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.