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Friday, June 27, 2014

Neoliberal education, and its likely future

The Statesman of Calcutta recently carried a deeply disturbing essay written by a former professor at Gokhale Institute, Pune (one of those few places left where they still apparently try to teach economics proper rather than just another branch of applied mathematics, designed to train one more brand of technician rather than thinkers). It is about which way ‘education’ has been going all over the world. Click on this and then this.

It is a dense essay: it will need focused ploughing through. Don’t read it when you are busy and distracted.

Those who have been reading this blog all these years cannot fail to note how many of the writer’s ideas resonate with mine, as articulated in all the essays clubbed under the label ‘education’.

Someday those essays of mine might come out together in the shape of a book. Maharatna’s article is the sort that I would like to use as part of my references. Hence I have ‘bookmarked’ it here, to be looked up maybe many years later.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Others and us

I love to see that other people are thinking the same way I do about matters close to my heart. Here’s an article by Jug Suraiya in The Times of India that a pupil in my current class sent me the link to, and another, related one, which both Navin Rustagi and Rajdeep Seth thought fit to draw my attention to. Navin is doing a post-doc in math in the US, while Rajdeep teaches English in Japan. That sort of thing does not stop them from thinking about other things, including civilisational issues. Thanks, Pritam, Navin and Rajdeep.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tough steps in the offing?

Good to hear that the new PM has announced/threatened early in his tenure that the people will have to put up with some ‘tough decisions’ if the economy is to be put back quickly on a high-growth track. I am all for tough decisions, only I remember Gunnar Myrdal writing two generations ago that the Indian state has always been tough with the have-nots, and treated the haves with kid gloves. Let’s see what being tough might mean:

Cut subsidies? By all means, but let it start with subsidies that pamper the upper middle class and the rich, such as those on cooking gas, and diesel fuel for fancy cars, and government-run universities, and near unlimited expense accounts for senior government officials and corporate honchos alike (remember, the rest of us not only have to earn our daily bread but pay taxes for it).

Raise taxes? Sure, but start with a special income-tax slab for those who earn, say, above a crore a year. And how about a luxury consumption tax of 50% on five-star dinners? The Indian rich have always been among the most lightly taxed in the world. Then listen to them scream: it will be music to the ears of at least half a billion other Indians who can  be given more bijli-sadak-paani-makaan with that kind of money.

How about really doing something to bring home the fabled hoard of black money that the super rich have stashed away in banks abroad? It is alleged that the amount involved could wipe out India’s entire foreign debt at one stroke!

I am sure that opening up many sectors of the economy to competition domestic and foreign would be on the whole a good thing – insurance and banking and retail and education and healthcare, for instance – but given the huge potential for ripping off the consumer if history is any guide, how about giving our consumer protection laws some real teeth? CEOs should know that spending half a lifetime in jail is always possible if they try any funny business. Surely we could do with fewer Ramalinga Rajus, Subrata Roys and Sudipto Sens? As of now, the system protects them too well, not least because there is so much public adulation and awe of anybody who has managed to make a big pile somehow. And by ‘public’ I don’t mean just the illiterate riff-raff: ‘journalists’ warn solemnly how arresting William Pinckney could seriously hurt the economy, drawing their wisdom from people who dine with Pinckney at the same clubs, or from economists in the pay of the same…

I can list offhand a dozen more tough measures that will do us good. I am sure Mr. Modi can think of many more. Question is, will he have the gumption to take those steps? He might do well to remember that when ‘experts’ say it is essential to turn the economy into a lean and mean machine, they take good care to ensure that their own dinner will not be affected. As John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out, Milton Friedman, the arch-doyen of laissez faire economists, never once in his life suggested that the salaries of university professors like himself should be subjected to the cruel vagaries of free market competition. It’s only those who are already lean if not mean who are always called upon to tighten their belts a little more for the ‘greater good’. That is not progress. There used to be a word for it: barbarism. Yes, that’s the way the world works by and large, but who said the world is a nice place?

P.S., June 22: I am delighted to see that the new government has implemented the long, long-delayed decision to hike railway fares, even if in a rather small way. Good beginning. First big public decision in a month, but way to go, Mr. Modi!

P.P.S., July 01: In this article, Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri has given a very timely and dire warning of what could be the shape of things to come. He deserves to be read with the closest attention.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Where are the teachers?

