Friday, April 29, 2016

Platform Thinking For Global Higher Education

I came across a deeply insightful article by Vivek Wadhwa pointing out that the most successful companies in Silicon Valley are not focused on selling products. They are instead creating enabling ecosystems for others to create value, and they are capturing a portion of that value. They know that the value comes from communities and conversations, and not from selling close-ended blackboxes, at least not anymore. 

In a different context, this is a message that companies claiming to 'disrupt' global education should take to heart. All they want to do is to sell those products - 'degrees' in most cases - structured as close-ended black-boxes. And, as the marketplace for such education offerings are becoming global, primarily with the growth of middle classes in Asia and Africa, the limits of this model are more and more visible. Education as an activity is deeply shaped by local cultures and preferences, and most attractive markets, such as India or China, already have a long tradition of education, a clear preference system and established local institutions. It is so much harder to come with a new and fancy product and replace what has been there for so long.

I often wondered why companies make such mistakes. Part of it hubris, coupled with a lack of appreciation of the local preferences. People in education are not known for their sensitivity to customer preferences - they educate them - and in most businesses, they are backed by bankers who make money by conjuring up demand from thin air. That a poor Indian or African student may have a view about education of their own seem implausible or absurd when seen from the vantage point of a London Conference Room. But, also, part of this is how all education has always been shaped: It has always been an end-to-end structure, with a bureaucratic control, labelled as 'Quality', locking all aspects of it down.

I have a big issue with this idea of 'Quality', which I shall mention here even at the cost of digressing. In International Education, 'Quality' is often an excuse, a lazy excuse at that. 'Quality' is the reason why courses are not made responsive to demands of employers and students, 'Quality' is why costs remain high, 'Quality' is why local partner opinions are trashed and 'Quality' is why we build all those splendid offerings which no one wants. 'Quality' as a bureaucratic tool of keeping things as it is, a smokescreen for not doing the thinking, is at the heart of this black box thinking. After having listened to many excuses of 'Quality' for inward-looking education offerings and invocations of the Q-word as something that can not really be explained, I have come to see 'Quality' in the bureaucratic sense of the word as the enemy of 'Good Education'. 

But one has to remember that a company like Apple or Google care about Quality as much as any navel-gazing college in the world. But in their world, Quality is not about talking down to the customers (or, the developer community in this case) but to be responsive to them, to work with them. Quality, in this case, is not the official sledge-hammer, the conversation stopper, as it is in Education, but the enabler of engagement and conversation. And, this open approach, indeed, lies at the heart of all platforms.

But, apart from hubris and the excuses of 'Quality', there are other reasons why so many new education companies, designed to be nimble-footed, still stumble. This is to be found in the mantra of 'disruption': The underlying assumption that all education investors make that the education structures are broken and must be replaced. Therefore, the back-box, the claims of a new kind of education to replace all other kind of education - the 21st century equivalent of the original Macintosh that we continue to hawk!

But the education system is not broken as far demand for it is concerned. People go to college more than ever. If anything is spoiling the quality of education in any of the emerging countries, it is the abundance of demand: There are just so many students who will come regardless of what the college is offering. This is hardly the ideal setting for disrupting an industry, particularly for global businesses which have higher overheads. 

'Disruption' is sexy, but there is a certain value in looking for its plain cousin, 'Enabling'. What about those innovative education companies which enable the colleges in emerging world do things they otherwise can not? There are plenty of things colleges can do with: Connecting with employers, finding good-quality study abroad solutions, access to experienced mentors, etc. How about creating plug-ins that solve any of these problems?

Finally, also, there is the question of technology. I get the feeling that most companies talking education innovation focus on technology not because technology builds a better education proposition or that technology is the only way to achieve 'scale'. The reason they use technology is because their business templates, and that of their investors, are built around technology business models. The effect of this is that they seem to throw technology at problems which can be done better through human intervention, and where, technology, with all its army of know-it-all consultants, actually costs more and creates poorer solutions. In education, the more successful (and sustainable) businesses have actually built around human support and interactions and a fairly old method called franchising, and any of the technology-based disruptors are yet to match the success of those models. One could say that they are indeed playing Uber - making a long bet for the day when technology-based education becomes the norm - but I am not sure these companies would last the bursting of the inflated private valuations, which will inevitably happen when money starts becoming tighter.

