Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Conversations: 2

The second day in my 100 day plan in transition went better than I expected. I would sometimes have these 'productive' days, when I accomplish quite a bit, some of it just because of things coming together, and some of it because I feel motivated, and this was one of those. I did feel good in the end: I had two interviews, though for the same job, which I had to complete before I can have the next round of conversations; completed paperwork for another position; started working through the mountains of assessments that I must complete before I move to my next life; and completed a lengthy piece of content for the marketing course that I am delivering currently. Between the interviews and a few other conversations, I spent about four hours on Skype, which is not what I want to do for an ideal day, but it was good to connect with so many people in the space of a day too.

I also started reading Michael Roth's Beyond the University, a spirited defense of Liberal Arts education in America. The arguments are familiar to me - from the other conversations and even Professor Roth's lectures - but his zeal is infectious. The immediate effect I always have when reading such books is not to think about American Education, which is the immediate context of this work and which supplies all the examples and ideas in the book, but to see this in the context of the challenges one faces in the education in developing countries, India in particular but not exclusively so. One of the big problems in India today is the overt vocationalisation in Education - there is rapid expansion in tertiary education since 2006 but almost all of it in applied disciplines - at the same time as the lack of civic engagements has become obvious, violence against women at all levels have risen, the quality of work has fallen, and the political discourse in the country has descended into meaninglessness. 

To be sure, India has never had good liberal education in any meaningful scale. The whole modern education set up was done at the behest of the British Administration, and the universities were meant to produce the 'clerks for the empire'. However, there were attempts by individual philanthropists, Rabindranath Tagore in Bengal, Madan Mohan Malviya in Benares, Sir Annamalai Chettiar in Tamil Nadu, all wanted to create a model for an Indian education, and stayed outside the narrow English dominated model of education that went on in the mainstream Higher Ed. After the independence, the Indian state focused on and encouraged world class institutions for science and technology, most notably the IITs, but its efforts to develop a liberal arts education was fairly limited, except one university in the form of JNU in Delhi. And, again, all that happened in India happened for a small minority at the top (one can say the same for America) and there was no efforts to democratise good liberal arts education.

One would think that the efforts of democratise Engineering Education is somewhat counter-intuitive. There is only a certain percentage of population that can become Engineers, but a much larger population needs good education in languages, basic sciences, mathematics, history and other subject areas. But this point was somewhat missed in the conversations about Indian Education. And, indeed, this was not about just importing the American model: There needed to be a conversation what an Indian Education should look like. However, this conversation just did not happen.

There is some conversation about liberal arts now a days in India. A group of successful entrepreneurs have announced the founding of a new university in Northern India, which will be an elite university and will charge $25,000 a year in tuition fees. This university will follow the American Liberal Arts model. This has indeed set off a 'liberal arts wave', the failing Engineering schools all want to have liberal arts wings now, in the hope that this is the new way to make money. This is a predictable scramble with very predictable results.

I have been talking about connecting with other individuals and help set up a Liberal Arts college in India, but these plans remain long term. This is something I wish to do over a three to five year period: This is what I want to go back to India for. Indeed, the values are important here and I just don't want to do another For-Profit school. Indeed, I believe that the For-Profit model will even work here. Besides, this is not about copying the American model and try to set up an elite university; in anything, I wanted to get involved in a project to create a model of Indian Education, accessible to all students regardless of their financial ability. Only then it becomes a worthwhile project for me to go back to India for.

If my experiences have taught me anything, I have now learnt to be patient. All too often, I was too optimistic, and wanted to launch large scale projects without enough preparation. My experiences, in my current business and in the recent years, have tempered my views about human nature and helped me develop a more realistic approach. I still want to roll up my sleeves and get engaged in solving problems, but I believe I have a better appreciation of the constraints now. So I know that it is not easy to set up a liberal arts college with certain values, because there will be no money for it. The private investors wanting to do this for money is a bad way of sponsoring it, because, in the end, this always catches up and corrupts the project. One has to find a philanthropist who sees value in doing this, and that's not easy; but that is only one of the many problems.

In fact, money in this project comes later: The biggest problem is actually to find the idea and get a founding team together. This is not about an institution to promote one view of life, and therefore, this will rule out most people who are willing to advance their own ways of thinking, the Hindu Nationalists, the Corporate interests, the American philanthropists etc. In fact, the idea is not even certain: What liberal arts will mean in the Indian context, given its past but also its future, its unique requirements of developing a functioning society, has not been discussed adequately. Further, staying outside the realm of academic capitalism also means not being able to afford academic prestige, those big name professors who need big pay packets, and indeed, work with a different set of people who would be able to afford (and be willing to) to commit themselves to a project of this nature. 

However, despite the difficulties, this is what I want to do. I see this playing out over the next few years, as I go through a new period of engagement with India. I am not trying to get the money for this project right now, but rather will work towards developing the idea first and then connect with people who would want to work towards this. I often get asked (in the interviews) - what do I want to do long term - and this answer, that I want to find a model for an Indian Education and set up an institution which will offer this. This, at least, gives me a purpose to work for.


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