Books; People; Ideas : These are few of my favourite things. As I live between day-to-day compromises and change-the-world aspirations, this is the chronicle of my journey, full of moments of occasional despair and opportune discoveries, of connections and creations, and, most of all, my quest of knowledge as conversations.
Subscribe to this blog
Follow by Email
Designing universities for the 21st century
In the conference circuit, there are usually two mutually exclusive strands of conversation about the nature and purpose of universities.
First, there is this misty-eyed nostalgia about the universities being a timeless thing. It is a community of simple and sincere learners, all committed in pursuing knowledge for its own sake. It's an imagined community of medieval monks studying the Large Hadron Collider, or a group of brilliant scientific minds exploring the intricacies of Nichomachean Ethics.
Indeed, this is historically inaccurate, even without the LHC. This presents universities as places for disinterested learning, but universities always had a practical purpose. Most students went to university to find a profession and did things, like studying law or theology, which helped them to get into one. The other problem is the premise that the fundamental idea about the university never changed, which is also inaccurate and misleading. Universities through the ages reflected the prevailing economic and social aspirations and the idea of the university was determined by its milieu [and the university in India was never the same as universities in Europe].
Second, there is an alternative strand of conversation which takes this idea of mutability of the universities to an extreme, claiming that the 21st century has changed everything. In this formulation, the universities should no longer be communities, just individuals joining in from their bedrooms to consume content and share links with each other. The purpose of this ever mutable university is decidedly economic and based on a predefined idea of the individual within the technological universe.
This second type of ideas are beautifully presented in sleeker conferences. In this telling, the spatial aspects of the university melts into a website, emerging variably as office spaces or even play centres (and perhaps soon, as large casinos). I have been exploring the limits of this argument in previous posts (see The myth of 21st-Century education and The myth of 21st-century education: Preparing for the age of the machine) but it's important and necessary, for the completeness of the argument, to attempt to go beyond both nostalgia and salesmanship.
This new pursuit of the idea of university should not be finding a middle position or amalgamating the two ideas mentioned above. This is not about 'blending', bringing physical space and online together, nor it is about introducing humanities in Engineering curriculum. Those ideas, designed to reconcile the all too obvious social, economic and technological changes with the common-sense cultural groundedness essential to the university idea, usually go nowhere as they focus on form rather than function, focusing on the what question all too soon before addressing the why.
On the contrary, it may be more rewarding to start with why when we discuss universities in the 21st-century. Indeed, the free market libertarian stance here is that we don't actually need universities in the 21st-century. They see universities as just another institution, funded by the state through taxes that they don't like paying, and they argue about dispensing with the institution altogether and creating a more decentralised system of credentialing knowledge and accomplishment (think Blockchain). The weakness of this view is in focusing too much on the credentialing function of the university and not enough on the transformative aspects of the university education, which are less visible to the usually private school educated, rich, culturally privileged libertarians who hold such views.
However, their argument is helpful in exposing one fundamental, but carefully hidden, aspect of the excited talk of dematerialised university. At the core of it, there is this assumption about the function of the university - that it is about providing recognition of knowledge, rather than creating and disseminating knowledge. In this view, universities are not more than a government department conducting examinations and stamping degrees. In line with their overall ideological position - usually advocates of this line tend to libertarians or at least free-market enthusiasts - they see universities being the extended arm of recruitment of large businesses, testing and credentialing candidates who can fit the labour market as defined by these large, often global, employers. Now, though this is presented as a 'disruptive' and 'revolutionary' 21st century idea of the university, the only change underpinning this vision is a more limited role of the government and large businesses dominating the universe of opportunities; in that sense, this is more about status quo and one more suitable for late-nineteenth century gilded age.
At this point, it is worthwhile to frame the question 'what's the university for' to a more focused 'what does the university really do'. Sure, universities are complex institutions and they do a number of things, including, as in some countries, researching military technologies. But the key here is to exclude all special activities and see whether universities do more than just credentialing. I shall argue at this point that for a vast majority of students, the universities teach and transform their lives. It may not be easy to see it if someone went to Eaton and started attending their parents' social clubs before being weened off breast milk, but a majority of students universities are the first real community and the first stab at negotiating with the real world. And, these students count - because, at the least, the modern economy of consumption and debt are driven by them. Just like going back to medieval universities is not an option, sending this vast multitude of aspiring middle class men to farm work is not an option too. And, since, expansion of the global middle class is a late Twentieth and early twenty-first century phenomenon, this is an essential aspect of thinking about the 21st-century university.
