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.
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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 appeared …
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 etal, 1991). Arunthanesetal (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 season, is …
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, as I …
In an earlier post, I pointed out that the application of 'platform thinking' in education misses the mark, as it fails to understand how value is created in education. Since this apparently contradicts my earlier enthusiasm for the university as a 'user network', this statement needs further explanation.
To start with, Clayton Christiansen's idea that the universities of the Twentieth Century needs to evolve from its current 'value chain' model - wherein its value lies in its processes - to a form of User Network, where its value emanates from its community, still resonates with me. The Value Chain model, with departments, examinations, textbooks and degrees, that we know the university for, is very much a late Nineteenth/ early Twentieth century formulation. And, indeed, one can claim that the universities were always communities, and its value came from being a member of that community rather than its end product - the degrees - for much of history. It …
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 inside …
I didn't write for almost three weeks as I was in India. The essence of my work there is to deal with employment creation. Part of my work is pro-bono - a city initiative focused on Industry 4.0 - and the other part is commercial, advising a large Indian corporation on the development of next-generation Skills training programmes. But the sense of crisis regarding unemployment cuts across scale and scope of my work and is a recurrent theme that pops up everywhere.
India has a really big challenge. About 2 million people reach working age every month in India, and even if only half of them are actively seeking employment, the few thousand jobs that the organised sector creates are woefully inadequate. India may be the fastest growing large economy in the world, but demonetisation of 2016 and poorly implemented General Sales Tax (GST) have hit businesses hard and froze up recruitment in many sectors. The widely promoted 'Make in India' initiative - the government's atte…
Smart presentations don't mean valuable insights. So it is with the current fad of presenting the vision of an all-new 21st-century education - through presentations, conferences and infographics - style trumps substance all the way through.
For, despite the claims of revolutionary changes in society and the workplace, the neat charts that lay down 21st-century skills next to the 20th-century one's show do not how different they would be, but rather how similar these are projected to be.
We are told that we have arrived at a fundamentally disruptive moment in history and we need new skills. So, we need, for example, communication and critical thinking, learning to learn and a host of other cool things. Indeed, many of those terms are very familiar to the educator: Many of those were around for more than two centuries, ever since the dreams of liberal education were spelt out.
When these slides were presented, I often wondered whether the point about critical thinking meant …
India's unemployment rate has reached a historical high and the government is panicking. It has rejected and suppressed the report and committed itself to inventing a new set of numbers. Members of the national statistical body have resigned, and the bad job numbers have become one of the worst kept secrets in its modern history.
As the government went down the road of obfuscation, it had also fooled itself believing that everything was fine. Once the statistical reports were questioned, the best explanation that the Head of the apex economic policy-making body could come up with was that Uber and other taxi-hailing companies have created millions of jobs in India. But then, the crisis is anything but hidden - walk on any street in any neighbourhood in any Indian city, and it is likely that you will see a few working-age people loitering, waiting or playing cards or carom in the middle of the day. IMF has recently warned that youth inactivity in India is highest among all develo…
Today is the Birth Anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore.
Tagore was the first global Literary Superstar, the first Nobel Prize Winner from Asia, whose flowing robes and the white beard helped form the public image of an Indian sage on the global stage.
It is somewhat peculiar what Tagore is now known for. Given that many people reading this blog wouldn't know his name, I had to mention his Nobel prize. Yet, Tagore was somewhat resentful - and said so when he was facilitated in Calcutta after receiving the prize - that his countrymen would only recognise him only after the West had given him an award. The alternative way to tell who he was - that he was the man who wrote the National Anthem of India, as well as of Bangladesh - is equally problematic: Not just this brings up an old controversy (see An Exceptional Man) but, at least in case of India, reminds one of a Cosmopolitan Republican Nationalism that the current Indian government so love to hate.
Robots were supposed to take over the universe. Singularity - the end of human history - was due in about a decades time. And, then, it was to be a different world altogether - one with self-knowing, self-replicating machines.
But it seems that future may have been postponed.
If there is anything that the history of technological progress should teach us, it should be that we ought not to believe in the excited predictions that technology industry loves to make. It is part of their style - all those world-changing predictions! There is a vast difference between the rhetoric of Microsoft's seamlessly connected world and the reality of clunkiness of Windows; E-Commerce did well but the prognosis far outstripped the performance, and these are only the good examples. No aircraft ever fell out of the sky despite all the warnings of the Y2K doomsday: It did create a multi-billion dollar outsourcing industry though. And, there are those who are still waiting for the day when everyone l…