Monday, March 02, 2015

Value Education: Much Ado About Something

'Value Education' is claimed to be the next big thing in Indian Education. As the expansion of Engineering and Management Education has somewhat stalled - these have failed to improve employment prospects and demand for these has declined - the buzzword is now Values. 

At the outset, one would assume that the need may have arisen because of the overt technical concentration in the Indian education system which leaves its graduates wanting in terms of moral commitments and social engagement. Also, Value Education, as it is practised and promoted in India, is also in line with the general revivalist tendencies as witnessed in the country today. It isn't about ethical and moral exploration, but about tradition and heritage; in most cases, this means pop-Hinduvta, extracts from traditional texts presented in PowerPoint, someone chanting out Sanskrit sound bites parsed with pie charts.

At the surface, the trend very much reflects the conversations inside Indian companies. Indian companies are appointing Chief Value Officers (CVO), following the lead, perhaps, of Future Group, whose CVO, Devdutt Pattnaik, made a name for himself culling out insights from Indian mythologies and promoting an Indian way of Management (See my earlier post here). One would suspect that the fever pitch about Value Education (or, more broadly, about imbibing Traditional Values through Education) originated with this, Educators bereft of ideas trying to latch onto latest fads available, and even in this, the whole proposition of Value Education is completely misdirected. 

The reason, I shall argue, Indian employers are talking about Values is not a certain discovery of Indianness, or a moral imperative, but rather due to a practical and commercial imperative. The Indian businesses are focused on servicing the bottom-of-the-pyramid markets in rural India, and this means engaging with a large mass of consumers, and to serve them, employees, unexposed to the ideas and rhetoric of modern business. This requires rejigging business practices and ways of engagement, both inside and outside the company. Mr Pattnaik and his kind may use Indian mythologies, but all they are doing is creating an appropriate engagement model. This is why CVOs are primarily to be seen in businesses which are engaging with deep India, Future Group (Retail), ITC (Tobacco and Agricultural Products), Hindustan Lever (FMCG) etc. 

At the demand side, then, the requirement is driven by the quest for the new markets, and the approach is sociological rather than philosophical. The educators, disconnected as they are from the realities of the employers, have indeed taken this as an affirmation of the rising-India thesis, and engaged in theological education with gusto. To be sure, Mr Pattanaik (and others) is affirming globalisation by packaging Indian mythologies for advancing modern consumption into hitherto unexplored consumer groups, but the educators are twisting the messages to construe some kind of ascetic rejection of globalisation altogether. This is another example of employer requirements being completely misunderstood by the educators.

Now, indignant educators may claim that their drive for Value Education has nothing to do with the conversation about Corporate Values, and rather about Indian culture, which may form the basis of any education. There is some truth in this perhaps, though undeniably, the corporate enthusiasm has made this conversation fashionable in the first place. The appeal of revivalism notwithstanding, the private Engineering Colleges, anxious for placement of its graduates, do not have a track record of doing anything outside what they thought was essential. And, finally, the modern educational institutions springing up all over India are very much part of the expansion of the global economy, and there is no problem if they understood and caught up with what employers want. 

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Three Objections to Learning from Experience

It is fashionable now to talk about knowing-doing gap, but this emanates from the underlying assumption that knowing and doing are two different things, to be undertaken differently (See my earlier post, Knowing and Doing - Are They Different?). This dualism, which separates thought from action, ideas from deeds, and reflection from activities, is institutionalised in our universities, which is perhaps creating the knowing-doing gap by design. Notwithstanding the popularity of capstone projects, study tours and work placements, which, by design, remain off-curriculum and almost reluctantly indulged, the idea of the university promotes itself as a safe space to do the thinking outside the challenges of our daily lives, accentuating the dualism rather than seeking to reconcile it. 

It has become, more by default than design, my occupation to seek to bring learning and work closer together. This prompts me to think and to question, as I am attempting now, the model of the learning at the university, and particularly this deliberate disconnection from the messy world of everyday life. And, it is not just the knowing-doing gap that we get from this monastic ideal of education. The idealised paradigm of pure theory often dictate our social policies, professions and even ideas of life, and all too often, our failure to understand the world and respond to ground realities lead to bad policies, aloof professions and broken lives. 

However, my proposition that we must seek to bring knowing and doing closer together is usually met with three distinct objections. The first is that learning from experience is slow, and one may not, without the benefit of theory, understand the deeper causes and implications of success and failure. The second is that such learning from experience is risky, and to learn, one must have risk-free experience which is an oxymoron. And, the third is that learning from experience, while it may establish skills and abilities, may fall short of enabling values, which must be learnt at a higher level, because values must be consistent regardless of experience.

Indeed, such objections are based on a certain idea of experience itself that may need to be interrogated. First, the learning from experience alone can be slow if experiencing is an unthinking act free of preparation and reflection. This assumption, that experience and reflection and learning are separate acts and the latter is to be indulged in when one is learning and not otherwise, is essentially flawed. An experience is not just an activity, but the full spectrum of physical and mental engagements that precede, occur during and follow an event, either deliberate or accidental. And, because of such engagements, while an event may be limited in time, experience is a continuous thing encompassing all aspects of our being, because it never actually ends - just gets stimulated by external events from time to time. Being conscious of our engagement with events and ourselves is not a slow process of learning, it is the only viable way. Any other way, such as classroom learning, by definition, assign certain things as learning at the expense of everything else, and if accepted (though, I would argue, such a thing is not possible), would make us unable to learn from our lives - making learning impossible in effect.

Second, while experience can not be risk-free, neither is learning. Effective learning involves questioning assumptions about self and everything around us, and one could not get away from the risk it entails. That universities are safe spaces to think is an incomplete ideal. In fact, it is too patronising - and dismissive of the human capability of independent thought. Instead, we should aspire to have people who are free to think, no matter where they are. And, such an ideal can not be achieved without connecting into experience.

Finally, a Value is a way of living, not some received wisdom. Value education can not be about putting sacred books on Powerpoint. Value education is an iterative process, which shapes experience and indeed gets shaped by it. While values may be required to hold regardless of experience - that is why it would be called a Value - it is not to be disconnected from experience. Being ethical inside the Church but devious outside it would not be considered the best advertisement of Value Education. And, it may also be argued that the only value we may impart through Higher Education, without overestimating the role of the college in the life of the learner and without attempting to play God, is the spirit of conscious and sympathetic inquiry, which is closely connected to experience.

I shall return to the subject of learning from experience at a subsequent post, attempting to view it from the point of other constituents, particularly those who are involved in the Doing side of the equation. In fact, they also tend to accept that Knowing is a separate process, and they are equally wrong - but this is the subject of another discussion.


Popular Posts

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

Creative Commons License