There are two other special 21st-century challenges that the university must rise up to. The first is the breakdown of the community. The market-lovers announced the battle against the state, only to realise how important state power is to maintain the markets the way they want it to be. No state, no monopolies, so to say! Therefore, as they looked to preserve the market-making aspects of the state and limit its consensus-making mechanism (in vogue since French Revolution, otherwise called democracy), they destroyed the sense of communities and sought to redefine individuals as free-standing agent-consumers. The trouble is that the humans are social animals - communities are an evolutionary requirement for being human - and the void of democratic political communities was filled in by identity-based ones. This new landscape of identities undermine the states built around market, which are necessarily diverse, and created social friction that undermine both the state and the market. The universities are at an unique position, as potential providers of identity and aspiration, to restore the connections between individuals and their communities, restore the balance between economic and social political imperatives and help the learners negotiate multiple identities that all modern persons have to live with.
The second relates to technology and our profound sense of helplessness in the face of it. Technology can be a benevolent or malevolent force, and what it comes to be depends on the democratic control of its development. This is a specifically 21st-century phenomenon that some technologies have become ubiquitous and powerful enough to influence human beings in our social and political choices and shape their thought. The singularly most important function of the universities, therefore, is help their students negotiate their place in the technology value chain. Going to the university in the 21st century must necessarily mean being masters of technology rather than its consumers or victims.
Once we settle these three dimensions of purpose - to extend access to the newly emergent middle classes, to enable democratic communities and to empower the learners to be masters of technological landscape - a clear idea of an university as a transformation agent should emerge. It's credentialing functions, in this context, are really irrelevant - a baggage from the late twentieth century world of incremental changes and big corporations. Its form no longer becomes one or the other, but all - a continuous, life-encompassing engagement that seeks both in-person and digital participation of the learner. Being local becomes cool again and negotiating between markets, states and communities becomes the central function of the university form. I am ready to grant such a vision the 21st-century university label.
All else must be recognised as what they are, masqueraders.
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was,
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
A week into lockdown and things are beginning to change. Mornings are late, afternoons are lazier and evenings never end; meditations are filling out the time for Yoga routines and Netflix profiles are strewn with half-finished movies. This state-mandated, state-funded period of idleness is being likened to being called up to serve, but is nothing like that: Such a comparison is really an affront to the idea of service. Instead, this is just one long streak of panic; of the centre not holding and life not going on as usual. With the usual patterns and rules in suspended animation and business talk - and business - being rendered meaningless, space is opening up for unusual questions: Is Capitalism about to end? Is this the death of globalisation? Does it get uglier from here? My grandfather's generation would have scoffed at us. They saw through wars and pandemics. But, in fairness, we haven't had a life-ending crisis of our own. Notwithstanding the experiences of th
I wrote a note on Kolkata, the city I come from and would always belong to, in July 2010. Since then, the post attracted many visitors and comments, mostly critical, as most people, including those from Kolkata, couldn't see any future for the city. My current effort, some 18 months down the line, is also prompted by a recent article in The Economist, The City That Got Left Behind , which echo the pessimism somewhat. I, at least emotionally, disagree to all the pessimism: After all Kolkata is home and I live in the hope of an eventual return. Indeed, some change has happened since I wrote my earlier post: The geriatric Leftist government that ruled the state for more than 30 years was summarily dispatched, and was replaced by a lumpen-capitalist populist government. Kolkata looked without a future with the clueless leftists at the helm; it now looks without hope. However, apart from bad governance, there is no reason why Kolkata had to be poor and hopeless. It sits right
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
The ‘Why’ Question? Adolf Hitler was appointed the German Chancellor by President Von Hindenburg on 30th January 1933. This was an extraordinary turn of events. Previously, President Von Hindenburg consistently refused to appoint Hitler the Chancellor, despite the impressive electoral performance of NSDAP in July 1932, Hitler’s uncompromising demand of the Chancellor’s post and a repeat election in November 1932 which failed to break the deadlock. Explaining his refusal, Hindenburg wrote in a letter on 24th November, “a presidential cabinet led by you would develop necessarily into a party dictatorship with all its consequences for an extraordinary accentuation of the conflicts in the German people.” The question ‘why’ Hitler was appointed Chancellor, despite the President being acutely aware of what might follow, is therefore a significant one. The NSDAP had election successes throughout 1932, and was already the biggest single party in the Reichstag and various Landtags acros