Only last year we heard Manmohan Singh bemoaning the fact that not one of India’s institutes of so-called higher learning ranks among the top 200 in the world; now we see the incumbent President of India (himself a most uncommonly erudite man) doing the same. In this context, I find it remarkable that Sir Ashutosh Mukherjee, in the capacity of Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University, had lamented the ‘isolation and stagnation’ in academics almost a century ago (long before Amartya Sen had gone to college, or I)! What has changed, if not for the worse, though India churns out several million college graduates a year today?

Very closely connected to the issue of perpetually falling standards in education, from KG to PG, far more serious than lack of funds or infrastructure I have always held, is the lack of competent and dedicated teachers. If anything, things have become worse over the last three decades: despite the considerable hike in salaries (and despite the fact that many private tutors earn very sizeable incomes – certainly much more than the average IT worker, bank officer or journo can aspire to), very few of my brightest ex students even consider becoming teachers, especially at the school level, where the foundations are laid and futures are made. So I am more than a little pleased to see that even the new Prime Minister has gone public saying that ‘good teachers are one of the biggest needs of society’, and he has ‘rued that there were very few available’: see this news item.  Not that it will make the slightest difference – children and parents alike are convinced that what matters is a combination of reasonable (not great-) pay and slight requirement of learning, skill, patience and hard work, therefore if one good student opts for a teaching career, ten thousand will want to be engineers or hotel managers or stringers for TV…making even 100K a month as a private tutor at home, one’s own boss and everyone calling you ‘Sir’ is a vastly better career proposition than slogging for 40-50K (or even 100K) as an insignificant cog in a vast corporate wheel in Bangalore or Mumbai, but I guess the only youngster I have really convinced is my own daughter.

Which brings me to something that our Chief Minister said in a public speech the other day. She is one of those brave politicians (or driven by desperate circumstances) who can take the bull by the horns. She has candidly admitted that it is not within the government’s power to provide millions of new jobs every year, so young people had better look out for themselves, and there is nothing shameful or pathetic about self-employment: a lot of hardworking people are doing  very well indeed, she said, citing the example of a telebhaaja (fried savouries) vendor in her own neighbourhood, even if you forget arguments about the dignity of all labour. What I found imbecile and risible in the same news article is that some ‘professor of marketing in a Calcutta based B-school’ has remarked ‘at a time highly educated students are suffering because of lack of employment opportunities, such comments are extremely insensitive’. Let us take this comment apart, piece by piece:

1.      ‘Highly educated’ students? 90% of those in the age-group 18-24 who are attending some private engineering or management school (the kind where this kind of oaf can be a ‘professor’), I happen to know, would make pathetic cartoons of themselves if they were asked to teach any subject to kids in class ten.
2.      ‘Suffering’? These kids are the most pampered generation the planet has ever seen, the type whose parents buy them bikes, smartphones and seats in private colleges – what are they ‘suffering’ from, except maybe obesity and boredom?
3.      How much less would they ‘suffer’ if instead of taking up some sort of self-employment they became shopfloor supervisors in Big Bazaar, or insurance policy sellers, or cybercoolies, or ‘professors’ in private colleges who – I happen to know – are frequently paid less than government schoolteachers and treated like slaves by the owners?
4.      Why ‘at a time’? Of course this ‘professor’ and others of his ilk are history-illiterate, but it just so happens that Indians have been suffering from ‘lack of employment opportunities’ for at least four generations. Only, strangely, there are far more Bengalis among them than Biharis, Punjabis, Gujaratis, Marwaris and Sindhis. Something to learn here? What might this ‘professor’ say?
5.      Why is it less glamorous or respectable to be a roadside dhaaba owner who makes several lakhs a month (there are many in Kolkata, and I am sure in all the other metropolitan cities) than to be a ‘professor of marketing’, who basically teaches young people tricks to fool people into buying things they don’t really need? (think: do you need to market insulin?)
6.      What is ‘extremely insensitive’ about advising people to stand on their own feet instead of expecting parents and the government to do things for them all their lives? Is it actually a fact that if a lot of youngsters got interested in fending for themselves instead of wasting a few years in a run of the mill B-school, a lot of ‘professors’ like this one would lose their jobs (is it really a job? Look up this old post of mine…), and that is what he found most frightening to contemplate?