During a recent trip to Thailand I came across a unique college. All the students are imparted training in specific skills, with the difference being that the students are not boys or girls but … monkeys. These local pig-tailed monkeys are admitted by their wardens who pay a tuition fee inclusive of food and accommodation. The three-six month course is divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels; graduating monkeys are trained to recognise and pick only ripened coconuts from the trees.
The rationale is not hard to get. While humans pick about 200-300 coconuts during a hard day’s work, a skilled monkey can collect up to 1,000 coconuts in the same time. There are other significant advantages—no irksome human frailties, managing of aspirations, promotions, perks (beyond banana treats) and if someone is worked to death, well there is an assembly line of replacements. Indeed an employer’s dream.
It started a train of thought and a shocking realisation that what we call our education system and its relation to employment of youth is not much different. Let’s consider the education system in its entirety. Education is all about opening up minds and promoting a spirit of enquiry so that we can understand the world around us and be thinking beings. But in India, the overwhelming focus is on churning out students for the job market. Many seem to blame our higher education system for the malaise but the rot starts way before in schools.
A bright student is under a lot of pressure to take up the science or commerce streams regardless of aptitude, hoping for a lucrative placement, whereas subjects collectively known as the humanities are for ‘losers’ who can’t do better. In this educational ‘varna system’, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) pass-outs evoke Brahminical reverence whereas the liberal arts students are like the untouchables with commerce and law occupying the middle castes. It does reflect the market reality as an IT or commerce graduate may command an impressive starting salary while even a PhD in the social sciences may struggle to get a job.
Parents are equally concerned about their kids taking up safe career paths. It’s understandable in a developing country like India, as education leading to a good job is a passport for upward mobility of the poor and middle classes. So few parents allow their children the luxury to explore and will probably be horrified if the child wants to be a poet, painter, historian or philosopher. Most can’t even comprehend any purpose to education without clear job prospects. The idea of pursuit of knowledge having an intrinsic worth is alien to many. The education-job nexus has seeped in so deeply into the Indian psyche that placement of students is the main criteria to judge an institution.
As most bright students veer towards such subjects, we now have an overwhelming numbers of engineers, doctors and MBA students being churned out of rapidly increasing education factories. That many end up in totally unrelated careers is another matter. Engineers account for about 50 per cent of civil services recruits and this trend is continuing for the past many years and is secular across most top jobs.
Surely, we do need a large pool of engineers, doctors and MBAs but are these the only ones worthy of pursuit? In any vibrant society there is a need for different thought leaders to provide a wholesome perspective. We need economists, scientists, poets, philosophers, political scientists and free thinkers in a thousand different domains to challenge the established paradigms and enrich our lives.
One casualty of this contempt for liberal education is that we rarely produce original minds. Even in the field of IT our success is mostly derivative, though we seem to excel as managers. Maybe the tendency to opt for safe career paths is to be blamed. Most of our students in foreign universities also study STEM subjects. Indian kids have been winning most spelling bee competitions in the US in the last few decades, an exercise which lays heavy emphasis on memory and rote learning. However one doesn’t hear much about creativity and inventions by this large Indian diaspora. It seems that Indian parents are the same everywhere.
Another area where this narrow focus is hurting is that many of these mushrooming factories are producing substandard graduates who are practically unemployable without additional training. Even where technical skills are adequate, many have lopsided personalities because of lack of social skills. The career-only approach allows no opportunity for greater social or moral concerns; so we end up with people who may excel in their narrow sphere of work but still carry prejudices and belief systems more suited to medieval times. An even more insidious outcome of our value-neutral education is a near total disregard for ethical concerns at professional and personal levels, painfully evident in widespread moral and material corruption at all levels.
Centuries ago, Aristotle identified the goal of life as virtue leading to all-round excellence achieved through balance between the extremes. Bertrand Russell in his wonderful work In Praise of Idleness shows that most great ideas originate from leisure and reflection. Our education system seems to inculcate the opposite. Even on a pragmatic level we need to move away from this narrow job orientation and inculcate creativity because of the rapid strides being made in the field of AI (Artificial Intelligence). As AI takes over more and more routine jobs, we will be hit hard unless we learn to innovate. Between the coconut-picking simians and the super-efficient future robots, our only chance seems to be human ingenuity. It’s about time we exercised it.
ADGP, Odisha and Doctoral Research Scholar, IIT Delhi. Views expressed are personal