My favourite theme is, of course, the education-to-employment transition. This remains a big problem. At least three quarters of students doing a degree in a country like India do not get a job after this. This is big, hairy figure that focuses minds. The common answer is - let's build an education proposition, a better degree, that will solve this problem. Great idea, but it ignores some crucial information. That 75% of the students do not get a job has not stopped other students from going to college. They are going to college, in greater numbers. Indeed, there are other social reasons, outside the job, for going to college. The claim that one has a better degree simply because it would get more students jobs - particularly if this is coming from outside India - is not an easy proposition to sell. 

But imagine a platform instead which allows these colleges to get their students jobs: A sort of a plug-in, that can work with existing colleges and get them access to employers. And, it is not simply about creating an employability class, which we know does not work. But, one could instead think of a platform that connects the employers' recruitment teams looking for talent and institutions with pool of students, and everything inbetween, drawing value from 'enabling' the connection. This makes it work better with local demands and preferences. A platform that does not seek to make redundant neither the employers' recruitment staff nor the colleges supplying the candidates, but rather enable a different kind of conversation between them and allow them to create new possibilities jointly together. The quest for 'disruption' diverts attention from such possibilities altogether.

This is an example, but consider the success of companies which offer University Preparation or Study-Abroad Solutions, and do it in a people-intensive manner, in conjunction with existing institutions and within regulatory framework, and some absurities of the education disruption talk should become obvious. On this, I rest my case on building platforms, enabling the current education system meet the emerging expectations and serving the learners better.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Two Ideas of Nationalism and Rabindranath Tagore

That Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Bengali Polymath, Nobel Laureate and thinker, is one of the key influencers behind the idea of Modern India, is often a contested topic. Tagore is known for his literature, his Nobel Prize and for his authorship of Indian National Anthem (and, for that matter, the national anthem of Bangladesh, and even the national anthem of Sri Lanka, on which he had a direct influence), but much less for his political activities. In fact, other than the renunciation of Knighthood in the aftermath of Jallianwala Bagh massacre, which would most likely be counted as an empty gesture by an intellectual in Modern India, he was known for his distance from, rather than his support to, the Indian National Movement. While the leading figures of Indian National Movement, particularly Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, were close friends of Tagore, many other equally influential figures, like Subhas Chandra Bose, rejected what he called 'Vacuous Internationalism' of Tagore. Two other political groupings, the Communists and the Hindu Nationalists, which opposed the Indian National Congress and mostly cooperated with the Colonial Administration leading to India's Independence and Partition, and have since become significant political groups, often accused Tagore of collusion with the Colonialists, and called for scrapping the National Anthem at various times because, as they claimed, it was meant to have been written in the praise of the British Emperor. All this makes silence, rather than analysis, a safe strategy to deal with Tagore's politics, and treat him as a 'poet' rather than a political thinker of any significance for Modern Day India.

However, those who would take him seriously often classify him either as a cosmopolitan thinker, and a man out of his time. This is somewhat kinder than the version that surmised Tagore had nothing serious to say. These commentators focus primarily on his lectures during his tours to Japan, China and the United States, which were later published together in the book form as 'Nationalism'. These lectures aroused strong reactions among its intended recipients - they made the Japanese and the Chinese angry and irritated and disappointed the Americans! Apparently, Tagore was being both complex and out of time laying a claim to universal human spirit and castigating nationalism as a narrow quest of exclusivity at a time when nationalism was a rising force, a potent identity that could unite poor and disadvantaged nations against colonialism's global dominion. Some Chinese intellectuals, including some of Tagore's friends and correspondents themselves, concluded that nothing better could be expected from a poet from a colonised nation: Indeed, they saw, in Tagore's rejection of nationalism, the reason why India remained poor and subservient.

Later political appraisals of Tagore have revolved around these lectures of nationalism, and have taken a kinder view as the follies of extreme nationalism became clearer with time. Later historians have given him credit for being prophetic, though that did not absolve him from the mistake of misreading the public mood at the time. The Indian Communists too, found here something they could love in Tagore, particularly as the claim that Lenin read and admired these lectures got traction. However, their appreciation was eclectic - they could never be wholly at ease with Tagore's claim of universal human spirit and his aspirations of harmony - and they usually classified the unacceptable Tagore as 'complex', a poetical rather than a political thinker.

