Blog: Don't Just Skill - Educate

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Don't Just Skill - Educate

Independent thinking about moral dilemmas is one of the cornerstones for giving individuals the strength to stand up against a general consensus when the need arises, and this is the aim of education. So what can educational institutions do to counter the biases and preconceptions?
Don't Just Skill - Educate

I am amused by the outraged outpourings of my HR friends when speaking about the people they recruit from the Indian educational system. Not since the time of Æthelred II has 'Unready' been so freely and unfairly used. I do not doubt for a moment that our Universities and Other Educational Institutions (UAOEI) could have more practical as well as up-to-date syllabi, better courses on information technology and an emphasis on building 'soft' skills. It’s just that I don’t consider it either infeasible or inappropriate if the industry has to fill in the gaps left by the UAOEI in this regard. In the Telco (now Tata Motors) fathered by Sumant Moolgaokar – where I had the privilege of leading Corporate HR for many years – we didn’t think we were doing anything extraordinary when we took youngsters straight out of school and turned them into superb craftsmen or engineers from colleges with varying instructional quality and invested two years to put them on the path to technological and managerial mastery. Far from bewailing what the UAOEI had left undone, we saw it as an opportunity to mold people into the winning culture that gave the company the undisputed leadership of India’s automobile industry for decades. 

My demand to India’s UAOEI is to deliver primarily on what only institutions of learning can and industry can’t. While vocational skills are important, they cannot be the sole reason for the existence of the huge educational edifice we have. If we focus on those essential elements of education that later remedial instruction cannot rectify, we will find that the biggest gaps are not vocational incompetencies. Where education is really failing even our most qualified young men and women becomes obvious when we see them sickeningly sycophantic to people in power, angrily intolerant of other points of view and displaying an almost fanatical hatred of the 'other'. What can UAOEI do to mend these flaws before they tear the fabric of our society apart?

What only Educational Institutions can do

What follows is not a general prescription for all education for all time. It is limited to suggesting correctives for some of the fundamental mindset tendencies among youth freshly entering the Indian workforce today. Of course, there are notable exceptions and some youngsters, either because of their home backgrounds or their own voyages of intellectual discovery, don’t fall prey to the general trend of close-mindedness and emotional stunting. How can we make such exceptions the norm for people coming out of the UAOEI tomorrow?

If education is to make a lasting and fundamental impact, it must impart these four capabilities to students:

  1. Healthy skepticism
  2. Understanding the topography of knowledge
  3. Valuing 'the Other'
  4. Kindness beyond kin and kind boundaries


As we look at each of these briefly, it is important to realize that parents and peers have as much a role in forming these as the UAOEI. The point is that even when the former falls short, UAOEI provides the last 'waypoint' to mend matters before the character is set for a lifetime.

Healthy Skepticism – With a desire to seek knowledge

Perhaps there once was an evolutionary advantage for humans to believe in what authority figures told them. Over the years, this gullibility has been exploited by shamans, rabble-rousers, and (of late) manipulative social media opinion-makers. UAOEI can inoculate against gullibility in three ways:

  1. By ensuring every student takes at least some courses in subjects where there is not just a single way to think about topics and shades of nuanced thinking are essential.
  2. By teaching every subject in a manner that reveals its assumptions and uncertainties so that students keep "… going forward from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty." (Kenneth Johnson).
  3. By evaluating students not merely on getting that single right answer but on their ability to reason their way to it even when the frameworks they have been taught prove inadequate.

Of course, honing the skeptical faculties of young people does not mean making them despair of gaining any objective knowledge at all, which is itself an invitation to mental laziness and giving up on the effort to distinguish between original thinkers and charlatans. As Russell put it: "Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty"1.

And training people to be suspicious of generally prevalent beliefs must include a healthy dose of questioning oneself. David Foster Wallace said it well: Education must teach us "… to be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded."2

Understanding the topography of knowledge – and where to find answers

No one seems to have taken the plea made by CP Snow against the neglect of science and technology in education3 more seriously than India’s education planners. Whether by plan or happenstance, even by the time I joined the workforce decades ago, a liberal arts degree was an eyebrow-raising exception for entry into Indian industry. Two developments made the lopsidedness of intake into industry worse. In the first place, as Martin Rose reports in a fascinating study published recently, "… the culture of science teaching resolve(d) all too easily into binary right and wrong, correct and incorrect"4, with obvious consequences for divergent and nuanced thinking. Secondly, Indian industry moved increasingly to derived, application disciplines (like engineering, commerce and management) so that the advantages of neither of the cultures described by Snow were obtained. 

