Monday, November 28, 2011

The Subzi-wallah or Wal-Mart?

If you have ever visited India, you know the ubiquitous subzi-wallah – almost every corner features at least one selling fruits or vegetables, arranged enticingly, with customers picking and choosing the produce, while haggling about the high prices. But big changes are on their way – in all sectors of retail, as the Indian government has decided to allow foreign companies like Wal-Mart to setup shop. Does that mean that you will stop hearing the subzi-wallah yelling outside your window early in the morning? Probably not…

Link below:

The Subzi-wallah or Wal-Mart? | Tribe Desi Marketing & Communications

Friday, November 11, 2011

Education for Employability

(From Daily Post, November 9, 2011 ) 
By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

The Upanishads tell the story a young man who, arriving at a teacher's hermitage in the forest, knocks on the door.
'Who's there?' a voice asks.
'If I knew, I would not be here,' he answers.
More than two thousand years later, the purpose of education remains essentially the same - to know who we are. And that includes knowing the world of which we are part.
But more than others it is we, inhabitants of the land of the Upanishads, who need to revisit this question today and ponder over it. Day in and day out, someone is telling us that our education is not in sync with reality. That it should be 'job-oriented'.
The advice made sense a decade ago when several obsolescent courses used to absorb floods of students. The situation has changed pretty much since. There are too many 'job-oriented' courses now, most of them with too many seats. The problem is the students turned out by them are barely employable.
Yet how could they be employable when instead of thinking about them we thought only about jobs?
Those who unleashed the powers of capitalism two decades ago would have known that capitalism feeds on unmitigated change and innovation. They would have foreseen that continual re-skilling and re-education would be necessary. Or did they hit the road not bothering to know where it led? Perhaps there were more profits and greater comfort in producing only 'job-oriented' courses, instead of employable people.
In a world driven by competitive change and superseding, employability depends on the cultivation of a wide spectrum of abilities, the aptitude to source them across the bands, and the skill to intuitively shift gears between them. This is possible if education has put in the centre not the job but the person. It is the person who has to be prepared for responding to challenges of the job, to the challenge of new jobs.
Some countries understood this long ago. They were able to understand this because they decided not to deceive themselves. They acknowledged that the ostensibly useless thought and random creativity also had uses which no forethought and programme could substitute. They cherished specialization, but they did not encourage boundary-walling. And they opened themselves to lessons of history, not least the Holocaust.
We, on the other hand, have chosen to dump even the discipline of history like an unwanted foetus. And this at a time when history is bright and promising, like the infinite starlit sky.
One is dismayed by the self-imposed poverty of those courses in commerce and business management which are dumb on local, Indian histories of trade and commerce. One is nauseated by courses in hospitality and food that have nothing to offer in the name of native recipes and traditions of hospitality. And how many courses in media studies even glance at those popular, folk and underground communication practices that sometimes secretly and sometimes overtly shaped history?
In fact, media studies can just not do without historical consciousness today. Critique of the image divested of history (and so trapped in the entropic circle of boring sameness) can only be developed, as the media theorist and philosopher Vilém Flusser suggests, by interrogating the contemporary moment of the media as a moment of history. Education in media surely implies more than training for a job in the media. It also includes the ability to reflect critically and philosophically on the media. And that brings into media both history and philosophy - or brings history and philosophy out of media.
But that most derelict of the great disciplines today, philosophy seems to have been abandoned without a pang of remorse or prick of curiosity. This is the discipline which could have been central to the project of building our peculiar strengths in terms of cultures and knowledges. It could provide a foundation to our pedagogies across the disciplines.  Technocratic ingenuity and technological innovation too could find their finest pearls by diving into philosophy's depths.
Interdisciplinarity is not an indulgence that we may or may not consider. In the current situation, it is an imperative. True interdisciplinarity stands on the principle of free movement across disciplinary borders. But borders are not so much erased as 'greyed out'. Firm belonging to one's disciplinary territory is the precondition for a passport to venture across the borders. At the same time, interdisciplinarity demands a real venturing into other, alien terrains, not just a comfortable stroll in fraternal lands.
The problem with add-on courses for instance, which the UGC has been religiously promoting, lies in their being what their nomenclature says – appendages. They do not contribute to interdisciplinarity, but sidestep or postpone it. The tendency to see education as not in itself sufficient but requiring the supplement of 'vocationalism' is actually a symptom – the symptom of a deeper failure to take a larger, integral view of education. Unless we read the symptom for what it is, no remedies shall work.
 And we have to understand that lecture-centric pedagogies have outlived their early usefulness. Industrial society produced mass instruction pedagogies. Post-industrial societies need pedagogies that build on singularity and relationality. The emphasis has to move from mass instruction to hands-on work based on direct observation, first-hand interpretation, problematising and resolution. Education must invest more in the world as it is. It must see – confront – the world head on if it wants to interpret and change it for the better. There is much employability in this alone, considering how complex and difficult the world is getting by the day. Indeed, this is the kind of education that knowledge society (as it is ineptly called sometimes) needs.
We may reconfigure the education apparatus around student-centric projects which engage with the world in concrete ways. In our part of the world for instance, students must learn to understand and address the many crises brewing before them, be they of farmers, artisans, small businessman, or drug victims.  It is evil to treat our wonderful young people as mere 'human resources' that can be programmed to act productively for anonymous wealth-generating systems. For one thing, the world is more than its economy. For another, the people are more than mere resources. They are human beings. Education that respects the humanity of its subjects and treats work as the ability to shape the world and oneself is the only education worth the name. Anyone so educated is never out of work.
Education is an existential project, not reducible to some generalized technical activity. It should help us make sense of the lived, everyday reality. That reality would be unbearable, and utterly impoverished, if we lacked aesthetics and ethics to respond to its beauty and goodness.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

In Search of the Indian University

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma
(Published in The Daily Post of October 26, 2011)

What can we do to redeem our universities from the curse of sterility, banality and mediocrity that has befallen them? Before we ask this question, we might ask – what is the Indian university?