One could indeed say that the very enterprise of attempting to understand Tagore as a political man through a single published book is a misdirected effort from the start. As a man born in the immediate aftermath of the Sepoy Mutiny (1856) who lived to see the rise of Indian National Congress and its struggle for Independence, who wrote prolifically and was a footloose traveller, Tagore wrote many things with direct and clear political messages. His activities, not just those of early participation in Political Action against the division of Bengal (1905) and in various sessions of Congress, then a loyalist organisation, but his correspondences with Japanese and Chinese leaders, his affiliation with Pan-Asian thinking, his enthusiasm about Russia and even with Mussolini's Italy for a short while, and indeed his various correspondences and interviews with leaders of men from around the world were all deeply politically significant. And, despite its enormity and variety, there was a clear unity in Tagore's message, which is, paradoxically, somewhat lost when seen through the prism of a single work, 'Nationalism', a product of its time and context. While this is a clear enumeration of the dangers of nationalism, it is limited in its definition of what this means for a person caught in a political moment, between competing affections and identities. This Tagore accomplished elsewhere, in his magnificent novel 'Gora', the plays which grapple with questions of authority and identity, the later novels 'Char Adhay' ('Four Chapters') and 'Ghare Baire' ('Home and the World' in translation), all of which place the political reality of a colonised nation and the question of political action in the context of individual ethic of living, re-conceptualising, as I shall claim, a different idea of nationalism than one we are accustomed with. The limited focus on 'Nationalism' - and the simple message that Tagore was an 'internationalist' rather than someone grappling with real issues of India of his day, of the urgent questions of political action which needed straight and narrow answers - allows us to obscure Tagore's contributions to the idea of India behind the appearance of a 'Poet' and a 'Mystic'.
To Think about Tagore as a political thinker, one needs to start by recognising that he was a practical and social man, deeply engaged in Education Reform, a 'Founder' - of an university and a successful publishing enterprise - and someone who had to deal with his own realities of a reformist religion. The image of Tagore, a poet hand-fed by the empire with accolades and awards, or a visionary disconnected from the ground realities of his time, are both inventions of a later time, a product of a deliberate political agenda different from ideas he stood for. And, these 'ideas', the plural is intentional, remain at the heart of the Modern Indian Republic, and misunderstanding or undermining them as either complex or impractical leads us down the path of single agenda politics and the existential danger they represent to the state we built.

Where we miss the point about Tagore's political ideas, I shall claim, starts with confusing two distinct ideas of nationalism that we commonly use. One idea starts with distinctiveness of a people, a definition of sameness through language, religion or some other historical roots, an 'Imagined Community' as some Marxist historians would call it. The other idea is of a shared culture, as Ernest Gellner would lyrically write about: He claimed he could not write about nationalism unless he was able to cry, with the help of a little alcohol, over Bohemian Folk Songs. Indeed, the two ideas may sound one and the same, they are not: If they were, origin stories would not have such a spell on nationalist politics and we would not spend so much time and blood on figuring out who originated from where (Dr Gellner was Jewish after all). Despite Tagore's clear renunciation of the politics of exclusivism, he would be perfectly at ease with the concept of shared culture. Indeed, he would write great lyrics about what India means and what being Indian means, and one of these very songs, full with the imagery of 'dormant nationhood', so popular with nationalists of all hues, have become India's national anthem.

This distinction, if it appears complex or non-existent to some people, would perhaps be clearer if we appreciate that these two concepts stand on two opposing ideals of living. In the first, the notion of a distinctive and original people belong to a land, the land exists for the people: It is the people who define the land - 'India for Indians', or more lyrically, the corner of the foreign field which will be forever England, in Rupert Brooke's vision. In the other, it is the land which shapes its people: This world is not centred on a distinctive people, but it is a land, shaped geographically by its rivers (Indus, in particular), mountains and seas (Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, drawing civilisational boundaries). In Tagore's vision, there is a mantra of this land in-between, which accepts all comers, melts all cultures and religions into Indianness. In the Heideggerian world, this is the attitude of 'Care', a symbiotic link of people and the land, rather than the 'technological attitude' where the land existed for, and was defined by, its people.

