Wednesday, January 19, 2011

...And perspective for all

Within Western academia – and also the modern Indian intellectual tradition, pressed under the weight of its colonial inheritance – there is an unfortunate tendency to view knowledge as the sum of discrete parts. Even as rationality underpins all logical discourse and debate, the sciences are treated as wholly detached from the humanities and the social sciences. Any mixing is frowned upon by the tradition-bound academic establishment as uncouth, worse trendy.
This phenomenon ought not to be confused with the fact that the same research question might be pursued in both a department of urban studies and a department of electrical engineering; an ostensibly bipartisan exercise during which however the other’s theoretical perspectives are usually ignored. Such analytical approaches from different angles also inadvertently highlight the arbitrariness involved in creating and naming such departments (and to an extent, disciplines), which may depend on how much funding – internal or external to the university – is made available.
The Protestant work ethic has raised efficiency in countries like America to the level of art. Every division in academia serves a purpose. As the sociologist Andrew Abbott argues, discipline exceeds department: a distinction must be made between the two even if they are hard to define. As a rule of thumb the older the discipline, the more stuffy a department is likely to be. Occasionally disciplines shape-shift to cope with epistemological advancements. But the same systemic logic that stimulates the creation of exciting new domains such as media studies (which borrows heavily from weathered disciplines like sociology, political science, and even technology) also creates an artificial sense of competition for legitimacy. New disciplines must constantly fight off accusations of redundancy and dilution.
The older ones usually have it easier. History and anthropology for instance may count among the few disciplines that span all knowledge and time: the history of scientific discovery probably covers about as much ground as the cultural anthropology of world music. But we shouldn't be constrained to apply such perspectives every time we encountered an idea that grabbed our interest.
This is not to say that these divides have never been overcome. In academia professors often hold joint appointments in different departments. Keeping an open mind to mixing disciplines in some ways also helps reduce the gender divide in this age of post-Enlightenment. But the larger point remains that divisions and prejudices persist.
In the Indian context, the institutionalized segregation of the Arts and the Sciences at the undergraduate level has especially negative consequences, and exacerbates the problems created by the pre-existing division of disciplines: it stifles creativity further and serves to re-inscribe India’s identity as a nation that services the needs of developed nations.
Unlike in most Indian schools and colleges where overpopulation has traditionally forced otherwise well-meaning instructors to instill discipline by discouraging individuality, the education system in developed nations can afford to emphasize identity. While not every American child succeeds in articulating a clear sense of purpose, they are required to speak in complete sentences, write coherent essays in school. There is no sense in blindly praising Western systems of education but this crucial, underrated aspect helps many American students build the stamina to think rigorously.
It is time high school and college students in this country were allowed, like those in the West, to sample a wide variety of classes in disciplines that interest them. That is the best way to help kids make an informed choice about careers. Institutions with low student-to-teacher ratios are permitting this already. This is an opportune moment for the innovation to diffuse further, for rural India to narrow the divide between brand and myth.
Hard as it may be to grasp the range, an interest in quantum electrodynamics is not in any sense fundamentally incompatible with a keen understanding of the workings of, say, the Hindi film industry. Ideas are sometimes sparked by the most unexpected of encounters; metaphors from daily life may inform the most esoteric of arguments.
These criticisms are not meant to take away from the positives. The Indian education system has improved steadily and significantly over the past decade. Salaries for teachers have risen; the quality of training has gone up. Some schools and colleges are even starting to harness technology as a teaching aid. While PowerPoint helps in the long run to professionalize the system we must not be distracted from the fact that there remains an urgent need to instill critical thinking so that we might combat sensory clutter.
Compartmentalizing knowledge is an easy but ultimately damaging solution. We might be better served if we examined this matter through the lens of the ancient polymaths: men and women whose identities were plotted along multiple axes, and who made significant contributions to multiple spheres of knowledge.
We might only speculate about the direction of mankind's intellectual evolution. As such, facetiously speaking, we may be trapped in a future in which no advancement is possible, for want of time, unless life-spans increase dramatically or a ten-year-old super-specializes within a discipline.
While humans have of course progressed beyond a point where it might be possible to have an equally nuanced grasp of cutting edge nuclear physics and the pre-colonial evolution of the Devanagari script, it is important to sustain an amateur interest in something radically beyond one's own specialization so as to retain perspective and remain immune to the threat of stasis.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Opportunities in a new era of globalization

I spoke with a bunch of management students at a college in New Mumbai at the start of the New Year. Though within the confines of a classroom, it was all very casual. I chatted with the kids (who were all in their early twenties) about my life experiences, threw in a few stories, got them to open up about their lives, their interests. Many of them had backgrounds in commerce, some in engineering, others in IT. One fellow had a degree in marine biology from Russia and said he was fluent in five languages. One of the (regrettably few) girls in that class said she was studying German on the side and hoped to conduct business with German houses someday.

Many of them seemed passionate about business and entrepreneurship, which was pretty great. One of the students for instance told me he wanted to run a restaurant but his parents didn't think he ought to; so he'd applied to b-school as a way to learn the general principles of running a business.

I spoke to several such kids individually after class. Part of the point was to reassure them that that they didn't need to do ridiculously well in college to "succeed" in life; that they would be better served by identifying a bunch of interests and working towards being among the best at those. They seemed to enjoy our chat as much as I did. Afterwards a couple of them told me that they wished their professors would engage them the way I did, which I took as a massive compliment.

The talk was a rewarding experience for me, not least because I got to refine my sense of how urban, college-educated students think today. It appears to me that while students are just as hesitant to question authority as my generation used to be, they are slowly beginning to buy into the notion of India as a potentially powerful global entity; no doubt this feeling will foster in them a sense of self-belief -- even entitlement -- over the next few decades.
I plan to recycle bits of the talk when I speak to class X and XII students at a couple of schools early next week. Here's my presentation from Jan 3. Feel free to borrow elements from it if you plan to speak to school or college students: