Monday, October 24, 2016

Communities and Education

It is perhaps quite obvious that Universities are communities at the core, but perhaps not. While we may pay leap service to the idea of a community, from the language we employ, we mean them to be factories.

Nothing against factories, and they are indeed communities too, it must be said. However, that is not how we see a factory, do we? In fact, that factories are communities of people have been lost from our imagination. Rather, we have developed a top-down, process view of what happens in factories - raw material comes in and finished products go out - and regarded the human community around this a distraction, a cost, something to be dispensed into once machines have got smart enough.

We adopt a process view of the universities - applicants come in and graduates go out - and regarded them exactly as factories. Our focus has shifted what happens afterwards, to the finished good and its demands, and not so much what happens inbetween. That knowledge could be created through interactions and connections is lost on us, and rather, we see the process in the university as a fixed amount of knowledge, pre-packaged (in the form of textbooks or online content), that needs to be injected into the learners, and, bingo. Our conception of educational quality has become progressively industrial, to be measured in terms of employment outcomes and starting salaries. 

This is all very fine - students need jobs, after all - but overdoing this, as we do now, undermines the community life in the university. It is now referred to as 'social life', with some justifications when you consider party school culture of some universities, but not so when this becomes a sweeping label for everything that goes on in an university. In fact, this 'social life' label, which consistently scores on the students' agenda, transforms university life through its usage, as private institutions stretch themselves to create facilities and arrange events to help build 'social life', retroactively justifying its usage. So, the label becomes the concept it is meant to be, excluding everything but the core process - or what is deemed to be the core process - and sweeping the university community under the carpet.

The problem with this is that universities have more functions that certifying graduate skills. This may be cliche, but universities are not training departments of big corporations, nor just research labs, but a social institution. I am often told that the current spread of youth discontent, Arab Spring is cited as a particular example, is there because universities are not doing their jobs and young people are not finding employment. This may be true, but, equally, turning universities into narrow silos, where one goes to do just one thing, learns and gets out, shuts up all the conversations across political and social group boundaries, limit the ideas within a narrow disciplinary spheres and create boundaries of connections and thoughts that are bound to flare up one day. 

There is another way: Thinking of universities as communities. Not training places with degree granting capabilities, but a place to engage, converse and explore, run into ideas that one would not otherwise encounter, meet someone who do not belong to one's side of the street and live in a microcosm of the world at large. It is hardly reducible to some online classes, time tables and assessment grades: It is a way of coming to terms with the world. 


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why Do I Work in Education?

As I mentioned in the last post, a recent conversation about a deal threw me into a mini existential crisis. A mid-life crisis was indeed due, but I perhaps postponed it with my refusal to grow up and settle down for the boring bits, so far. It burst into the scene, somewhat unexpectedly, as I got an offer that I apparently sought, but did not want, at least not anymore.

However, before I try doing something with my life, there was one bigger question that needed answering: Why do I work in Education? I could say that I defaulted into education, which is partly true as I moved between technology and education jobs in the early part of my career, but I had so many inflection points and at each one of those, I chose education. Indeed, the latest escape route, if I needed one, was my work in recruitment in 2007 onwards - I could have made the shift and indeed, it would have better careerwise if I did. But I did not even see that as a possibility then, and have no regrets for not doing that. And, right now, I am not retroactively looking for a wrong turn that I took somewhere, but rather reaffirming the choice I made, not just once, but at every turn thereafter.

As I ask myself this question then, as to why I work in Education, what comes to mind is a train journey: I can not remember the date, the destination or any details of what preceded or followed the moment. But, I remember the moment, as vividly as I could. It was somewhere in middle India, hundreds of miles away from any of the big cities I have known, in the middle of the night, at a train station whose name was too alien to remember. I was travelling coach class, so there was no airconditioning or thick glass windows to protect me from the still-warm air of a summer night or the noise of the still bustling station awake at the arrival of a train from big town. The noise woke me up, or perhaps I was never asleep because it was hot and uncomfortable. It was a long time ago, and a very different world from the breakfast at a Five Star hotel in London last week, but essentially the same question: What am I doing?

I was right to ask that question then. I was younger, and just turned down a training exec job in a Multinational Call Center, though that would have kept me safely ensconed in a city environment. Instead, I took on this role with a training company, which, unexpectedly for me, chose me to work on expanding their operations in the Indian hinterlands. This meant endless days of travel, stays at small city inns and dealing with different kinds of people with diverse motivations, practices and ways of doing things. It meant all the discomfort and loneliness, frozen in mind in this particular moment on the train that I describe above. My comfortable childhood, protective family, big city environment and pretension of entitlement, were all cast aside, and it was a new, alien, different and difficult world I was thrown into.

As I remember the moment, though, I remember it without the sweat, tiredness or anxiety that would surely have been there. Nostalgia is, as someone told me once, memory without sorrow. And, so it is, in my mind, a magical moment of looking out through the train window, on a night of full moon as I distinctly remember, looking into that unknown and unknowable station which I had no connection with, then or since, and should never have been to, except my decision to take on the task of expanding education to remote cities. And, the feeling was one of wonder, of discovery, of the spirit of adventure of Childhood - did I not want to be Robinson Crusoe - and of thankfulness, a realisation that the ship-wreck of my career has finally sent me out to the middle of nowhere, as I wanted to be. Those days, I had faith and I knew who to be thankful to: Now, without such certainties, I can still remember the sense of wonder and that meaning of life.

So, two things, as it was then and as it is now. I had faith then, and felt I was chosen to do the work. Now, my views of the world has changed - I feel I chose to be - but my answer, why do I work in eeducation, remains the same. Because, it gives me meaning: I do not seek meaning in a lifestyle, which is to be achieved through work, but I seek meaning in work. And, also, because, it feeds my sense of wonder, makes me go on a journey all the time, makes me learn new things and explore new ideas. The work I do makes a difference to others and makes a difference to me. It makes the world a better place, to me. It takes me not to fancy holidays but to remote places that I shall never go otherwise, makes me seek answers to questions I would know to matter, makes me dream of a world which otherwise would be impossible.

This is a hard thing to explain to those who has not been to the journey, stopped at those godforsaken stations, felt the discomfort of the hot evening and the tranquility of serendipity at heart. It is, as I see now, too remote for a world of defined goals and measured objectives, where one begins with the end of mind, where changing the world is a tag line and where people, as much as they exist, is a concept and something to be aggregated. I work in education for just the opposite reasons: For its unexpected ends and unplanned discoveries, where the world, full of noise, smell and possibilities, keeps changing as long as one works for it, and where people are an invariable presence, a force that makes the world, an end in themselves, a reason to exist and work for. 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Starting at Ground Zero

The last week - or slightly longer may be - was a period of great reset for me. 

I have been thinking closely what I am going to do moving forward. Indeed, there is plenty for me to do right now - an exciting project in development with a professional qualification body, an impending launch of a new education programme in China, an educational software project which seems to be gathering momentum, not to mention my own studies which just commenced - but this is still a point where a road has to be chosen.

Partly, this is because I said yes to too many things in the last couple of months, as I was trying to resettle into a domesticated life in Britain. I have allowed myself plenty of distractions, first the life of a bootstrapping entrepreneur and then being on the move all the time, and it was indeed a point when boring becomes desirable. I did want to have a predictable life, not because I am tired of experiments, but because I realised that I must do something significant now rather than dreaming about various big things and living my life through an unending series of compromises.

Yet, not knowing what that breakthrough project could be, I started talking to many people about many things, which, with hindsight, I now know to be precisely the wrong thing to do. Those who do breakthrough things, do not try different things, though they may explore different paths to the same thing: An insight I belatedly gained. Indeed, such wisdom is only gained through underwhelming realisations, as I did.

Indeed, I had such failures before and I can smell them now. So, yesterday, I walked away from an offer to lead a turnaround of an ailing business: Not because I fear such roles - in fact, my career could perhaps be described as a sequence of such roles - but because I am tired of the conventional projects in education. All that nonsense about emerging markets being naive and crazy about anything smacking of British tradition etc is so very passe for me that even if some desperate investors can put up with my skin colour (which is a serious handicap in that business), I am no longer interested in those superannuated business models. And, it is always a hard job to explain walking away from something which looks attractive in terms of pay and perks, particularly to well-meaning friends who seem to believe that I have no steady profession, and who, perhaps correctly, treat my zeal about education innovation more dinner table talk than anything real or solid.