Classifying Tagore as an 'Internationalist' denies the possibility of this alternative idea of nationhood, and puts us on the slippery slope of single identity nationalism and the elusive and imaginary search for who came from where, when. It rejects the possibility of building that relationship of 'care', and pushes us to an ethic of self-centredness and extraction. Tagore's rejection of political action of his time was not rejection of love for his country and of his people, but rather of the expediencies of political action and compromises of the ethics of living that comes with it. In his construction, patriotism, the love for one's country and shared identity, is an ethic of living, whereas Nationalism, a political strategy to forge a common bond through definition and exclusion of the other, deeply inimical to the common human desire for cooperation and culture. If this vision is deemed to be impractical and poetic, one may point to the widespread disillusionment with political expediency all over the world and the reality of disenfranchised individual to appreciate the practical significance of individual political action based on a love of one's own world. Denying Tagore has anything useful to say about politics is accepting an unnecessary limit to our moral and political imagination.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Mind The Gap: What Government Policy Does to 'Skills'?

'Skills' is big on government agenda, particularly in countries like India where 69,000 people turn 25 every day. Given that only a few hundred thousand new jobs are being created in India every quarter, this means an alarming proportion of these 6 odd million people joining the ranks of the unemployed every quarter. 'Skills' is the panacea that the Government proposes, to enable a large number of people to be economically productive, either through employment or small enterprise. India is big in skills discussion, simply because of the size of the population and the problem, but many other countries are wrestling with the same set of challenges too, particularly those with expanding, and consequently young, population, and limited industry.

This is an urgent social problem and the government intervention should be welcome. To this, even David Cameron's Conservatives seem to agree: Apprenticeship policy receives prime time attention in the UK and one tax that his generally tax-cutting Chancellor of Exchequer did not blink imposing is an Apprentice Levy, a 0.5% levy on payrolls imposed on corporations of a certain size. The idea is to create a pool of resources so that young people can be trained and participate in the workforce: And, by common consent, businesses, principal beneficiaries of a skilled society, should be made to pay for it.

Despite my deep interest in skills development and professional education, I have generally steered clear of any involvement with any Government scheme. When I mentioned to someone that my aversion of government bureaucracies trying to run Education and Skill Development spring from my left-liberal leanings, he pointed out that this is more like a conservative instead. However, conservatives everywhere loves skills: In fact, skilling is a conservative mantra, and that the current chatter, even among Centre-Left governments, about skills and skilling indicates a general acceptance of the conservative point of view. I say this because for any left-leaning person, people are not resources, they are just people. They need to be educated, not skilled. They should be allowed to reach their full potential, and not condemned to their station in life, as canon-fodder for some employer.

That the Centre-Left governments, and indeed Centre-Right governments after them, make such a big deal of skills only indicates that the Conservatism is currently 'eating the world'. The Government involvement in skills undermines the government involvement in public education. And, as I have argued elsewhere, Government getting into skills actually de-skills a society, by creating perverse incentives and altering the playing field So, apart from my key political argument about skills and skilling, which I see as a de-humanising term, here are some of the other things we can see when governments 'become serious' about skills.

The Government intervention in skills shifts the initiative from the parties usually involved in skills development, employers and trade unions, to Government authorised training providers, which are, at best, bureaucratic organisations trying to reduce the process of education to a simple enough checklist, and at worst, fraudsters scamming yet another chunk of government money. A case in point is India, where the Government poured a significant amount of money for 'skilling', but this has led to general collapse of skills development in India instead. The Indian computer training companies, which reached great heights in their heydays in the 1990s and led the world, have lost their shine and became dependent on government handouts instead, and the story, instead of being one of social mobility and progress, has been of ghost learners, obsolete curricula and of late, after the Government insisted on more accountability, of biometric frauds.

So, government mandated skilling, for me, is another form of government violence, an act of definition that limit the agency of individual learners and turn identities to some sort of 'beneficiary'. The burden of bad training soon shifts to poorer people, who are labelled as lazy for not taking up the most inappropriate opportunity given to them. As the attempt to force them into jobs that neither existed, nor they understood anything of, fails, they are branded guilty, and in some part, they accept the guilt for failing to take the opportunity. And, in the meantime, Higher Education, categorised as a wholly different thing, can continue its business unaffected by the huge social exclusion in its wake, and can continue to argue that participation in economic life is not their business.

