Of frying Pakoras and thinking out of the box

Shashi Tharoor


I Mean What I Say

As an MP, I have found myself dealing daily with the impact of the current pandemic on our universities and the student community. Throughout the course of the last year and a half, I have personally received emails in the tens of thousands from anguished and concerned students on a number of overwhelming challenges they have been confronted with.

There has been a wide range of issues. Perhaps today’s top question is the uncertainty of the administration of critical exams, and the concerns of students at the height of a healthcare crisis, with lockdown-related movement restrictions between their homes and exam centres, exacerbated by the lack of clarity on postponements, coupled with the insistence on conducting offline examinations in crowded centres despite the majority of students being unvaccinated.

Others include calls from doctoral students who have not been able to undertake the necessary research and field work to successfully submit a competitive and compelling dissertation, and whose research grants have been unconscionably delayed. There have been urgent pleas from students in technical subjects who are unable to undertake internships and accrue the practical experience that are a mandatory aspect of their courses. There are the painful challenges faced by students on the wrong side of the digital divide as classes begin to go online. And of course, a large number of cases of students who have previously been pursuing programmes overseas but were caught in the geopolitical torments of closed borders, restrictive immigration laws and limited international air connectivity.

We all know that not all that ails our universities and our student communities has been a by-product of the COVID pandemic alone. But there is no denying that existing problems—the global trend in slashing state support for universities, reduced allocations for research and innovation and the quality of output being produced, the over-bureaucratisation of academia and over-regulation of campuses, and of course the growing threats to the freedom of academic expression---are all likely to spike considerably in the post-COVID world.

At the heart of the matter lies the challenge: What policies should be pursued to preserve democratic access to the best higher education and to match individual talent to intellectual aspirations as well as societal needs? Universities are coping with various demands -- of students for impressive qualifications, of employers for usable skills, of the economy for innovation. But most universities are still set up in the classic mould, to operate in the realm of values and culture, to be concerned more about political issues than market conditions -- to be, in short, the ivory towers so disdained by hard-headed employers.

I remember reading with horror about the Madhya Pradesh Police Department in 2016. The Department had advertised 14,000 constable posts; 9 lakh candidates applied for these 14,000 jobs. Among them were nearly 10,000 engineering graduates and a dozen PhD holders, plus 1,90,000 graduates and 15,000 postgraduates. The minimum qualification for the post was just a Higher Secondary education. There are similar anecdotes for every menial job advertised by the railways, the state and central governments, the public sector enterprises. Why? Because we are releasing graduates into an ecosystem that does not know how to use them; they settle for a constable post as an alternative to frying pakoras, as some (who ought to know better) have advised them to do.

I do recognise that there is naturally a desire in India to make higher education more utilitarian, to link it to the needs of what we hope will once again be a rapidly growing economy in a globalising world. This is an argument that I understand and empathise with, particularly in a society reeling from the impact of the pandemic, as we seek to explore all avenues to make up for the devastating economic losses and a more hostile jobs market, while also bolstering our preparedness to weather such turbulence in the future. After all, as I am sure many will be quick to point out, a university graduate now employed as a salaried professional is likely to have been better off during the pandemic than, say, an artist or an actor or a performer of 18th century poetry.

And yet -- we produce five lakh engineers a year in India and 66% of them end up in jobs that don't require an engineering degree. This is either because their degree is not relevant to the jobs that are available, or because the quality of the education that they had is not good enough for pure engineering jobs. To put it plainly, to my mind, if our universities abandoned the pursuit of liberal arts for more technical and utilitarian needs in the post-COVID world, this would not hold our graduates in good stead.

The principal challenge that would be prompted by universities discarding the liberal arts for more technical and utilitarian objectives is that it will leave our country with a generation of graduates who are trained to look at the problems of the world through absolute and non-negotiable principles – “this works, this doesn’t work; this switch turns off, this turns on; there is only one way of doing things and no other”.

If our graduates were rooted in the idea that there's only one way to think and work, they are likely to apply that habit of mind and thought to their understanding of human beings, of politics and of ideology, where only one worldview is true and right and everyone else is wrong, where only one world view is patriotic and everything else is ‘anti-national’. That would be disastrous for India.

A more recent trend among policymakers is to try and make liberal arts and humanities education ‘more relevant’, almost as if they are trying to reduce this branch of education into an exercise of producing more effective white-collar workers rather than producing deep-rooted thinkers. Equally, as we have seen in recent years, there is a very real threat of transforming liberal arts for more insidious purposes—to convert history, for example, into an instrument to legitimise a more Hindutva-aligned version of the past; or similarly transforming political science (or as some would say, ‘entire political science’) into lessons on chauvinistic nationalism; or even transforming an “obsolete” English literature into “communicative global language skills” for prospective call-centre employees. Such exercises will not culminate in an expansion of the intellect but on the contrary would constitute a travesty of our higher education system, by failing to leave any room for the imaginative, the ruminative, the philosophical and the theoretical.

Today, where you can find facts and information so easily with two clicks of a mouse, what we really need is not a well-filled mind but a well-formed mind. We need individuals who are able to react to unfamiliar information or to discover new information and know how to understand it, how to fit it into a pattern, how to understand the problems and dilemmas that information poses, how to imagine creative solutions for these problems, often “out of the box”.

An Oxford Martin School study recently predicted that 30% of the jobs in the world by 2030 will be jobs that do not exist today. How can you educate young people for jobs that don’t exist? By teaching them not what to think but how to think, so they can make the new understandable, bring the distant near, make the unfamiliar into the something they can handle. A well-formed mind benefits far more from an appreciation of history or a knowledge of literature or a study of the way in which real human beings behave, rather than the world of certitudes that our technical education provides for. Let us prepare young people for the challenges of tomorrow by teaching them to think differently about today.

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