Sunday, June 20, 2010

Notes On Education

Some time back, I wrote that the purpose of Education is to instill an intent to enquire, to provide an engaged mind, eternally curious, to seek to understand the world. Lots of things changed since then. Two major influences in my thinking came from my practical engagement in the business of education, and my studies in the University College which has provided me a systematic introduction to the ideas of education. Somewhat in the middle of this journey, I have come to realize that my initial view was hopelessly idealistic, out of touch with the practicalities of why and how education is delivered or pursued.

However, one must also ask whether the current practice of education - which is more about providing answers, and more so, providing credentials required for a purposeful employment - is deviant from what education should do. One may or may not take an idealistic point of view; however, if we accept that our current social structure is less than optimal, and there is plenty of evidence to argue that way, there may be practical arguments in favour of reviewing how we educate and what we educate on.

Interestingly, there seems to be a worldwide consensus that the current system of education is not working. Talking about education makes political sense. It hits home with all kinds of voters. Some of the more memorable government policy initiatives in the Western world, Tony Blair's 'Education, Education, Education' agenda or George W Bush's 'No Child Left Behind' initiative, acknowledge the centrality of education in national policy. Beyond this, every successive election campaigns in developing or developed nations are defined by presentation of competing visions of education, from the left and the right, diverse in details but based on the acceptance that improvement of education is the only way will keep the respective nations competitive and progressive.

However, the fact that the same issues continue to persist election after election, the crime rates keep rising, more and more people stop voting and stop participating in the society, tells us that there is something wrong in the way we are approaching the question. The developing nations indeed copy the model that the developed nations hand out, bending with the ideological traditions that shape the policy in the western nations, trying to get more and more people in education and in jobs thereafter.

But, in this education fetishism, there is a subtle shift all too evident in public policy. Education has to provide answers, skills and jobs, and not the spirit of enquiry and openness that idealism demands. The purpose of education, some argue, is to be able to consider one's experience critically, but that is not something the State would want. The statist education will always be about conformance and acceptance of society as is. Indeed, as long as the state pays, the powers that be would define what education is meant to do. In recent years, the statist education is taking a backseat and allowing the space to education as a business, but only on the basis of a cosy understanding that this is also about preservation of status quo and not for encouraging critical thinking.

Education as a business has several shortcomings, starting with the measurability of the 'return' on education and therefore to 'price' it correctly. This is no trivial thing in a capitalist enterprise, because 'price' determines resource allocation and planning, and inability to price leads to inefficient resource allocation and subversion of priorities. So, education as a business does not represent a vast improvement on the statist sort, just a different alignment of priorities and a different set of inefficiencies. Raghuram Rajan, formerly of World Bank and now of the University of Chicago argues that one must address the issue of education - how and what and why - to address the 'fault lines' of our society. The inverted sense of priority that he argues is largely responsible for the current global crisis has arisen from the misalignment of education, he argues.

I am currently engaged in development of an education business model and I am sure these thoughts may sound a bit odd, coming from me. But these reflect my ongoing enquiry to find a new and improved model, and the fact that I am convinced that the current model isn't optimal. I would guess a lot of people will agree with me on this last bit.

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"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."

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