Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Social Consequences of Brexit

If Marx missed the mark with the Proletariat achieving a deep political consciousness, he was prescient about how history happens: First as a tragedy, then as a farce!

So, the recent history of Britain, recent as in the space of an week, is this spectacle in fast forward. Since an overall, though slender, majority voted to force the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the political news has become sexy again. It would have been comical if the consequences were not so far reaching: Declaration of UK's independence (as John Oliver rightly puts it - the United Kingdom was an independent country before last week, and in fact lots of countries celebrate their independence from IT!), sudden volte face about taking the real legal step to start the process of leaving EU on both sides of the divide, the abnadoned promises as soon as the vote count is over and all the accompanying political fatricide, we have now seen it all. 

But, apart from all the fast-developing stories, some long- and medium- term trends are shaping up in the wake of Brexit. They are less than exciting, and therefore, out of spotlight. But they are going to change our lives more profoundly than who really becomes the next Prime Minister.

So, here, which I hope is the last time I write about this subject, are top three currents set in motion since last week.

'De-Globalisation' Is A Word!

Today morning, I heard Nandan Nilkeni, an Indian billionaire who made his billions from globalisation, use the word. When I caught up with him to ask if he believed Brexit had set this in motion, he said he had been using the expression for a while. He believed it was real, and arose out of the recessions of 2008. However, after Brexit, this is a generally accepted idea, if I go by the reaction of those present in the session. 

Xenophobia Is Cool Again

The morning after Brexit, various pundits appeared on rado and TV to appeal to calm and express anger at the elite who looked down upon Leave voters, because 'there was a real concern about immigration'. Obviously, this reasoning was heard, reported hate crimes went up by 54% and the 'genuine' concern about immigration, which was really a Tory Front Bench thing, became the main political conversation.

Seen this way, Brexit is a democratic mandate for the dislike of the others. Be it the Poles who came to this country after the de-industrialisation that followed the collapse of the East European bloc, the Indians who came to work in NHS or Technology firms, or the Afghans, the Syrians and the Libyans who came after the humanitarian bombing of their homeland by the British and the Americans, it is okay to claim the privilege of being protected from the nasty world outside, while still maintaining our ability to lecture other people how to run their affairs and ocassionally intervening to change if they had a 'wrong' democratic mandate - the cool xenophobia is here!

Political Parties Are Being 'Deconstructed'

The French philosophers may have tried to explain deconstruction, but we now see it an action: A root-and-branch change of how political parties behaved. The Tory government, after the biggest political own-goal in the modern history, has busied themselves disowning it. The Prime Minister quietly swallowed his pride and abnegated his promise of an Article 50 Friday, passing on the poisoned chalice to an as yet unnamed successor; the key Leave campaigners disowned all the statements they made before the vote; and now, as Michael Gove, a prominent Leave campaigner, puts his name forward to be the Prime Minister, he said he would be in no hurry and would invoke Article 50 'when it is the right time for Britain'. Well, we thought that was last week!

In the meantime, of course, the Labour MPs, wanting to be like the Tories, had a 'no confidence' motion in their leader! Labour leaders are elected by members and trade unions, and not the MPs, a moot point the current generation of leaders, self-absorbed and disconnected, want to totally ignore. The timing is perverse - the only reason to do it now is because they see an oppotunity in the generally unsettled mood in the country - as nothing really has changed with Corbyn's leadership.

We are entering a brave new world. No, the Sterling has not fallen off the cliff, and the Stock Market did not tank. The economic armaggedon seems to have been averted. If anything, it has become cheaper for the Government to borrow, and the interest rates are set to fall, and not rise as predicted. But, somehow, all this is not good news, but rather preparation for something more terrible. It is like being told - "congratulations! you are now on life support" - as all this means a downbeat economic outlook and worsening of the prospects. Schumpeter thought Keynes was cavalier about long term ("in the long run, we are all dead") because he did not have children. For us who care, a bleak economic prospect in a nasty country with opportunistic leaders, is not the future we voted for.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

9/100: Digital Economy and The New Imperatives for Learning

It may seem I am making contradictory statements when I say that learning has to change and that humanities must be back in agenda. This is my attempt at a clarification.

Humanities is not the rusty old subjects without practical significance. We have made it so, and built a modern education system overtly with a technical - technology, business, accounting etc - focus. This served us well in the past thirty years, but as things change at the workplace, this needs to change.

Now, this is not a defence of Liberal Education, now fashionable among American writers. Following Eric Hobsbawm, I tend to believe that Anglo-Saxon education systems of the past, based on a narrow classics curriculum, made culture a luxury product, for a few, of the few, a sign of class privilege rather than opportunity. Against this, technical education opened the gates of opportunity, and was rightly embraced. But, we may have overdone this and now is the time to re-imagine again.

We are staring at a serious social problem, even if we live in denial. Take, for example, the recent referendum in Britain about European Union membership, in which the majority of the voters voted to exit the EU. It is an apparently emotional, and therefore irrational, decision, with all sorts of economic and social ramifications. Post-referendum, there is a noticeable tendency among the pundits to rationalise xenophobia, or fear of immigrants in plain English, and accept the vote as a reasonable reaction against the increased migration in the wake of European integration. However, there is a reason for the reason itself  - the working classes are feeling squeezed and blaming immigrants for the loss of jobs and opportunities - and this reasoning is misdirected, but no pundit would want to talk about it. This is not about immigrants, but digitisation and globalisation which is eating into jobs and creating global supply chains. The incoming immigrants are visible, and therefore blamed: They come, however, as their lives are disrupted by the same forces that make the people in developed societies queasy, globalisation, digitisation and some cases, wars, fought through digital means. 

And, as reasons have reasons themselves, consequences beget consequences too. The 'Brexit' would resonate far beyond the temporary blips in the currency markets. We have to learn to live in low-growth, no-jobs societies, and that is not just in Britain. However many walls we want to build, they are not very effective keeping jobs in, even if they manage to keep immigrants out. And, unless we start getting a perspective about what is happening to our societies, adjust to post-jobs future, become comfortable with our common humanity and start viewing the world with sympathy, we are likely to blame foreigners, either next door or in a faraway country, build elaborate justifications about that behaviour and would eventually go back to conflict and colonial quests in our futile search for growth.

However, despite all this, Digital Economy is not a threat: Like all technological progress, it is an opportunity. And, besides, technological progress is irreversible, though its use is shaped by the choices we make. All like all pivot points in history, we have enormous power right now, and also face enormous danger. We can, with all those technological possibilities at hand, make history, as the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs claim to be doing from time to time. But, without an understanding of the world, we are doing it, to paraphrase a famous expression, not in circumstances of our choosing, as the Brexit vote has just shown. That, understanding our choices and shaping our circumstances, is the job of the humanities.

In a democratic society, thinking can not be abrogated. In a service economy, where human beings are having to compete all the time with robots and prove their own worthiness, relationships are vital. In the world of instant information, deep knowledge and ability to connect two disparate pieces of information to arrive at an intuitive understanding, is the key. At the time of mechanised processes, creating new possibilities is the human function. And, above all, making choices, ethical and long term, far into the future beyond the scenario-based understanding of the immediate consequences of a Robot, is the essence of human condition.

This is where humanities come in. This is not about disciplinary walls built of specialised language, a culture shaped by distance from 'practical' affairs and choices of real life, which makes humanities such a luxury and a faraway thing. But, it is humanities in action, not separate from technological understanding but very much inside it. Eric Hobsbawm would claim that this is culture the Viennese way, an enabler of sympathetic capitalism, an ability that allows us to make choices appropriately not just for our immediate benefits but also for generations ahead. 

This, I think, is the new imperatives for learning. As jobs fail to come by, our reaction has been to create a more technical education, despite the failed attempts so far. As voters vote to build a wall, as in the UK and perhaps soon in the United States too, we justify and cite the squeezed conditions, without ever exploring the choices we are making. These, and the choices we have to make about environment, weapons technology, diplomacy, business and society, point to the need for new abilities, or Skills, if you wish to call them so: The ability to think for oneself, to discover the beauty in the world around us, the ability to cooperate with other human beings and to be able to bring change! These are the new imperatives for learning in the Digital Economy, and this is the task for the humanities, re-imagined!