Given this experience, I reject the argument that Government funding of skills is designed to create a level playing field. The very act of definition of skills outside education should be treated as a deliberate policy to restrict human development, and delinking the community from the development of the individual and adopting a mechanistic view which is destined to fail for the recipient. All the 'skills agenda' is about maintaining a given social structure, rather than creating social mobility. Government can do a lot by funding education, encouraging research and in maintaining a forward-looking regulatory structure, but trying to define 'skills' and dictating who should go to skills and what skills is clearly an oppressive act.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mind The Gap: An Education for Employment

I have spent the last four years working exclusively on the faultline of education and employment, and it is time to take stock. 

I could perhaps claim that I have been doing this for much longer, indeed, my entire working life of 23 years, except for a couple of years when I was exclusively focused on learning in employment, or corporate training, as it is called. All my work in IT Education in India and then South and South-East Asia, to build English Training Centres globally and even the quest for a new kind of Business School in London, the point of all that was an employment for the learners. The starting point of this reflection is to recognise the distinction between what I did then, and the work afterwards, as I stepped outside employment and tried to set up U-Aspire and then took on a project to establish Knod in Asia: This was about looking to solve the problem, exclusively and with singular focus, rather than theorizing about it.

This distinction is important as it illuminates what I was doing wrong. This should perhaps have been clear to me previously, and one moment in particular, in India in 1998, when I took on myself the job of finding employment for a group of students who completed their courses with one of the training centres I was managing then. It was a successful enterprise and that work, outside my job description, had all sorts of positive impacts on my career: But I still missed the lesson. In fact, I learned precisely the wrong lesson, as I see it now. I went out, made lots of cold calls, and found placements in companies big and small, but, in the end, this was more about my sales and relationship skills than the education these students received. And, sure enough, I never paused and reflected that this could not have been a large scale solution, nor a sustainable one: I moved on, and did not know whether the next person who replaced me could find jobs for students who came along.

There were more such lessons. I focused on content and certification subsequently, making the assumption that currency of knowledge, and right certification, is the key for securing employment after education. This indeed became the pre-dominant idea in IT Education around the turn of the millennium (as the business of Y2K fixes were plateauing and dotcom bubble was building up), only to have suffered a crisis of confidence when the bubble bust. But, those ideas remained: When I was put in charge of re-engineering a business school in London in 2010, I was still spending time on getting great teachers, establishing and adhering to admission norms and creating libraries and textbooks. In fact, most of my effort went into these things. I created an Industry Engagement team, who started a regular evening event with employers coming to speak to students - and some people got jobs through the connections they made in these events. But, again, it was too few - left to chance and individual initiative! 

My more recent experiences, when the focus is exclusively on education-to-employment transition, expose to me the limitation of these standard tools - placement efforts, industry interactions, better certification, better content - in preparing employable students. Here is what I believe the issue is: Over time, perhaps with the creation of a specialised business function to recruit candidates - rather than business managers recruiting the employees directly - the companies have narrowly defined what they need (looking for a 'purple squirrel', as one recruiter called it), whereas post-secondary education, with expanded access and spiralling costs, tried to address these apparently impossible demands without changing its structure (refusing, in most cases, to acknowledge that employment should be a legitimate goal of education) but by relaxing its standards and allowing grade inflation. This caused many levels of dissonance, and the recruiters generally lost faith of education credentials, which led them to device their own toolkit to screen candidates, creating an even greater faultline between education and employment. 

Symptomatic to me is one aspect of this disconnect - the coinage of the term: Soft Skills! Popular as it is, it is one of those attempts at interpretation that came to mean everything, and therefore, became a meaningless term. The history of 'soft skills' is yet to be written, and I am not brave enough to try. However, I have come to believe that this term captures the disconnection most acutely, the 'soft' being an acknowledgement by the educator that they do not know (hence, a lot of them would claim to have a 'secret sauce'), while for the employer, the 'soft' stands for trivial or secondary. That fresh recruits often lack professional working practices and struggle to integrate in teams is undeniable, but employers seem to have to come to accept this as a fact of life, something that is remedied through work in their own environment (provided they have recruited right) rather than in any classroom. Indeed, there is a huge industry of 'soft' skills, dedicated at defining, developing and certifying it, and the employers have persistently commented on the lack of it in the candidates they recruit. However, one of the biggest paradoxes for someone working on education-to-employment transition is the recruiters' indifference to the claim that education can imbibe 'soft skills' - it rarely warms hearts and feature in 'hard' criteria for recruitment (except language skills, which is a hard rather than a soft skill by definition). Because of this, soft skills are always poorly defined, and despite the educators' enthusiasm, it remained a conference circuit term with little or no practical utility.

