Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back to Idealism

I am at an interesting phase in my life. In the last 18 months or so, my life has completely changed. Old responsibilities and attachments have died, and new configurations have emerged. My plans for return, which I felt about so intensely at the time, have receded to the background; but I rediscovered my attachment to India. And, overall, after spending many a year in waiting, almost in hibernation, I feel ready to go out and try what I wanted to do all my life.

I have indeed made no secrets about what I want to do: I wanted to set up an educational establishment which fuses creative spirit, technology savvy and enterprise thinking, in a truly global context. Also, I am an unashamed idealist, and therefore think that this institution should strive to engage with global problems, poverty, climate change, intolerance, inequality etc., and the learners should emerge with an urge and a commitment to make the world a better place.

In a way, this is not new. All my life, almost all the things I have done, was a quest for these objectives. So was I doing when I was helping to take computer education to the inner cities of India, and in my little start-up back in the 90s when I really believed in the redeeming power of the Internet. This is what I felt when we were giving out scholarships to learn computers to 1000 girl students from Bangladesh villages in 2003, and when I was trying to promote English language and teacher training in the Philippines in 2008: I wanted to change lives, and make those involved a participant in the effort to make the world a better place.

However, while my idealism kept me going, I pretended to be a businessman. I have the sense of numbers, the gift of articulation, an ability to spot business opportunities and of natural leadership, all the things I needed to hide the fact that I am a hopeless dreamer, an undying optimist and a believer of the goodness of human nature. So, while I bragged about meeting my sales targets (which I did) by engineering the partnership with Unilever to give out the scholarships, my proudest moment was when I knew that this, unintentionally, made a number of girls stay in school, when otherwise their parents would have withdrawn them once they reach 8th grade, at which point the state subsidy stops. While everyone thought the talk of transforming the lives of inner city girls from maids to teachers is a good sales pitch for the wares I was selling, I was fascinated by the fact that I could play a part in this transformation.

Indeed, this is the reason I stayed in Education business, as it is the easiest to hide my idealism and make it look like business savvy. However, I have not made any attempts to make a transition to charity or state-funded education: All my interactions with those sectors, which invariably happened from time to time, gave me the sense of a bureaucracy and risk aversion: It seemed harder to contain my idealism and inclination to take risks within the bounds of such work than within the context of business.

The change now is that I am feeling a lot more in charge of my life. I feel now that I can tell the world that I am an idealist and my goals are to change the world, however quixotic that may sound. While I feel ready to start a business, I shall not do so to 'make money'; I want to do so to be able to devote all my waking moments in pursuit of something I want to do. Indeed, all I have done all my life will establish that I am a pragmatist and I have worked with what I got. However, I am fed up with how little I have achieved so far, and in true mid-life crisis style, I am feeling I am running out of time to do what I want to do. This is the reason, more than anything else, which makes me eager to walk out of the securities that I have built around myself and start the final adventure.

My objective is to set up a truly global institution, aimed at transforming the college. I have got a feeling that most young people lose it exactly at that stage, when education loses its meaning and becomes completely disconnected from what the life needs are. My ideas are to create a travel-first system of education, a distributed global institution where education happens in context, through a series of activities performed while traveling. I believe it will be the next big revolution after the invention of classroom, but more importantly, this will help us make truly global citizens, tolerant, respectful, responsible and aware. I am not sure whether we will have the resources to make this happen, but then resources don't matter: I am hopeful that we shall start conversations, which will bring this to the realm of the possible.

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