Monday, June 27, 2016

8/100: Creating An International Education 'Pathway'

In 2012, I set up a small company with a few other people. The essential idea behind this venture was to create an International Education proposition, a 'pathway' programme that could be delivered in-country and which allow the learners to earn credits that could be used to get an UK university degree with a shorter duration. We chose to deliver Pearson Business Qualifications, which meant the students completing these qualifications in their own country could come to UK and complete an Undergraduate degree with only one additional year of study. 

This business did not work as we intended. There were several business reasons. We did not raise enough money, or, to put it the other way, our ambitions were not aligned with the kind of money we had in hand. This was the big reason, but there were other reasons too. 

For example, our business plan rested upon another assumption: That countries like India have created a lot of educational infrastructure in the recent years, most of which is lying vacant. We assumed that we can build collaborations with these new institutions, and use their infrastructure to deliver a blended learning collaboration. I believe, however, we made a mistake assuming that these institutions will not only give us the infrastructure, but also promote the qualification, both to their own students as well as to new candidates. Indeed, this is related to money - we did not have much in the kitty to spend on student acquisition - but this simply did not work. And, as evidence that this was a critical mistake, the same model worked in China, where, more for regulatory reasons than anything else, we partnered with a local Chinese training company, who in turn were supposed to work with universities etc., and they did manage to attract students. 

The other issue we perhaps faced is that we were trying to do too many things at the same time. The Pearson qualifications were competence-based, and we wanted to deliver it accordingly, creating a completely new paradigm that local colleges were not accustomed to. At the same time, pressed to get them on our side, we highlighted that these qualifications were really pathways to UK degrees, and got drawn in the conversation if there is a guarantee of visa and indeed, whether these qualifications can get them to Oxford or Cambridge (which it could not). 

In 2014, when the business was becoming economically unsustainable - too few learners - we requested the Chinese partners to take over the students and conversations, which they did. I spent the next two years solely focusing on Competence-based Education, exploring the idea of demand-led degrees and working with large employers to create strategic talent development programmes. That experience was eminently worthwhile - it allowed me great insights not just on student decision making but also how employers approach recruitment of fresh talent, and a number of fresh ideas about the 'business' of International Education.

First, that degrees and universities are not dead and obsolete, but they are as strong as ever. This may have been the conversation in the United States, but in most parts of the world, and particularly in India and China, degree studies are expanding and earn a decent premium in the job market. If anything, the wages for High School students, and those with non-recognised degrees, have plummeted, and therefore, good degree programmes are at high demand.

Second, there is strong demand for International Degrees, as it presents an advantage in the local labour market. However, not all International Qualifications, and particularly those from lesser known universities, earn a premium. An in-country provision of an International Degree or a properly designed pathway therefore has great advantages, but it may not be right to price it against international benchmark. We made this mistake, as do countless other businesses, who ask the wrong question: How much it would have cost them to study abroad? The problem is that they are not studying abroad - those who can, would still do - and the benchmark is really against local provisions.

Third, in order to build a cost-efficient, high quality delivery of International Degree and Pathway programmes, we need to have technology. The point, however, is to think through what this technology is for. In our earlier attempt, it was about using UK-based lecturers to interact with students. However, this added to costs but did not enhance student experience, and one of the main obstacles we faced is to make such a system work in classrooms due to poor Internet connections on campuses (the individual internet connectivity is often better than the ones found in campuses in India, though nothing is anywhere near OECD standards). 

Fourth, the disruption at the workplace, both on account of automation and new formats of globalisation (driven by local demand in developing countries, requiring different professional abilities and innovative imagination), is real and not a developed country thing. Local skills, relationships and knowledge are now exceedingly important, and while international education can benefit a person significantly by extending his/her perspective and augmenting critical abilities and soft skills so important in the new workplace, it may equally undermine his/her ability to work locally, build local networks and engage. This balance is critical, but it is not an either/or thing, and one needs to have both.

A year or so ago, when we started talking to our Chinese partners to take the lead in the business, I declined an offer to get seriously involved in the proposed new structure. At that time, I was deeply interested in building what we called at the time 'Concurrent Employment', a sort of apprenticeship proposition that built learning credits out of real life work. However, my interests have changed since, particularly as the shifting nature of the workplace became fully apparent to me, and I have started realising something I have 'known' before - that an educator must go beyond the immediate job opportunity, and rather start with the person of the learner! In fact, more I appreciate the value of learning from practical work and real life, the more I realise the limitation of training for a particular job: The job is not the point of education, the person is - and the commercial impertaives of educating for a job obscures the person altogether. So, my interest in creating International Pathway programmes, which creates global exposure with local engagement, is back. And, I shall claim, this time it is different.

Apart from my interests in real life work, I now want to build the solution ground up, providing face to face support and making local education fit a global framework rather than the other way around. However, at the centre of the proposition, I shall keep a College degree, that middle class totem of prosperity, but will aim to avoid either the degree-selling or job-selling business. I am yet to spend time in designing the proposition in any detail, and spending time now in connecting with fellow travellers and all those are exploring new formats of Higher Ed, but my idea is to develop a Global Leadership course, which will be built on real life work and will provide pathways to university qualifications at good universities in different countries. My assessment of my earlier, aborted, venture is not that we had been too ambitious, but that we have not been ambitious enough: This time around, I am not willing to repeat that mistake.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Very British Revolution

So, it is out now: The Little England has spoken, decisively, clearly, xenophobicly. This morning is when the penny drops, the Islamophobia triumphs in undoing the post-war understanding that the so-called 'Western World' was made on. With the all-night commentary, political drama, uncertainties and expectations, this is indeed like a General Election, except that, it wasn't: It was a revolution that one lives through, hopefully, once in a lifetime.

I am not trying to be analytical - the broader tensions between globalisation and nation state is explanation enough - or to try to envision the future, because it is too uncertain. Right now, in a hangover after a sleepless night, my world is being turned upside down. This is not because of the volatile markets - I am sure these risks were factored in and it will settle in a short time -  but because, I think, this event changes the way I think of politics.

For example, I can not believe that I am already missing David Cameron. I was no admirer, as my earlier posts will bear out, but I am completely won over by his courage, both to back the remain campaign and step down when he failed to persuade. At the same time, I am full of disdain for Jeremy Corbyn, who I championed earlier, whose leadership was lacklustre and ambivalent, and completely devoid of any vision other than dated ideological considerations. To see Nigel Farage celebrate, and proclaim an Independence Day on 23rd June, is the moment that captures the feeling: The fear that this is the start of a long road to fascism.

I have heard a few times now that having views about immigration is not bigotry or xenophobia. But what is it then? This election, despite the claims of the leave camp that this was about Europe, was fought, first and foremost, on the prospect of Turky joining Europe, a distant prospect but one very handy for playing up Islamophobia. There is no other reason that I can ascribe to the voting intentions of my South Asian Hindu friends, who voted to leave despite being immigrants themselves, and whose livelihoods and mortgages are likely to be threatened as a consequence.

This is where my fear comes from. The Leave camp is led by people exactly like the Remain camp: Armchair politicians who debate the relative powers of European Court of Justice and argue about Britain's place in the world, and indulge sometimes into a little indirect reference to Turkey and the like. They will be celebrating today a victory of 'issues', and yet, the real influence may be passing to that comical Farage, who openly showed the 'Asian Hordes' on his poster and may now be marching into seats and influence in the UK.

For this, the liberals are responsible, because they tried to take advantage of his politics. David Cameron, who started it all with his 'tens of thousands' commitment. Later, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who brought out the imperialist nostalgia of the Tory party and wanted to steer Britain away from EU to a revitalised commonwealth, but wanted to ride on Farage's bus (not literally) to get there. And, indeed, Corbyn and his band of ideological warriors, who simply failed to shade their attachment with the past and think about the future: Again, taking advantage of the slightly comical, slightly over the board, consistently non-sensical Farage, to do, God knows, the World Revolution perhaps.