Over time, I have learned to steer clear of any discussion about the magic of 'soft skills' and rather explore another interesting idea: Working Identity! I found it in business literature, from INSEAD's Herminia Ibarra. Writing in the context of Career Change, Professor Ibarra argued that the best way to do this is not to take courses or read books or desperately knocking doors, but rather the pursuit of a 'working identity'. This roughly translates like this: To be a writer, start thinking like a writer, be a writer - Write! As I diagnose a deep disconnection between the world of learning and the world of work, I came to believe that the big problem for students is that they are not developing a professional identity while in education. Educators' job, of helping students construct an identity, is insufficiently done when we obsess with essays, text books and presentations, treating aceing examinations as the be-all and end-all! The promise of the magic of placement - that we would find you jobs - and even worse, the classes to teach soft skills, as if it can be injected in, undermine the development of this identity, rather than fostering it. That education-to-employment transition is less of a problem for those who work part time, or had good internships, tells us that the best way to tackle this is to help students develop an Working Identity, to work, to act like a professional and develop values of one. Conversely, the collapse of the part-time job market for younger students, the hoarding of good quality internships for socially privileged, most apprenticeships becoming a government funded scheme provided by education providers (rather than being driven by business requirements and offered by employers) and inward-looking diploma mills that treat the awards an end in itself are the reasons why we have such a big problem of education-to-employment transition.

One could argue that this 'Working Identity' is only about soft skills in another form: Yes, but language matters. The 'Working Identity' may sound academic, but it conveys the idea better than the meaningless, overused, soft skills. Besides, identity is more than skills, a form of being rather than of owning, something that to be developed rather than received. The focus of my work is now to create education experiences that help develop working identities, by bringing together work opportunities and learning and reflection together.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Enterprise School Idea

When I ran out of money in 2014, I decided to take a two year break, to revisit my ideas and see if I still feel them after a while. Sure enough, some ideas died down as their immediate context changed. But others persisted, and as life comes a full circle and I think about what I must do, one particular idea that I flirted with not just during U-Aspire days, but even before, when I was working to rejig a London college. This is to set up an Enterprise School.

An Enterprise School - and I may have to find a better term for it eventually - is not a school to make entrepreneurs, much less for handing out degrees or diplomas of entrepreneurship. One of the people I consider my mentor says that entrepreneurs do not go to school, and indeed, going to school to get a degree is somewhat anti-entrepreneurial. That entrepreneurship, at its core, is about a bias for action, can not be denied: It is about knowing, assessing and managing risks through action and commitment, rather than getting another degree.

Enterprise School, however, is about doing things the other way around. It is about creating Skilled Workers who are enterprising. I have a problem with the idea that only the hotshot entrepreneurs have to be enterprising, but rather see everyday enterprise as the main engine of our progress. This whole glorified 'entrepreneur' thing is becoming meaningless, as it is simply becoming a label for rich kids who can not run their parents' businesses. [They often give a whole new meaning to 'disruptive']

Instead, I believe we should celebrate everyday entrepreneurship as displayed by the Corner Shops, Taxi Drivers, Self-employed Electricians or even that guy in the Bank Counter (or the Airhostesses, the Receptionists, or whatever they may be), all those nameless 'little people' who live entrepreneurially, seeking out possibilities and following their heart, rather than being a cog in other people's ideas. Indeed, this is personal: I see myself as a successful entrepreneur, as despite my failures, compromises and false starts, I have always pursued what I liked, seeking to create the possibilities, the 'changes' that I would like to see in the world.