But, while I tried to explain my lack of enthusiasm to a couple of very disappointed friends, it was also a penny-dropping moment for myself. They did not genuinely believe what I was saying - I was not in education to make a lot of money and therefore, the quality of the opportunity was important to me - because, and this is a question I should indeed be asking myself, if that was the case, why I was on the table in the first place, speaking to a few money-people discussing investments. One does not have breakfasts at Five Star hotels in London if one wants to discuss quality of education or opportunities of transformation: It must be, as one of the investors present helpfully explained, about 'commoditization of education'.

I am in no position to take a holier-than-thou approach, of course. I have spent all my life at that end of education, though the idea never crystrallised as dramatically before. And, it must be a number of things together, not least my own indecision about what I should be spending time doing, that brought to bear the existential crisis of the moment, and all the questions thereafter. 

So, my derived wisdom, the insight about the mistake in my ways: I must seek different paths to that one thing that I really want to do. The For-Profit route, particularly those with investors seeking a quick buck, would definitely take me there, something that I have already known but kept defaulting into. That I was having lots of different conversations parallelly is not, in this case at least, a proof my enterprise, but rather one of my indecisiveness. And, there, the penny has indeed dropped.

So, great reset it is. Next few days will be difficult, as I have to say a lot of No to lots of well-meaning people. But it will be such, and no other, as I must return to base and start again. Even when my friends are perhaps giving up on my ever achieving a breakthrough and started viewing my various adventures as drift (instead of the 21st century portfolio career as I see it to be), I must keep my head down and focus on that one big thing - of buiding a new kind of global higher ed, the E-School as I call it, that I have set out to do.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Education, Social Elite and Democracy

The role of social elite within a democratic society is usually resented, because of the republican ideals. It is a problematic concept, as most of those elites in our societies come down from the landed families of the past, except in societies which may have gone through a revolution, like China. The elite is a throwback from the past, a reminder of the past tyrannies and oppression, and worse, their very existence is a symbol of failure of the republican ideals. 

However, on the other side, there is this claim, empirically proven through experiences across countries and generations, that an elite class is needed for social order. Even the revolutionary societies in Russia and China had developed their own, replacing the Birth privileges with bureaucratic privileges, but nonetheless maintaining the asymmetry of power and access. In fact, the entire Bolshevik doctrine had, at its heart, a revolutionary elite, that will lead the masses to emancipation. 

The American Republicans, despite their worthy ideals, also envisaged anarchy without an elite. They may have detested the European style aristocracy, and anti-Federalists may have rallied against the Federalist plans for the fear that such an elite would emerge, but Jefferson and others were still Gentlemen Planters very aware of their privileged position. Their's would have been an aristocracy of intellect, an aristocracy nonetheless! 

The whole conversation about meritocracy is also based on our quest of a new social elite. While we may think privileges by birth and privileges through party rank may be repugnant, we would wish to find a secular criteria that allow us to create an elite in a fairer way. It may enrage the modern day advocates of meritocracy, but that idea very much came from the eugenicists, people who set out to prove the hierarchy of the races. And, while it has fallen out of favour, and such racial prejudices would be politically incorrect today, various measures of meritocracy would perhaps still show a racial asymmetry, though, as we know now, not because of brain sizes or any inherent attributes, but just because a social elite is a reality that already exists.

Having said this, though, the existence of social elites is not a self-evident fact but a social issue that needs to be discussed and debated. While one may see its persistence, the elite may often undermine a Democratic society and subvert the rule of law: For every revolutionary elite, there is a Stalin to follow; there is always a Von Hindenburg to undermine a Republican constitution. Christopher Lasch wrote persuasively about the Revolt of the Elites in America, and, one can see their persistent efforts to undermine democracies all over the world, including in big countries such as India. In fact, the elite everywhere has a new mantra - Development - and the doctrine that bread and work is more important than political and legal rights. 