They all forgot what happened last time we underestimated a comical man with a xenophobic message that all the great politicians thought they could use to their own ends.

There are two other fundamental questions that I face today. One, can Direct Democracy be relied upon to make these big constitutional decisions? Two, what is really the role of the industrial working class in social and political progress? These questions are not politically correct, but at this moment, this morning after, I am not trying to be politically correct. The ship has just sailed on political correctness, and if I am right, we may be staring at a very long descent into chaos.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

India's New Education Policy: What Should We Expect?

Indian Government is in the process of drafting a New Education Policy, which is expected to bring about significant change in education at all levels. 

This would be the third time the India has had a 'New Education Policy'. 

The Three Education Policies of India

The first, in 1968, was really a conscious acknowledgement that education is an important subject worth the attention of the Central government in Delhi. It recommended an uniform school system across the nation, universal non-discriminatory access, the 10+2+3 system that India follows today. The NEP 1968 put emphasis on instruction through mother tongue, which, in case of India, was many and varied, and set up the three language system - State language plus English and Hindi - that most Indian schools follow today.

The Second, in 1986, was designed to update India's education for the Information Technology age, and there was a lot of emphasis on technical education at all levels. It did help that Education was redefined as a Concurrent subject, where both the Central and the State governments can have a say, rather than a State subject, as it originally was, in 1976. It also expanded the conversation to adult literacy and women's empowerment, helped set up a number of 'model schools' and established an elaborate programme for mid-day meals and universal education to expand access to education.

As India approaches the New Education Policy in 2016, the challenges and opportunities are very different from that of 1986. One could point to the rapid globalisation since the 1990s, of which India has been a major beneficiary, and the expansion of Indian cities and growth of per capita income. However, the biggest change perhaps is the way India views its population: In the 1980s, it was viewed with alarm, and there was population control drives; however, as India moved from 'planned economy' to 'market economy', the population growth has come to be seen as an opportunity and India has come to expect a 'demographic dividend'. Education has come to be seen as the enabler which channels the power of the growing population into economic growth and prosperity.

The Expected Controversies

However, despite the economic imperatives for a fresh look at education, the New Education Policy is also bound to be controversial. This is primarily because of the social agenda of the party in power. The stated ideological goal of the ruling party is to redefine India as a Hindu state, and this is likely to seep into a New Education Policy drafted under their watch. For example, there will be some battles over the Three Language system: While the government ministers have talked about 'tolerating India's diversity', others, including the Chairman of the Committee in charge of drafting recommendations for the policy, the former Cabinet Secretary TSR Subramanian, insisted that India's diversity needs to be accepted, rather than tolerated. These ideological battles will come into play on the question of three language system and university autonomy as the policy gets finalised.

The Indian government took great pleasure in announcing itself to be the 'most open economy' in the world recently, after it opened up certain sectors, including pharmaceuticals and defence, to foreign investment. Though an open economy would invariably demand an open education system, this is not likely to happen. If anything, the New Education Policy is designed to enhance the Government control over appointments, curriculum and functioning of the institutions, and not reduce it. The current Central government, and various state governments, in the recent months, have openly intervened in the appointments, over-ruling the University boards in some cases, and tried to influence what is being taught even in the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs), the most autonomous of all Indian institutions. That government action, driven through once in a lifetime reforms, is woefully inadequate in enabling an education sector fit for the rapidly changing economic and political circumstances of our time has not dawned on the policy makers.

The recommendations of the Subramanian Committee is still not in the public domain. The government has announced that it is now the process of gathering the views of the State Governments, and only after these have been collated, the drafts of the policy would be made available to general public. This is anachronistic, as the Committee was set up in the first place to consult all stakeholders, including the State Governments, and create draft recommendations: The lack of public information about the recommendations is rather typical of governance in India, and is bound to feed speculations about ideological and political motives of the Policy.

Foreign Universities: What Should They Expect?

Despite these apprehensions, one sector that may be bullish about this New Education Policy is the Foreign Universities. Successive Indian governments have explored the possibility of allowing foreign institutions in India for over two decades, and it is reasonable to expect a definitive statement now that the whole education sector is being looked at with the intent of reform. However, the outlook is not that rosy: The Indian government views the Education Policy as much a part of its social agenda as the economic plan, and the social and conservative considerations are likely to take precedence. 

Some highlights of draft recommendations published in the Indian newspapers point to a policy shift to allow the Top 200 universities of the world to set up campauses in India. We do not know how the government will define 'Top 200', and whether there will be additional conditions, like the corpus to be invested in India or restrictions of repatriation of surpluses, on these campuses. While we wait for the policy to be finalised, it is worth pointing out how dated the approach sounds: Foreign campuses are out of fashion, Top 200 universities are not the keenest on foreign forays and while India is a very attractive market, the biggest in education, the Government, short of closing down the whole of the 'most open economy', can do little to stop students to go abroad to seek education or to pursue degrees on the cloud. 

Common Sense is Uncommon

The conversation is not what it should be: Unconditional and even incentivised access for Top Research Universities of the world, both for campuses and collaborative ventures to help build research capacity in India; an open policy, with well-defined safeguards, to invite universities from all nations to set up teaching campuses in India, to augment Higher Education capacity and to introduce competition in the Higher Education sector; and finally, a well-defined policy towards education on the cloud, and distance learning, that encourages lifelong learning and allow greater flexibility of the capacity of the workforce. But, this, perhaps, is too much to expect out of a Government Policy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Religion and Me: In 10 Fragmented Episodes


What religion are you, I was once asked at a dinner table.

I am an atheist, I said. The conversation stopped. After the pause, someone asked me whether I am a militant and whether I go around challenging and changing other people's beliefs. I do not do this, and hence, he said, I should say I am agnostic, rather than an atheist.

I have, ever since, pondered over the distinction.


It was very different even a few years ago.

I was brought up a Hindu. I started the usual - caste conscious, full of superstition about auspicious days (I still sometimes feel good about starting things on Tuesdays), and believed that the goddess in the family temple can grant me a thing or two. I also believed in astrology, and had a detailed chart telling me what will happen in my life, as did everyone else I knew.


I am not sure if there was a precise moment Scepticism caught up with me. But I remember some awkward moments.

There was someone very elderly and respected in our family who was not a Brahmin. And, I, this was when I was 10/12 year old, would not touch her feet because I learned that you do not touch the feet of non-Brahmins. But then, everyone in my family did, and my mother would ask me to do this (she did not know what I was thinking). Eventually, I realised how foolish my prejudice was, but that was after a few awkward moments.

The astrological faith persisted longer. I wanted to emigrate, and I did ask a friendly astrologer once when I would be able to do so. To my surprise, he said I would never leave India. He was quite famous, and this was a setback for me t that point. Much later, I did emigrate, but by then, my faith in astrology had dwindled.


I think two things happened to me in college.

First, I grew this belief in 'personal religion'. I started believing that institutional religion is evil, but I can continue to have my faith privately. 

Second, I started seeing rituals as culture. So, I would continue to participate in festivals, projecting them as a part of my cultural identity, though I did not see the point of faith in institutional religion.


Eventually, this personal religion thing became untenable.

Part of it was the idea of praying, a private sort of conversation with God. This I did, hoping that the God will perform miracles if I prayed enough. These were about things I wanted - to see the world, for example. 

I remember praying most sincerely when my grandfather, in whose company I grew up, was in his deathbed. The God did not listen to my prayers. I did it again, as sincerely, when I learned my mother was taken ill, by an early morning phone call from home. Again, when my brother collapsed and died. It seemed like I was making requests that my personal God was unwilling or unable to comply with.