There are other reasons why I think 'Enterprise' should be at the heart of education. The most obvious reason is uncertainty - who among us can predict what shape work and businesses will take in a few years - and enterprise, as in finding opportunities and responding to them, is a key ability in the context. Then, there is also the question of not accepting status quo, but rather being an agent of change ourselves - because change steamrolls you if you remain passive and let it happen to you - and an enterprise mindset is again at the centre of this universe of agency and action.

Given this, while I am in love with this idea of an e-School, this idea is more about treating Enterprise as a value, permeating all the different things that the school may do, rather than as a skill. This may sound pedantic, but it is not: It must be made clear that the idea is not to teach (or train on) Enterprise, but to put it at the centre of all the things that the 'school' does. So, the e-School may not have, will not have, a 'course' or a 'programme' on enterprise or entrepreneurship; rather, all the courses or programmes that the school may have will have an enterprise context and enterprise as a value would be promoted and appreciated in everything that happens there. And, if such a thing is done, the broader issues about enterprise would hopefully come out: How does one become enterprising within a group, or community, context, as the learning will happen within a community? How to think about enterprise within pre-set rules, as there will be some, pre-defined norms within a school environment? 

These are important issues to consider about enterprise, at least when we treat this as a value. This is not just about taking advantage of opportunities for personal gain - that will be opportunism - but, to create social 'value' and to capture a part of that value (to paraphrase Henry Chesbrough's definition of Business Models). Besides, the point of e-school as I describe here is to make learners better workers, agile, imaginative and taking initiatives. As they will have to work within an organisation, it is important that they are equipped to work with other people, adapt and understand the values of their employers and work in harmony, while they try to better their jobs and lives.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Challenge of Public Education

H G Wells' point, that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe, is still valid. A hundred years may have passed, and the context may be different, but we are still just one step ahead of catastrophe: Consider the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in the United States, and one knows. 

Ok, ignore that! That was said in jest - and Education protects Civilisation from more than just Chaos. It often saves us from ourselves. And, while this quote is often brandished to make the case of making people 'educated' - putting them in classrooms and attempting to make them technicaly competent - such progress do not translate into better life, at least for the most of the humanity.

In fact, what Wells said is a sound economic argument, and more. Economists look at the paradox of technological progress, all these gadgets, cool apps and disruptive businesses, and the stagnant economic life of the majority, the unaffordable homes, detoriating healthcare and schools, innovation without impact, and say - it will get better! That argument is based on the idea of Learning Curve, that these technologies are too new, and therefore, can affect too few: But, with time, and education, most people would be able to take advantage of them, and life will get better.

Except that, this narrow economic argument makes some big assumptions about society and polity. For example, that we are seeking to make life better for most people. But that is not the case. If anything, we are trying to do the opposite. We are withdrawing from public sphere, average Middle Class life does not have any space for political action anymore. Indebted men, us, limit ourselves to servicing our mortgages and chasing private schools and retirements and ever greater loans, living the political activities to few, sly ones who serve the rich and talk about public service. As our search for better lives turn purely economic, happiness gets equated with possessions, aspirations are crowded out by celebrity fetish, we lose the vision of collective well-being. Therefore, technological progress becomes politically regressive, and we disconnect. As our civil liberties are stolen, our public services are decimated, our tastes are debased, we live on the dope of hope - that it would all fall in place as long as we have done better than our neighbour.

There might have been a time education brought hope against the despair of destruction: Certainly true for the time when Wells was writing those words, in 1918. But, now, hope itself is swindle. There might have been a time when education brought freedom, against the oppression of the tyrants; but long since freedom has made us lonely enough to be powerless. One could say, at this moment in civilisation, catastrophe and education have switched meaning: We are suddenly at a point when connecting with reality is potent, and solidarity is what can give us back the world we have lost.

In this context, education, one that keeps us ahead of catastrophe, is public education. A goal we abandoned, perhaps because we thought we had enough of it, in the pursuit of economic success, is what can perhaps save us from ourselves. The point is, either we understand what is happening to our world and participate in it, or live in the hope to face that day of eternal hopelessness - a day of absurd when, and if ever, we had a fleeting moment of seeking meaning of our lives, if at all. Making it freely, universally available was a goal so admirably achieved by preceding generations is now our responsibility, to keep it going, something we can not abandon to the interests of the rich and the famous. Taking up the cause of public education is the ultimate form of political action in our generation.

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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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