We speak of the American university, the French university, the German university, the British university, and now even the Chinese university. But the Indian university? It existed once upon a time, in places like Nalanda and Taxila. The distinctive modern Indian university just does not exist. The idea, the concept of the modern Indian university is just not there. Indeed, the university does not exist because the concept does not.

Until we begin to conceptualize the Indian university, nothing will help. Like a dim shopper who does not know what she wants, we will continue to run from shop to shop stuffing our bags with whatever the clever shopkeeper manages to sell to us. And we will feel cheated and disappointed at the end of the day.

In the 90s we turned to the private sector to redeem our higher education. Today we are looking to 'foreign education providers' from America and elsewhere. As if they will perform some trick and transplant a fertile patch of excellence amidst us. We forget that excellence is finally a homegrown thing.

In truth, we are tricking ourselves. We are deluded. And not innocence but pure vested interest is deluding us. We have chosen to deceive ourselves for our greater selfish good.

The policy makers may have their own reasons for trying to push up the low Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education. But their exercises in privatization have so far amounted to little more than statistical enlargement and a complicated wretched apology in the name of education. Is it not time, then, to set up an independent commission to assess the consequences of privatization before the foreign education providers arrive and add their own shit to the existing mess?

Over recent years, you will have noticed a great transformation in the education scene. Universities and colleges have begun to look like hotels and shopping plazas. I have sat in a university canteen which displayed, amid large video screens running non-stop dance numbers, the backlit image of a young couple locked in a passionate kiss. The overhead speakers played music so loud that it allowed no conversation over the table. The student is out, the consumer is in.

Elsewhere, the good old coffee house – the quintessential intellectual space for free dialogue – has been shut down. The new eating places discourage those who want to sit down and sip coffee over a simmering conversation.

The universities are ceasing to be the places against which you could see the surrounding world and its ideological landscapes and compromises. 

Once I went to inspect a college which had an air-conditioned lobby that seemed partly like a hotel reception and partly like a private bank. The multi-level ground floor had classrooms with glass-sealed windows and inlets for future air-conditioning. An average-sized room functioned as a library with some newspapers, a few magazines for housewives, a school children's dictionary, and some almirahs with third-rate, second-hand books. The librarian, a middle-aged woman from a neighbouring village, looked haggard and dusty but spoke gratefully of how the four thousand she took home every month really helped her family.

In contrast, the laboratory equipment shone under its fresh packaging, which had not been removed yet. And someone whispered it would probably never be removed, for the inspection teams do not stay for ever neither do they conduct surprise checks.

If the Principal's office was a picture of luxury, the Chairman's was the very architecture of opulence. But the teachers, all young, looked like faded flowers. Made to drudge from nine to five and beyond, required to 'fetch' a certain minimum quota of fresh admissions, not permitted to talk to each other and penalized if seen to be reading anything other than the course materials, they got anything between six to fifteen thousand a month, depending on the competition in this market of excess supply.

Private higher education in India has become an extremely profitable business for everyone except students and their parents. Owners of rice shellers, wine contractors, property dealers, all are getting into it as it promises many rewards. You become a philanthropist and yet make profits. You are rightly placed for political, bureaucratic and business networking. You shake hands with educators and justices. And you obligingly nurture the young.

Bankers are happy because doting parents and youthful dreams, mortgaged to them, are safest investments. Governments are content because rebellious young minds are kept occupied with things which do not ultimately matter.

A young man working with a company in NOIDA recently told me that during four years of his degree course he had received really nothing worth the name of education. I thought of misplaced expectations. What he saw as the failure of education, I saw as its very success. Until the young man perceived this 'success', he would not grasp how the education machine operates today and to what nefarious ends.

It is criminal to reduce education to part of the economic activity. Education cannot survive without autonomy which, albeit relative, must be protected against all kinds of economic fads and ideological winds. The most telling metaphor of erosion of the university's autonomy is the changing architecture of the university. In several campuses, buildings with glazed exteriors and central air-conditioning are mushrooming which resemble the looming towers of multinational corporations. The already notorious ivory towers are changing into towering ecological monsters, insensitive to the world around.

Crisis of the university's identity could not have proclaimed itself louder. How deaf and blind we must have become that we refuse to notice even the stark symbols made actually of concrete, steel and glass.

How long can we disavow the truth? How long can we evade confronting the festering crisis of identity of the Indian university? Kapil Sibal's statement – that with the entry of foreign education providers a greater revolution awaits education than that which swept the telecom sector – may have the flourish of a theatrical utterance, yet it makes little sense. Except, no doubt, that it shows how cheaply the word 'revolution' is nowadays sold. And, of course, one may also wonder how much bigger will be the scandals and scams of the 'revolution' to come.  

Why are false remedies being tried even as the crisis festers? The answer is obvious. The resolution holds no promises. It assures no profits. False remedies do.

In a country where gallons of ink have been spilled over tonnes of paper in pursuit of lesser truths, is it too much to ask for a comprehensive report on what our existing universities are specifically doing, in what ways precisely, with what exact degree of success or failure, and why?

The lineaments of the Indian university will begin to emerge as we put together the findings of such a report and try to make sense of it. The empirical truths gleaned across this vast and diverse country will deliver what we urgently need – a concept of the Indian university.

We must look inward, and microscopically, if we want to redeem our universities from the curse we have brought upon them.