I blamed God, and then I blamed myself for being so demanding. I thought being able to pray was good, even if it came to nothing. I hoped to meet all these people I dearly loved some point in my afterlife.


By then, I came across Pascal's wager: That you are better off believing because if God exists, you are better off; and if He did not, it did not matter. That sounded terribly opportunistic to me, even worse than my trading prayers for self-advantage.

Around the same time, I learned about Spinoza's God too, the God as a law-giver, one that does not perform miracles and only expressed in the nature and its laws. This is a God I felt comfortable with, and could reconcile my petty disappointments.


However, then I came across Darwin.

I guess this was my precise point of departure, only a few years ago. 

My views strangely reconciled the idea of evolution with existence of God. Remember, I was a Hindu, and my avatars came through the ages following some sort of evolutionary chronology, first as a fish, then as a tortoise, then as a bore, then as a half-human, then as a Pygmy, etc.

But Darwin was different. It was not just about chronology, but the whole mechanism of chance and selection, all those ideas of deep time and nature at work. This was irreconcilable with God and creation. 

As a child, I would often look up to the Sky with a desire to something unexpected. Except for meteors, nothing exceptional ever happened. But gazing into the sky always gave me a sense of wonder, something I deeply enjoyed and something that made me feel belong to the world. Darwin made me feel the same way, even as he robbed Man from any special place in the universe. It was a sense of humility as I stopped projecting my person and my intentions onto the universe, and instead, start feeling how the universe made me. After Darwin, Man was not a special creature built in God's image, but it is a wonderful rational being which is capable of discovering the truth of its own connection to the world and of serving it.


The idea of Religion as a culture, at the same time, was more sticky, but in the end, problematic.

I did enjoy attending the festivals and meeting other people. But, those festivals were too exclusive, too limited, to people of a certain kind. I came to realise that there is more to culture than just sticking to religious festivals. I lived in Bangladesh for a while, which has the same culture as my native Kolkata - the same food, music, literature - and it was better to connect with people on those, for a meal, for a song or for a book, rather than for a religious festival.


So, in the end, I had two problems with religion.

One, religion was a way to avoid our here-and-now responsibilities towards ourselves, others and our world. Hindus had an afterlife, others had confessions and there was always prayers. 

Two, it was based on an us-and-them logic, one more way to delineate and divide our world. We had enough divisions already to be able to afford a metaphysical one.


Being agnostic will make me neutral of various varieties of God, but be cool with the idea of religion. It is somewhat close to my private religion idea. But I have left that house some time ago.

Atheist is a label usually associated with disrespect and disdain for others, treating people of religion as fools. But, my lack of religion gives me the opposite - a wonder at the immense abilities of human beings. Rather than God making us in his image, we made God in ours. We are capable of all the goodness that we give God, and I feel this needs to be celebrated.

In that sense, the Atheists' disregard for others' views may not be consistent with the ideal of goodness and acceptance that we want to ascribe to a loving God. In fact, atheists suffer from a sort of Jacobin search for perfection that caused so many woes from French Revolution onwards.

I would rather be, as they would call me in India, a Hindu atheist, someone who does not believe in God but believe in the variety of human beings, and treasure our ability to live with all these different ideas and contradictions as one big trait of humanness. 

Making Sense of Britain's EU Referendum

People in Britain will vote tomorrow in a referendum on whether to exit the European Union. Whatever the outcome, it would be a historical decision: If Britain votes to leave, it would not only challenge the European Union, but will be one major political step in transforming the post-War global system; if it decides to stay, it would create a different dynamic in the EU and its future expansion, and in effect, transform the post-war system in a different way. However, though it is an event poised with meaning and significance, little substantiative debate on this has happened so far.

Indeed, I am writing this the morning after BBC-hosted big debate, where the cases for Remain and Leave campaigns were laid out by some of the leading figures, and an event that was eagerly watched around the country. However, the debate remained, as it was so far, too centred around personalities and their ambitions and prospects, a celebrity thing! The Leave side focused on 'Taking Back Control', repeating the expression in every sentence as if to brainwash the audience; the Remain side focused on how uncertain the promises that the Leave side are making, and made its own case, following a strategy that worked in the last Scottish referendum on Independence, on Expert opinions on one hand and the prospect of economic uncertainties on the other. But, among the rhetoric and the spin, no one wanted to discuss why this referendum is perhaps inevitable and that it embodies.

Such oversight is perhaps intended. There is no brownie point in making sense in the heat of a campaign. Both sides are playing by carefully planned campaign playbooks, playing on emotions and fears, tickling our desire for stimulation and safety, trying to win our votes tomorrow. With lots of money on stake, the issue for both sides is indeed 'control', another word for power, and the byline, who gets to be the Prime Minister, is not just the byline, it may indeed be the main story. 

However, it is important to try to make sense of this debate: For me, as a voter, this has wide significance well beyond tomorrow. The sky will not fall apart on Friday morning if the Leave side wins; neither life will get any better if they do. But, the assumptions we lived by so far will change, and the future will be quite different from what we thought it would be. It is important to understand, therefore, what this debate is about, raising our head above the details of pennies and pounds as well as the fears of nameless Syrian kids taking over Britain.

At the heart of this debate is the Globalization Paradox: That democracy, nation state and global markets can not coexist. Formulated by Harvard economist, Dani Rodrik, this trillemma represents one of the most fundamental problems in our societies - the three things that are projected as the most desirable can not live together. Britain, since 1980s, prospered by transforming, successfully as it appears, into an open global economy, aided by the European integration no less, and hence, its strong democratic traditions and nation state feelings have come to a head. This is somewhat inevitable, and every major nation is facing these challenges: The United States has its Trump, for example! However, in the debate about the referendum, this issue appeared in a muddled form. The Leave campaign made 'Democracy' the centre-piece of their campaign, though the issue they are campaigning for is a Nation State 1930s style and not democracy (that Britain is voting on the issue means democracy is not dead). However, the Remain side do not want to talk about this - at least not directly - as they feared that they can not win the argument against Nationalism. 

The point is, of course, that is what this debate has become. And, this made Remain side falter somewhat: This has become Nationalism versus Internationalism, an unwinnable debate somewhat, particularly with a country squeezed in the middle of shift of economic powers and a disappearing welfare state. But the implications of losing this debate is significant: However odious the UKIP posters may look (a direct invocation of Nazi iconography), that is what nationalism looks like. The Post-War system, which was created on the twin basis of economic nationalism (the Bretton Woods system) and Political Cooperation (UN and other organisations), was being dismantled for a while, with WTO and other trade deals like TPP, unmaking its economic aspect and making global capital possible and potent. The 'Brexit' debate is one of the first assault on its political edifice, on a significant post-war organisation from a major country. This, and as other things will follow (like a Trump win, perhaps), may set the process back to what it was - Global Capital with Nation States - something that gave us, among other things, two World Wars of the Twentieth Century.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

History and Future

When Francis Fukuyama claimed History has ended, in the aftermath of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, he was wrong, because history came back with a vengeance on 09/11. However, the idea proved extraordinarily resilient. The optimism at the end of Cold War, which was itself a hangover of the great wars of the Twentieth Century, along with realisation of gains from the scientific and technological breakthroughs of hundreds of years for improvement of day-to-day life, made Fukuyama's vision resonate: We seemed to have discovered a straight-line to future.

So even if history did not end, it certainly declined. Generally, the idea that our future will be different from our past. We came to accept that it is more important for us to develop ideas for the future and master the tools to deliver it than the efforts to understand the thoughts and trajectories of the past. Business and Management, along with Engineering, took the place of pride in the hierarchy of disciplines, as it provided those tools and ideas that would be needed to build the future.