This is the other side of the argument. The elite claims that they are essential for democracy and then say that political rights come in the way of development, which is more important. So, we may want the elite in a democracy, an aristocracy of intellect, but they inevitably look to undermine the democracy as they see it as a challenge to their own privileges. 

One way to look at it is that this is a fact of modern life and we can not do anything about it. But, such resigned attitude did not get us here. Progress did not happen on its own, we had to earn the progress. It is historically inaccurate to say that political rights and material progress can not coexist - it is a lie which has been tried and dispelled before. What can not coexist is material progress and an obstructive elite, and this has more historical evidence than the previous claim. So, the chief problematic of the social policy today should be, not what is to be done with the poor, but what needs to be done with the elite.

Indeed, that question was asked, and answered, rather brutally, in Mao's China, and a re-run may not be desirable. But there was a method in Mao's madness: He wanted to re-educate the elite. Indeed, this meant shipping people off to work in farms, but perhaps the message - that an education revolution is the key to integrating elites to a republican society - is valuable. 

Now, education systems in our countries, particularly the two- or three-tier education systems of the Anglo-Saxon world, is at the core of this democracy problem. The whole idea of such a system is to manufacture an elite. And, despite claims on the contrary, educating an elite means, as it did for thousands of years, developing an young mind uncorrupted by plebeian values. This model is now being exported, with context and without question, to all those newly democratic countries with fragile roots and rapacious business classes. Right now, education systems around the world are manufacturing a rootless elite and undermining democracies.

So, here is my point: The role of Social Elites in our modern, republican and democratic societies is a crucial and delicate one. We need an aristocracy of intellect, but always guard against perpetuation of privileges and corruption of republican ideals. Education is key for maintenance of this balance, to protecting our values and preserving our democracies. The current, limited and instrumentalist approach to education - that education is for a job and a job alone - is undermining our ways of life irreversibly.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trumping Democracy

There is so much being spoken (or written, or broadcasted) about US Presidential Election! I kept quiet, because I knew how embarrassing it is for my American friends and colleagues this discussion is. I am from a country which voted in a demagogue accused of genocide, and live in a country which just kicked the chair voting to undermine its own economic model: I know it hurts! 

But what spurs me now is the latest twist - the 'locker room' tapes and the outcry since then - as it gave me, I believe, something to add to the conversation. With Donald Trump's ascendancy, there was always this shock and the outrage, in media and in educated public: Now, it has spread across further, in the Republican establishment. The politicians are lining up on TV to do what politicians do, stating the obvious in a solemn and ridiculous way - "I have three daughters, a wife, five sisters and a mother" - denouncing Trump's bragging of his predatory ways with women! Everyone seems to think that this moment is extraordinary, this has never happened in American Election or in the Civilised world, and this would pass. And, this is where I thought to interject my cautionary note.

The point is that this is neither extraordinary, nor it will pass. One could say that it was never as shocking as this, but for an Eighteenth Century gentleman, that Jefferson, then "young and single", tried to seduce John Walker's wife, only to be spurned as it must be added, was news (which made newspaper headlines almost 40 years after the fact, in 1805). And, indeed, our ability to define what is extraordinary should be called into question if it is only now - after an year of enduring the racism and sexism of Trump - we have started to feel shocked! That the Trump campaign has dismissed the outcry as 'political correctness' is surely opportunistic, but as befitting of this ironic moment, indeed politically correct: That Trump was saying these things in 2005 is perhaps less significant than what he was saying on the Campaign trail in 2016!

And, it would not pass. There are plenty of examples of democracy producing an unexpected winner, and even if Trump does not win, he had surely skewed the political landscape. Just as Brexit vote made the openly reactionary Theresa May Government in Britain look reasonable, Trump's rise has already shifted the political platform and next time around, even Ted Cruz may look lovable. In this, perhaps, there is something we can learn about democracies: That it, by itself, can produce surprises - often does - and it is not what happens on the election day, but what comes after that defines its survival.

