in it all their lives, which should fly in the face of the theory of their being inward looking and not open to experiences. 

I shall, therefore, connect the supposed docility and linearity of Asian classrooms not to the cultural stereotype, but the power equations we consciously or unconsciously build in those classrooms. Particularly when we apply this to the emerging middle classes, the language of the classroom (often English), practices, the selections and admissions process (which reinforce the power equation), the projections of the world outside (global as well as the world of work), all establish a tilted playing field, where the student is at a disadvantage. Even when s/he is being asked to learn from experience, she is not being told to experiment with the experience: She has already been put into a highly structured environment with subjects chosen, credits assigned, activities selected and outcomes premeditated. Given that the student is coming from a highly unequal society, not just economically but socially, and into an education system which is an integral part of that systemic inequality, inspiring the students to get into the experimentation mode with the learning design alone is akin to believing in miracles.

Imagine a student who is coming from a family which was perhaps not poor but not rich enough to idle away their days, whose parents put their life savings into the child's education with the expectation of her having a better life than theirs. The student arrives at the school through a highly structured process, which reinforces to her that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. She was given a syllabus and assessment criteria, and told that she has two chances of passing the examination. And then she was told to be creative and experiment with her experiences - and then blamed for her cultural DNA once she tries to take the sure path, pragmatically trying to choose only what matters to pass the examination and get to a decent job! The employers may complain that the kind of learning she did is useless, and indeed it is, but it is not the national culture but the equations of power deeply embedded in the classroom that makes learning from experience so difficult to achieve.

What should an educator do then? Being conscious of the power equation is perhaps the first thing: If one could create an environment to set oneself free, showing respect for the student's self, her sensibilities and existing knowledge (imagine a friendly conversation with a mentor to assess suitability and motivation replacing the admissions test and interview); a system which is tolerant of people failing and designed to prevent them from being a failure (where experimentation gets credits rather than results, for example); a curriculum that is based on one's life experiences and aimed at developing a wide range of behavioural and linguistic repertoire rather than unintelligible subject matters devised in another country and delivered in a language usually associated with rich people; and an outcome aimed at developing the whole person rather than giving a limited tool kit aimed at a limited number of situations, and the like! This will require a different institutional design and sensitivity to students' own persons, something that the whole discipline of learning design has constantly overlooked with its pursuit of industrial scale and focus on standard outcomes! However, if one has to get people learn from experience, there is no other way but to start challenging the power equations that hinder such learning.  

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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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