The decline of history, if not its death, came from, as is common in the history of ideas, its over-reach. The study of history in the late Nineteenth and Twentieth century often exceeded its brief of studying the past - "to tell, how it really was" - and adventured itself into predicting the future. In one sense, it is unavoidable: As a student of history would always perhaps discover, all those similar points of the past, those challenges which still resonate today, the ideas and discoveries that helped build our world, the defeats that still rankle and those victories that are still felt with pride, that history lives on and shapes our future. It is only a small step, though an arrogant one, to draw the conclusion that it determines our future. Such was the folly that unmade history at a time when future unshackled from the past, at least in common imagination, though the arrogance of the claim never went away (Last Sunday, while explaining his campaign to remain in the EU, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said "Britain always finds a way", as if that historical fact will save us in the face of a Brexit!).

But, now, we are having an opposite kind of over-reach, of the technological kind. As we escaped the cycles of European wars, we have become amnesiac about the scientific progress that made our world possible. In popular culture, the celebration of entrepreneurs obscure all the painstaking work that may have gone before, the less glorious world of laboratory science is now lumped together as 'academic' and discarded from public view, and the disingenuous claim that imagination of a few of the Steve Jobs kind is responsible for all progress has taken hold. It is not that history has been eclipsed by technology; rather, technology has become the new narrative of power and justification of social privilege as history used to be.

But the lack of history has its cost. It is not about our ability to predict or determine the future. Any serious student of history would say that history shows the complexity of forces, and unpredictability, rather than the other way around. History's pattern is merely the obvious fact that the dots always join backwards, and the practice of history is not a study of causations and measurement of impact. Rather, lack of history leads to a forgetfulness of Historical Time - the understanding of how we came to be instead of what we are going to be - and that we are history's people ourselves.

The forgetfulness of Historical Time is self-explanatory: We forget the building blocks that made our world. Our celebration of the entrepreneur has this here-and-now implication - we believe, as Douglas Rushkoff says, everything happens now! Narratives of ourselves are full of claims that the time has acceleratated, and never, as is perhaps the case, that our perspectives may have narrowed. We believe actions have direct and immediate consequences, and if they do not, they are not worth committing to. To take one example, such thinking makes commitment of public funds to basic science research harder to justify, as the outcomes are indeterminate and long term, whereas we marvel at the possibility to private space tourism, which is an entrepreneurial wonder.

This leads to the other problem I mentioned, a blindness to our own historical role. While we seem to be always creating the future (or, more grandiosely, denting the universe!), we forget our responsibility to the future. That our future is unshackled from our past means that our actions mean nothing to people who will come after us. It is not just about climate, but also political actions that we take, machines that we build and opinions we subscribe to: The uncoupling of historical time allows us to escape our responsibilities, not just to our past but also to our future, and live outside the historical ethic.

This is where history repeats itself. And, this, a student of history can perhaps see - the abdication of the responsibility of progress has undermined the train of progress many a times in the past. This has been a feature of human history that it obscured itself only to return, and while we may not care much about dead people, we are better off paying heed to Edmund Burke's dictum: "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it".


Monday, June 20, 2016

On Being Able to Love

The rational human being exists somewhere inbetween the matrimonial advertisers flaunting their caste and income and property, and the pathetic spectacle of Brock Turner, a swimmer and a student of an elite university, caught raping an unconcious woman. Being human is thus defined by our capacity to love, to fall in love as well as being loved, and to love well: Completely, committedly and unequivocally, transcending both our animal urges and middle class meekness, outside both the socially mandated and instinctively compulsive.

Being able to love is not about pleasure, but about creating happiness. It is not about possession, but about giving away. If you deeply love something, give it away - a wise man once said - and touche! being able to love is to able to give, to surrender oneself for the happiness of the other.

I remember my first moment of feeling in love. It was indeed a moment, specific and memorable. To be sure, it was a dream, etched in memory, permanently and not momentarily. It was an intense feeling of loss - someone I met then and knew I would never meet again - and that realisation, conjured up inside a customary mid-afternoon siesta on a hot afternoon, brought the feeling of love first to me. It remained - I can still imagine the room with windows closed, the darkness, that sense of helpness and whatever happened afterwards: I stepped out, to discover that a storm had set in outside, with the dark clouds and cool breeze, the smell of rains afar, and a radio playing a song, the pleadings of a lover to his desired, asking for forgiveness for neglect and forgetting!

Thus, Love and loss are intertwined in my mind, for this and other stories. Therefore, whether the idea of possession is central to love arise naturally: Is Love only a retrospective feeling that appear in absence of the loved, I ask myself. It may be an emotional residue, the after-effect of the real, an illusion once the moment had passed: A crazy thing! But this is perhaps because we use the word 'Love' with a very specific and narrow meaning - that of Romantic Love - a nineteenth century invention. Love as a feeling of presence, something that makes us come into being and makes us human, has a longer history, and, I shall argue, the essence of the love at a point of loss - that is what makes it different from desire! This love is our ability to think beyond ourselves and for others, and to be able to subject material considerations to a greater emotional one and to be defined by it.

This love is not crazy: It is reasonable. The acts arranged matrimony and drunken rape are crazy, because they, despite the calculating and opportunistic behaviour underpinning them, they are at odds with our human essence. Reason, as a word and expression, may have come to mean the pursuit of advantages, either material or sexual; but being able to give, without a promise of reciprocity, as in Love, is what keeps us going as a species, maintains our societies and ensures progress. This, rather than the dumb mediocrity or the mindless lust that define our present cultures, represents the deep reason that is the essence of our survival.

So, the greatest compliment that I can give to someone is that s/he is capable of love! There are many people I do meet who are in this category, but then, they are becoming rarer as the love they are capable of are often undermined by the cacophony of reason, the mindless rationalism that our popular culture celebrates (only to descend in the pathetic case of Brock Turner and others).

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Memory, Learning and Experience: New Ways of Crafting Learning Experiences

There is a philosophical justification for learning from experience: That it connects us to real life with all its complexities and detours, and allow us to escape the 'one size fits all' assumptions of grand theory. Learning, at the messy swamp of practice, where human life is really acted out, is real - and therefore, useful. 

However, now, we have further arguments for learning from experience based on new breakthroughs in cognitive sciences.

As our understanding of human brain and memory improves, we are discarding deeply-held assumptions that lie beneath our institutions, approaches and even language. There are many things that we are learning anew, but one aspect in particular - how our memory works! Right now, the breakthroughs in cognitive sciences are altering our idea of the memory: Its ideal, as a retention device that accumulate useful bits of our life to carry forward, is seriously being doubted, and it is now being seen as an active construction device, which makes up the reality by working through available connections. This is fundamental, as it somehow throws into doubt the concept of Objective Truth and all our institutions and ideas that rely on the existence of it. 

This is bad news, in a way. Research is now showing that our memories are malleable and all individuals may be susceptible to false memory. Our recollections of ideas, concepts, people, circumstances and even our own lives are highly variable, and can be manipulated for good and for bad. Some things like Cycling and Swimming may be highly sticky - and this is perhaps as our body as well as our mind engage into it - but we would forget all those unremarkable hours of lectures that we sit through, and even if we remember something remarkable among them, our recollection of them are highly variable and unlikely to be accurate.

However, this starts to clarify how people may learn better, and even provide a toolkit for successful learning intervention. Such insights are almost staring at our face - "It's the learning experience, stupid!" - and all those 'subjective' factors, great teachers, open classrooms, real-life projects, that seemed to have a made a difference and proved real sticky, explain themselves on the grounds of memory science. It is not the text, never the content, but the experience that is retained - and retrieved in context.

Education, for this vantage point, is experience design. It is not just the Powerpoint that we can easily control, but look, feel and smell of the setting that matters. And, we should know that these can distract as well: One can be too clever to use a crafty but unrelated animation and the learners can leave with their heads of full of pictures that had nothing to do with the intended outcome of the engagement. In fact, their whole memory of what happened can eventually be represented (or misrepresented) by that one piece, if that was overwhelming enough! 

Real-life experiential learning, therefore, has an automatic advantage: It is unique moments in time in learners' life, and it is wholesome experience, with its own setting and everything that comes with it. It is simply easier to remember, than those endless arrays of texts that, with passage of time, become blurred in memory and look indistinguishable. 