It would indeed be a tragedy if Trump strides out to give a victory speech on November 9th (which, incidentally, is the centenary of the now-forgotten October Revolution in Russia), though one would expect this to be otherwise, a customary concession call or, with Trump, a claim of a stolen election. But, if that happens, that may as well be a Historic moment, just like Hitler being sworn as German Chancellor, away from public view, on 30th January 1933. A casual reading of History would suggest that this was still a democratic moment - he was the sworn enemy of democracy but he still led the biggest party in Reichstag with the highest share of popular votes in a country with universal suffrage - and it is only afterwards he fulfilled his agenda, with the active collaboration of the Country's military, judges and professionals. Democracy did not fail itself on that day in January 1933, but it was presumed to have failed - and Hitler's murderous purges and campaign of terror was given way in the next 18 months in order to achieve a complete transformation of the state. 

We can indeed do better than that, and Founding Fathers of the American Constitution did foresee this eventuality. However, this principle of checks-and-balances was constantly being undermined, and particularly since the rise of the 'National Security' state under Presidents George W Bush and Obama. So, if Trump wins on November 9th, he would have more powers and precedents of abuse of Presidential Power than the Founders of the United States would have envisaged. In this, and not in Trump's misogyny per se, lies the greatest existential danger of American democracy. 

Sunday, October 02, 2016

On Time

Time is different at different places.

I am not restating the Theory of Relativity, but speaking more in social context. In fact, in the more practical sphere of business, this is a relatively unexplored issue. A source of much frustration, in fact, as the concept of time is assumed to be universal, based on which global deals are made and unmade. 

Time is an unspoken factor in globalisation. In the middle of all the tensions around globalisation, all the battles around identity and its preservation, the conception of time is a core issue, around which a battle of ideas is raging right now. It certainly deserves greater consideration than it gets now.

The job of writing brief histories of time should not only be left to cosmologists. The great historian, Fernand Braudel, spent a lifetime exploring time and space in history. But Braudel was mistimed, if we can use such an expression, as he was working on his groundbreaking studies of history and looking into la longue durée just as the World Economic structures were gearing up for unfettered globalisation, integration of China and India into global economy and a neo-liberal revolution focused on short term and measured time.

So, how is different conceptions of time possible? 

One part of the story of social time is technological, as maritime civilisations of Western Europe developed technologies of measuring time as a necessity - time is location in the middle of an ocean - and it permeated in other aspects of life. Another part of this story is institutional, the standardisation of clocks taking the function over from the Church Bells and taking over the rhythm of life through definition of market time. Yet another is personal and social, wherein a person's Experienced Time, the cycle of days and nights, the seasons, life and death, became subject to calendars and standards, and with industrial work, settled into a structure of weekdays and weekends, etc. 

The societies have experienced this conversion of time unevenly. There are large societies of people, agrarian and limited to local trade, which experienced time unevenly, without the necessity of a clock defining their being. The institution of time evolved differently in these societies, with the standardisation of measured time only came through the outsiders, the merchants, the adventurers and the priests, and created a multispeed society. Its personal and experienced time, keeping with the transformation of work from family-based to industrial and office jobs, and indeed from rural and semi-rural communities to cities, adapted to a wrap-around of measured time while continuing to be at the core.

While this continued to be that way, well beyond imperial control of the world, globalisation, in its attempt to impose an universal set of values and standards, now stirred up the hidden conflicts of time. And, on this conflict, more than one stance is possible. It is possible to see the hegemony of standardised and measured time as progress, a triumph of science and technology over superstitious dependence on religion. On the other hand, it is possible to see, and it is seen that way, a form of global control, an intrusion that shapes one's life intimately, recursively and irreversibly. And, despite the inevitable triumph of time's institutions, particularly in the cities and offices of the newly industrialised world, and even the adaptation of the rhythm of cultural and spiritual lives around the commercial calendars, the possibilities of rebellion remain potent along the hinges of time, It manifests differently, an undue deference to an astrologer, an over-the-top emotional commitment to tradition and family and even an unplanned, unreasoned break from career, but at the core, they express the conflicts of time, and its tenuous universality rather than the judgements we pass on so casually on the people living outside our concept of time - that they are work-shy, lack aspiration, and immature. 


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