The paradox at the heart of middle class lives is this - it is an unending pursuit of mediocrity.
I know we want to see it differently. The great middle class dream is the pursuit of happiness, in Jefferson's classic formulation. Happiness is about setting an achievable limit and being content with that. Happiness is an end, it is about stopping at a reasonable level, and not aspiring for more. It is about being what you can comfortably be. Which is, seen the glass half empty way, mediocrity.
Surely, pursuit of unhappiness would not inspire anyone. But this is indeed at the heart of educational enterprise, of the idea of an examined life. It is about continuously testing one's limit, a pursuit to escape the comfort zones. Even when everything seems content, the point of education is to question the very contentedness, and to introduce perspectives, spatialities and temporalities: No happiness is complete, all encompassing and lasts forever, is the inevitable verdict of education.
One could see the pointlessness of education if one only pursues happiness. My lessons in this came early. When I was young, I was fascinated by history and I wanted to study it. I was told, by my parents and others, pursuing a subject that has little career prospects is pointless. My arguments were that I was quite good at it and perhaps I could become a distinguished historian one day. The unassailable counter-argument that I faced is that if I pursue a more useful subject, I could perhaps get a job even if I am just mediocre. This was evidently more certain.
Mediocrity is the most terrifying certainties of middle class life. If one wanted to be mediocre, he will be. It is the easy option - the happy option, one may call - and it comes to everyone without even trying. And, yet, this is one of those big paradoxes in life. As in driving, as everyone thinks that he or she is an above-average driver making for a statistical impossibility, middle class lives are built around desires for certainty and distinction, a combination designed to produce only a fragile happiness and bland variety of envy.
Mediocrity is also one of the biggest follies at this time in history. Books are being written with titles such as 'The Average is Over' and the certainty that my parents were seeking has proved elusive (unfortunately for me, I embarked on the journey of certainty in mid-80s, which was already the end of time; fortunately, I did not care). Yet, as herds must follow the herds, the sacrifices in the pursuit of certainty continues.
Benjamin Franklin said, in another context, that once we are ready to give up liberty to seek safety, we should deserve neither liberty nor safety. This could as well be a verdict on middle class condition: We, like squirrel in the headlight, are being caught out by the fast developments of technologies of automation and globalisation, and scrambling for more safety, not less. The imminence of the end makes us give up aspirations even more readily than was in earlier generations: In a world where creativity rules, we plug up our ears and peel our eyes on textbooks, limiting rather than expanding our vision, expelling rather than embracing any imaginations of being different. The average may be over - we make average the new special!
If you think this is not making sense, it does not. If you think this argument is going in circles, it is. Perhaps this is not new. But our new perspectives let us see the futility of the middle class life of chasing one's own tail. The whole enterprise appears a paradox - all the oneupmanship to be average - and the conversation turns to pointless pursuit of education.
Satyajit Ray makes one of his characters say, "Learning is futile as there is no end of it". But its sarcasm is missed, as we arm ourselves with a sufficient number of degrees and declare the end of knowledge. Education's point is a job, and one can spend rest of one's life discussing the increments and cost-to-company, goes our thesis: Just that it isn't, not anymore. The endless of education resurfaces all too often, redundancies are discussed more than perks and illusory nature of happiness becomes all too apparent for ever so many.
I grew up to reject mediocrity, but we are indeed condemned into one. Even if the veil is lifted all too often, even if I know that all certainties are illusory, even if I know the settlement into happiness is an act of wilful blindness, being middle class is to maintain an illsuion of certainty. And, to square the circle, the only certainty available to us is to be mediocre, to be un-special, which is the distinction to covet for.
And, education, in the condition of mediocrity, is inconvenient, if it makes us ask questions and push the limits, if it commutes our desire for certainty for a quest of understanding, and if this makes us wish to change the world rather than accept and live by its rule. Indeed, this is why we are inventing an education of convenience, one built around limits, a technical one concerned with skills of living in the world rather than questioning its existence.
This is as futile as it can be: We indulge a teacup storm and no more just as the epochal shifts hit the continents of the mind. Just as certainties disappear, we cling to an illusion of it. Just as the world is about to change, we cultivate a mastery of its affairs and commit to an obedience of its rules. We endeavour to be non-endeavouring, freeing ourselves to reach a limit and blindfolding ourselves in a search for treasures. The educators huff and puff, and their political masters even more - pretending a great effort and little yield - in the effort to keep the world the same.
Popular posts from this blog
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
There is no other city like Kolkata for me: It is Home. The only city where I don't have to find a reason to go to, or to love. It is one city hardwired into my identity, and despite being away for a decade, that refuses to go away. People stay away from their homeland for a variety of reasons. But, as I have come to feel, no one can be completely happy to be away. One may find fame or fortune, love and learning, in another land, but they always live an incomplete life. They bring home broken bits of their homeland into their awkward daily existence, a cushion somewhere, a broken conversation in mother tongue some other time, always rediscovering the land they left behind for that brief moment of wanting to be themselves. The cruelest punishment, therefore, for a man who lives abroad is when his love for his land is denied. It is indeed often denied, because the pursuit of work, knowledge or love seemed to have gotten priority over the attraction of the land. This is particularly
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
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,
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
In our age, the only way to be politically correct is to be democratic. This is a post-70s affair - those days, still, some people had alternative ideologies in mind. Those alternate ideas are dead and gone, long discredited, and it seems that we have only one system which can make people happy, free and live longer. So, we have this huge export industry of democracy, and democracy's warriors, which the American security establishment has lately become. The democracy's businessmen, the bond traders, the media barons and the Hollywood types, are feted everywhere. The consensus is deafening and dumbing. It is indeed awkward to ask now - whether democracy is the right system for every society. It indeed should be. Collective wisdom is better than individual autocracy. In societies where democratic elections have been few and far between, the popular vote has demonstrated the extra-ordinary political savvy of the usually disinterested masses. Democracy has proved to be an excell
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
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.