There is also a cautionary tale hidden in this. As the Cognitive Science highlights the importance of the environment, the whole environment and not just the elements under our direct control, it also explains some of the limitations of online learning that we so enthusiastically embrace as the solution for mass education. We may talk about replicating project experiences remotely, and indeed a number of knowledge workers today work from home, but, as a learning setting, home can be boring, disruptive and unappealing, particularly for a twenty-year old without a private study room. 

This, indeed, serves as a perfect justification for my obsession with learning spaces and my insistence on control of the setting, rather than just hiring out cheap classrooms anywhere. It is a difficult proposition to sell to financial people seeking to create asset-light models of education. And, while some companies tend to create branded learning spaces, their obsession with branding is more than their understanding of learning, and usually this means they tend to make indistinguishable classrooms without little space for originality and individuality. The space, the engagement, the people and the learning are more intimately connected than we think, and thereupon I rest my case of thinking fresh about crafting learning experiences.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Limits of Experiential Learning

Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch.

But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. 

Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.

Learning from Experience is about learning from life, animating our day to day existence, enhancing our observation of and engagement with the world and the people around us. It benefits us not just through learning and ability to apply it later or elsewhere, but immediately, making us curious of everything, humble in our engagements and connected with the world. 

Experiential Learning, which is an idea that grew out of this ideal, however, works with defined and delineated 'experiences'. Experience, as in our way of existence, is quite different from the experiences of experiential learning, which are designed and controlled exposure with a mandate to learn from. While such engagement may be a departure from learning from texts, the canned experiences are different from the freedom and the possibilities of just being ourselves. It is an idea designed for the world that wants to assess, measure and value learning, and socially control what we learn. 

Project-based Learning takes that one step further, building it on a framework of time- and motion studies, within the paradigm of scientific management. The encapsulated 'projects', with defined outputs, timespans and accountability, sponsored usually by a commercial employer, materialise the grand ambitions of Experiential Learning, by defining the outcome and creating workable methods to assess and measure, but, at the same time, it stands on the alienation from our day-to-day being. Indeed, the value conflicts are usually resolved in the reverse - consider life as a project, learners are told - and the emphasis makes the project, that one fragment of experience, as the real thing at the expense of life before or outside that managed existence.

Arguably, Project-Based Learning is effective in mastering skills, as it focuses our minds on application. It allows us to build our identity in terms of practice, making us work with our hands and creating accountability to broader groups. But, it is hardly everything and the answer to all that education has to do. At its heart is the key problem that the modern businesses are still grappling with - we pay a person for a certain number of hours, but it is the whole person that comes to work! How do we resolve the conflict of roles defined by the structure of the organisation and the belongingness and integrity that we declare we want in everyone. PBL teaches a system, and ways of mastering a system, which may indeed make people professionally successful as they start their career, but not what would make them resilient and engaged, better as people and citizens.

That we now claim that Project-based Learning is the solution to everything is the typical overreach of a fad, that makes it lose its meaning and fall out of favour. The great philosopher of learning from experience, John Dewey, regretted towards the end of his life that he used the word 'experience' as it is easily misunderstood, and the way artificially constructed 'learning experiences' undermined the ideal of learning from being ourselves. This message is now lost in our celebration of the new-found panacea, and cosideration of what Experiential Learning can and can not do would restore some sense in our conversation.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Varieties of Education Technology

The current conversation about Education Technology (or, Education Technologies, we should claim) is both poised with possibilities and depressingly limited. 

Despite all the billions of dollars channeled into exciting new start-ups, the headline technology companies such as Google and Microsoft making Education as one of their main focus areas and mobile computing extending the reach of content and culture far beyond the obvious, the scope of Ed-Tech still remains superficial and focused on extending the norms of Scientific Management, the very same paradigm that we are expected to leave behind in the post-industrial age, to classrooms. The focus of educational technology enterprises were to adopt key 'corporate' technologies, databases, remote communication technologies, walled-garden networks (apps) and measurement systems, for educational use. The keywords of the Education Technology community, accordingly, have been information, content, predictive modelling, communication, and costs, but rarely the ones Educators are used to - character, learning, and indeed education - outside the presentation slides and marketing campaigns.

This is broadly reflective of the trends in technology development in itself. The current claims that we have achieved the highest stage of technological nirvanna (or perhaps not, as we are awaiting the day when technology will create itself) are designed to stop us from asking - what does technology do? The benefits of Ed-Tech are sold mainly in terms of cost - that it would make things efficient by making one teacher teach many more students (answering the 'cost disease' problem posed by William Baumol) - and that it may solve the great problem to state finances posed by the advent of mass education. We simply can not educate so many people, the Ed-Tech evangelists would say, claiming that Ed-Tech is that white knight we are all praying for. Closely related to this is the efficiency argument, which posits that Ed-Tech can make education more personally tailored, predictively modelled and informationally communicative, so that we all know who is going to make it early in the cycle. This could sound like a tool of social engineering, like all technologies could be, and this as the sole theme of Ed-Tech conversation is a rather disturbing phenomenon.

Another kind of conversation is, however, eminently possible and one should make its case. What if one approached Ed-Tech not with the objective of making it efficient but try to make it effective instead? The difference will be to approach the technology from an understanding what teachers do, and what they are seeking to do, rather than trying to import business best practices into the classroom. This may sound obvious to some, but it is not common sense, as most technologists and investors are programmed to think that everything is business. They are blind to the possibility that any other value system, any other objectives, any other modes of relationship can exist in any other domain, or even if they accept its existence, they merely think of it as an ancient, inefficient way of doing things. It is this paradigm that restricts our view what technology could do and how it could be used. This lack of perspective is indeed what we see when the Ed-Tech start-ups complain of 'politics' and 'resistance' in imposing the system - they are perfectly innocent that what they propose may often be alien to those who teach and learn (as students, too, disengage) and that they are merely imposing a value system that may be at odds with the basic values of a classroom.

What are the teachers trying to do? Many, most, teachers embraced the profession because they took pleasure in seeing the transformation of their pupils, in making their successes possible. They are hardly going to be resistant if they find a way to achieve this better, particularly if they are to find an easier way of doing it. But, anyone who has ever taught knows that one of the effects of Ed-Tech on teachers is not to save their time or make them more creative; in most cases, it is about creating a corporate-style all-intrusive environment, taking the thinking out of the work and making the teachers delivery-drones of a pre-programmed curricula. It is more about responding to status-alerts at the middle of the night than being able to connect one's student with an exciting new possibility, at least more commonly so!

What would happen if this new variety of education technology was possible? Rather than revolving around the questions of predictive modelling and faculty-to-teacher ratio, Ed-Tech conversations then would focus on making connections across universities and countries (making credits transferable by making learning more transparent, anyone?), making education and experience interchangeable, making student work visible to employers and so on. It would be about liberating students from single-discipline thinking and from the eccentricities of time-tables. It would be about freeing up time to travel and to interact with more people than about creating Facebook pages. This, exploring the varieties of Education Technologies, should be the key challenge facing an Education Innovator, and to do so, one must transcend our ways of seeing it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Brexit: To Be Or Not To Be

Evocation of Hamlet is intended: The choice Britain faces on 23rd June needs deliberation of a solemn kind, involves an existential question and yet, not acting and letting evil carry the day will be a tragedy. Hence, despite my reluctance to add to what has been a nasty and misleading debate on both sides, I have to write this post.

At the outset, perhaps it is best to show my hand and declare that I will be voting to remain. This is not because the calculations of the Remain side has convinced me: Rather, It is a matter of principle, as I see Britain as an open country engaged with the rest of the world, and not a xenophobic little island trying to hide behind the seas. This, for me, is a matter of British identity, and pride, that its strength came from engagement with the world and shaping, for good or worse, its affairs. At the core, Britain is also an European country, as it has always been, with all the Saxon enterprise and Norman heritage making the country what it is, always involved in European affairs, and influencing, in more cases than not, progressive views in politics, art, literature and science.

But, it is also because that I found the case of the Leave side singularly unconvincing. Consider here their three main reasons why I should be voting to leave the European Union:

1) We should vote leave so that we can renegotiate to remain. This is simply ludicrous. This may be politics the Boris Johnson way, where you throw tantrums to eye Ministerial prizes, but this is not the way responsible statesmen are expected to argue. Are they telling me that it is really better to remain? I guess so. Therefore, it is right to vote to Remain, and not take chances.

2) We should vote leave because we may not have voted to join EU if that was on the ballot on the 23rd. If, for a moment of hope, one assumed that the argument about voting to leave so that we can remain can not be bested, she has been proved wrong: Here is one that was utterly dumb. We are not being asked to join EU, we are being asked whether we should leave. It is not that hypothetical question whether I should marry someone, where I can say without much consequence, but rather about whether I should walk away from a long marriage, causing great pains, costs (economics must be invoked) and uncertainties. Apart from the fact that the Leave campaign materials portray an European map with Turkey as a candidate country to join, and then highlight Syria and Iraq on the map for no apparent reason other than stoking up hatred, this line of argumentation tells me what I should do: If I did not want to vote to join EU today, hypothetically speaking, I am seeking to maintain status quo. Status Quo it is for me, then!

3) We should vote leave because this is a choice between Democracy and Economics, as Boris Johnson puts it. Now, the D-word has been abused before, as Churchill's excuse to create spheres of influence to Bush Jr's cover to please the Saudis, but this is the absurd best. There are many ways of looking at it, but let's try one which Mr Johnson may even approve: Every country is facing this choice between democracy and economics, and they are being told, by people like Mr Johnson, to set aside their customs, traditions and popular will, for the sake of economic growth; if they did not listen, the choices are being forced on them, for the sake of economic growth. Why is Mr Johnson is being so precious when, for once and without justification, he feels economics is taking precedence. And, when it comes to the choice between people like Mr Johnson and Mr Gove making the laws unrestrained by any commitment to basic human rights and paying a lower mortgage and having a stable currency, the latter is indeed infinitely more preferable.

The whole notion of Brexit is Britain's equivalent of Trump Wall. It is impractical and too costly, and shows the country building it to be afraid and out of step with the rest of the world. It is a political fantasy presented as an unifying platform for all our nastiest instincts and unreasonable fears, so that a few demagogues can look respectable and grab power which they so crave. The Remain side has not distinguished itself: Mr Cameron brought this upon himself with his opportunistic promises of 'no ifs, no buts' promise of tens of thousand immigrants, and Mr Corbyn has chosen to abdicate statesmanship for a too obvious leave of absence, as if he could not care less about the issue. This is also like the Trump Wall, a laughable political idea that ended up exposing all its political opponents as lackeys and all politics as false, the last resort of the scoundrels without the courage to offend.


Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Rhetoric of Student Debt

Higher Education as a business is an American idea, mostly! The American For-Profit Education companies are the largest in the world, and they are no longer American. They have assets - universities, publishing companies, online operations - all over the world. And, they are present in every conversation about Higher Ed in every country, lobbying for For-Profit participation (which many countries do not allow) and privileges (mostly access to public funding for students). How this should be viewed depends on one's point of view, and I did previously argue that some diversity is good for Higher Education sectors in different countries (though my views have evolved since, as I came across Hirschman's argument why private sector education, instead of improving the quality of public sector through competition, actually has the opposite effect).

But, regardless of the broader argument, one thing fascinates me about this debate: That American For-Profits point to the student debt crisis in America, and argue that allowing For-Profits would increase efficiency of operations in Higher Education sector, lower the cost, enhance employability and therefore, make Higher Education funding sustainable. In fact, this is their main argument for the expansion of the For Profit sector in other regions, like Africa and Western Europe, the two growth regions for For-Profit Higher Ed.

The problem is that the student debt crisis in America, in a large part, is a For-Profit problem. The For-Profits neither had any measurable effect on efficiency of operations nor on employability, but a very substantial and proven effect on raising fees, failing to provide employment after graduation and student loan defaults. In fact, some of the large For-Profit firms brought the whole system near collapse, by filing for Chapter 11 without meeting its obligations to students. The point is, of course, that this has not been closely followed in other countries, despite the global reach of these same companies. The government ministers continued to be entertained by these very wealthy firms, and they continued to lure students with slick advertising everywhere: Their failings in the United States were kept off the Press.

That may change now. The 2016 Presidential Race has been odd for many reasons, and there will be one more now: It would bring For-Profit dealings into focus. No doubt, Hillary Clinton would want to hit Trump where it hurts: His misadventure with the now-infamous Trump U! But, Trump also has some pretty damaging things to hurl back at her too: That Bill Clinton continued to pocket millions from Laureate International, as their Honorary Chancellor, through a shell fund, when the company, through its Walden University, got $55 million from the State Department when Hillary was the Secretary. Bill Clinton resigned from the position after the scandal got highlighted in Clinton Cash, an expose, but Walden University is indeed one of the largest recipient of the Federal funding and all eyes would be on its operations now.

One may say that these two cases are different and the nature of involvements are different. My point is only to note that For-Profit operations may now be an issue of Presidential campaigns and this is good. For-Profit Higher Ed, which was hugely profitable until their practises caught up with them at the aftermath of the recession, is currently searching for opportunities globally. Its operations need greater scrutiny, which it evades. Hopefully, that will now change.

How To Change Careers? A Review of 'Working Identity' Idea

Of the books I read recently, Herminia Ibarra's Working Identity made a lasting impression. Despite my deep aversion to the simplistic and formulaic style of business books, and this book is no different, it resonated for two reasons. Professionally, I am exploring solutions to the difficulty of education-to-employment transition, and my experience at the fault-line tells me that this arises, in the first place, because of the divergence of realities of commercial work and that of the college; the students arrive at work without resolving who they are and what they would like to, and struggle to fit in increasingly unforgiving workplaces pursuing the illusive idea of perfect candidates. Further, personally it has been appropriate too, as I am at the very point of questioning whether it is worth living my life the way I am doing now. I may already be in my second career - moving from one country to another and transitioning into Higher Education I have already done - but I do not see this as the final one; I would still want to explore the potential of my writing, study history and do International Development work, and therefore exploring various paths and options.

So, what is really interesting in Professor Ibarra's thesis? Its starting point is that we all have a fixed identity, one true self, and we should plan to find a career that allows us to 'be ourselves' is wrong. Indeed, this assumption of a 'true self' underpins the huge and profitable Personality Testing industry, as well as various 'walking-on-hot-coal' programmes. However, this may indeed one of the big reasons that create so many career crisis, both mid-career, as Prof Ibarra's case studies illustrate, and even early career, as I have seen first hand. Surely, the fixation with true self, and of finding it, is more mid-career than for someone just out of college, but the career counselling industry and parents just thrive on matching pupils to 'best fit' careers. The problem is when the career landscape is shifting, as it is now, neither the careers our parents desired nor the ones Career Counsellor's handbook recommend are quite useful.

Instead, Professor Ibarra suggests that we may have several possible identities, and a successful career change (equally applicable for career choice for a college graduate) should start with experimentation -'test and learn' as she calls it. So, instead of taking time to introspect, or waiting for tests and career counsellors to tell what one should be doing, opening one's mind, engaging in various activities and rejecting the ones that do not fit, is what makes a successful career change.

This indeed means chaos, strain and tension during the period of change, but this should be embraced rather than feared. The point why experimentation nd exploration lead to better career choice is because there is no rulebook, regardless of what various competency theorists would claim, and tacit, rather than explicit, knowledge of various kinds of work and career what the person would need.

In essence, then, Professor Ibarra's suggestion to people like me is to assume an 'Working' (interim) identity - rather than trying to fit everything around us to one true self, it is about declaring to the world that we are searching. Finding careers is indeed like dating, as one of my colleagues say, and not to settle too soon may indeed be the key to success. The three steps that Professor Ibarra suggests - Crafting Experiments (doing various kinds of work and taking training), Shifting Connections (Building new networks) and Making Sense (Reflecting and Learning from experience) - are perhaps common sense, though these are easier to do for Senior Executives of Independent Means (for whom Prof Ibarra is writing) than average people, and particularly students.

My idea is indeed to facilitate just this kind of experimentation, by creating a safe environment where students can do various kinds of work, connect with people of different interests and professions, and make career choices. I have started calling this an Enterprise School, something that sits alongside college and which should facilitate this transition from being a student to a professional. My current work, too closely linked with specific employers and specific jobs, does not allow such experimentation, and yet, this has become a holy grail of the employability conversation - affirming whether there is a job in the end! Professor Ibarra's work allowed me to see the education-to-employment transition problem in a new light, and clarified why finding job mandates is not going to solve the career choice problems (though it may be commercially popular).

As for myself, this gives me a framework which I have done in the past. I have always crafted experiments - right now, I am in the middle of one - and my networks and engagements shifted accordingly. This blog, I shall claim, is my continuous making sense pience, not just I set the agenda for myself here but also take stock. And, these three together helped me through at least one major reinvention of myself.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The Point of Skills Training: Enabling Identities

I have done various things in my career, from selling to teaching, from developing products and campaigns to designing courses and raising money. But, then, all of it was really around one thing - helping people develop skills and get jobs! My exposure has been various - I have spent time in the world's largest independent IT skills training company as well as a big name English training provider, a company providing technology to Europe's largest e-learning project, an Irish recruitment company embarking on global expansion and now an American start-up looking to bridge the Education-to-Employment gap - but the point of my work was always the same. 

This claim may seem odd to some, as we tend to box skills training into one skill or another, and indeed cut this adrift from Higher Education (which I have also indulged in, in a private Higher Ed institution in London) - there is nothing common between a business degree programme, IT training and English language for work, we would tend to think! I shall claim, however, a common thread, that I observed through the variety of my exposure, indeed because of the variety of my exposure: All skills training is about enabling the identity of the learner as a professional.

Our overt obsession with technical aspects, curriculum, certification, learning hours, and the all-encompassing word, Pedagogy, obscure this quest for identity, which defines both the enterprises of teaching as well as learning. The bureaucratic mantra of the education trade - Quality - forces the attention back to the input, rather than something as immeasurable as identity! The government metrics, that would rather measure time spent and a vaguely specified outcome, a job, as yardsticks of good skills training, make us build expensive systems to track them, and allow us to take our eyes off the person of the learner (whose names we forget, whose personal stories do not matter anymore and who we want to mould into the iron-cast of our process) safely and without consequence.

But, this makes all the difference between the good and the bad of skills training. The point of good IT training (and, good Welding training, for that matter) is not about mastering the syntax (or the machinery and processes, in case of Welding), that is just the minimum, just as learning the alphabet and grammar in a language class. The point of good IT training is about thinking like a programmer and being proud of it. The aha! moment of a good IT training should be that when a learner spends thinking about the code and can write it elegantly, frugally and beautifully (if you do not think code can be elegant, explore the C language and study Dennis Ritchie)! That care, commitment to doing things well, that essential craftsman identity, I used to say in my IT Training days, was what mattered: The students - and I can name some of them and tell their personal stories - who thought like this did well no matter what technological change they had to grapple with. It is the same for those learning English language, perhaps it is too obvious to try give an example, and would be the difference between a good and a bad plumber, and a good and a dead electrician.

However, crucial as it may be, this development of identity is seldom a goal actively pursued in skills training. We may all know this at heart - I do not expect people to react to this post saying it is nonsense, but rather to say that I am stating the obvious - and yet, we build systems, processes, metrics, cultures and ideas around an endless series of proxies. We believe that if grades are alright, identities will form. This, despite knowing that if we measure the grades, we get the grades - and nothing else. Therefore, we send out this vast army of students clutching their grades out in the wider world, hoping that they would find an identity themselves. Some indeed do, and become successful, and thank us: Most do not, and they blame themselves - so we go Scot-free!

It is time to change the conversation, I shall argue. The point of Skills training is to enable identities, and the technical parts, though indispensable, are only building blocks, not an end in itself. I shall claim that this is true for all kinds of skills training - the colours of the collar do not really matter - and makes all the difference between good and bad training. One of the first things I learnt when I started working in education is that I must know all my learners by name and know their personal stories: A message lost in the scramble for scale, but the most valuable that I have ever learnt.

Monday, June 06, 2016

7/100: Why I Have Signed Up to Study History

The big news on my side is that I have now enrolled to study History at Birkbeck College. Something I always wanted to do, but in the late 80s India when I was entering college, this was considered crazy and I was discouraged from doing it. All my peers appeared in the Engineering and Medical entrance examinations, which, despite my decent grades in school leaving examinations, I did not like to do, becoming an oddball in overtly vocationally oriented India. I took up to study Economics as some sort compromise. But this is one regret that stayed with me, and in order not to leave any regrets, I have now decided to go back to school and study it formally.

It should still be considered crazy. I have no professional need for it, and the degree would not help me to earn more. All I am trying to do is to be good at something which I have a genuine interest in, and something, so I consider, I can remain consistently interested in, long enough to complete a Ph D eventually. My other Post-graduate qualifications are in Economics and Education, but I see neither of these to be my native discipline. My T skills are rooted in my knowledge of history, and this is my attempt to gain a formal recognition of it.

But even this justification, linking skills with the study of history, should be considered crazy. History has stopped being an useful subject: In fact, some Indian states have proposed removing history altogether from the school curriculum, focusing on STEM subjects instead. And, this is not just India, where expectations are constructed around narrowly defined routine technical jobs, demanding less of creativity and imagination and where lack of ambition is considered to be a positive attribute. History, as a discipline, is on the back-foot everywhere: Variously, it is considered to have ended, or have rendered irrelevant as the mankind claimed to have broken decisively from the cycles of progress and decline, and reached a point of ever-continued abundance. Future, and its tools, are all that matters: Considering the past now is a matter for the 'academic', leisurely or limited to people in the heritage industry.

These are precisely the points I do not agree with, and worry about the consequences of taking our history-lessness too far. It does seem that we have lost the concept of historical time, and started believing that all actions have instant consequences, and conversely, if they do not have immediate consequences, the actions are worth nothing. This is somewhat linked to our self-justification of being the most gifted, most free and most innovative generation of all time, a wilfull blindness of all the work that went into building the circumstances of the present time, making our freedoms possible.

One would wonder why we think this way - it is obviously silly to think that we have conjured up the modern world from thin air - but this is consistent with our current narrative of innovation and creation. We believe in making things from thin air, something out of nothing! That, as in the art of making money, is our conception of the modern Hero, unleashed from the past, baggageless. This is not just rhetoric, though our love of show and rhetoric makes such a fantasy believable: This is what the modern faith is all about.

However, this poses a great danger for our ability to create a future for those who will come after us - our grandchildren and beyond! It seems that we are not just condemned to repeat History as we do not study it, our forgetfulness of history makes us impotent to create it too. The freedoms that we enjoy, that many preceding generations had to struggle for, we take for granted: We endanger them by assuming that they, our rights to vote, our right not to be discriminated, our right to worship any god we may choose, our right to speak, were always there - and we forget to worry about them, work for them, guard them from encroachment! We build capitalist Disneylands like Dubai or Singapore, and forget that true sustainable futures are not built with tall buildings and modified nature, but with an ability of the common person to hold the powerful to account. We build nifty technologies and call it progress, but forget to change our frames of mind to set our technological priorities to improve conditions of human beings, alleviate water shortages, or educate greater numbers. All of this, I shall claim, has something to do with our self-imposed innocence about how we got here.

So, that, in short, motivates me to study history, respectfully, professionally, whole-heartedly. I shall continue to work in Education, that choice has already been made, but I believe this effort will improve my writing and allow me, finally, to find a discipline.

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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

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