Thus while Indian businesses are replete with animated and knowledgeable  discussions on yesterday’s plant breakdown or what the impending wedding season will do for soap sales, views on, say, affirmative action or the ethics of using contract labor or a federal constitution (though expressed loudly and dogmatically) are ill-informed by principles of social science, ethics or politics. By the same token, future strategies are conceived using third-hand appreciations of future technology trends rather than personal awareness of where scientific inquiry at its cutting edge is taking us. Obviously, no UAOEI can provide mastery in all disciplines. What it owes students is an unblinkered overview of the major disciplines, an insight into the connections between them and the capacity as well as the desire to keep chipping away, throughout their lives, at the vast slab of ignorance in which we are all enveloped. As William Butler Yeats put it, "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."

Valuing 'the Other' – through personal experience

When I read and hear the demonization of 'the Other' that pervades so many dialogues (particularly on the social media) today and recall the vehemence with which even mild measures of affirmative action for the deprived sections of our society have been opposed, I almost despair whether this virulence can be reversed. It is particularly worrying that some of the major educational streams corporate India relies upon are especially susceptible to indoctrination and adopting the memes of intolerance.5

If our young minds are to create a different set of narratives for themselves, surely it is our UAOEI which must teach them that, in Toni Morrison’s words, "You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox.”6

There are three things UAOEI can do to counter the biases and preconceptions that make us distrust and dislike our fellow-citizens:

  1. Put students through courses where they are exposed to well-founded research that debunks myths of racial purity, community superiority and genetic determinism.
  2. Help students understand different types of ’themes’, recognize the different emotions each type elicits and how processes of reclassification work. I have found the Stereotype Content Model7 developed by Susan Fiske to be immensely helpful in disentangling preconceptions, along with the competence and warmth dimensions, as a first step to minimizing them. Equally importantly, young people must realize that they need to recognize and counter their unconscious biases too. Making books like Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People8 required reading, can help students create a self-realization and improvement agenda for themselves.
  3. Create contact situations9 where balanced numbers from different groups interact over protracted periods, in neutral territory, while pursuing a superordinate goal. Let me simplify through examples. The NCC provided just such an opportunity in days when it was compulsory in college – camps and regular parades with students from a variety of social strata, religions and regions certainly de-biased me greatly. The RTE program, if properly implemented, can have a similar impact at an even earlier stage of education.

I know these suggestions do not fit neatly into existing syllabi. A little deviation from the current system, however, is well worth the gains we will make for future student generations that benefit from it.

Kindness beyond kin and kind boundaries – With the courage to stand alone

We are biologically wired to begin charity at home and evolution programs us to reciprocate kindness. On the other hand, altruism to the unseen other does not come naturally to humans. And yet modern societies and civilization become fraught and unstable if the circle of morality is not expanded, ultimately to cover all of humankind10. Lawrence Kohlberg provided the definitive model for linking the maturity and sophistication of moral reasoning with stages of human development.11 His model projects that Post-conventional Morality (consisting of Stage 5: Social Contract / Individual Rights and Stage 6: Universal Ethical Principles) will develop in only a small proportion of the population and that too not before adulthood. What a tremendous achievement it would be for India’s UAOEI if they could increase the proportion of independent moral thinkers even by a small amount and inculcate some degree of altruism outside of kin and kind circles? There is a growing body of research (see notes for a recent example12 with a rich set of references) that can suggest to our UAOEI how expanded and universalized moral consciousness might be developed. 

Independent thinking about moral dilemmas is one of the cornerstones for giving individuals the strength to stand up against a general consensus when the need arises. I can find no better expression of this aim of education than in these extracts from Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher: "… Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if everyone tells him they are wrong. Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when everyone else is doing it. Teach him to listen to everyone, but teach him also to filter all that he hears on a screen of truth and take only the good that comes through…"

A Postscript for our Educational Institutions

Dear UAOEI,
I know I have placed a tall order on you through this column.
In the process of meeting it, if you can’t make your students 'plug-and-play' ready for jobs in industry, don’t worry. Our bursting-with-CSR-at-the-seams enterprises should be more than willing to make it up.
After all, "Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught." (George Savile, Marquis of Halifax).

Yours sincerely,
Visty 

Notes:

1. Russell, Bertrand (1926), On Education, Unwin Books,
2. David Foster Wallace (2005), Commencement Address, delivered to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
3. Snow, Charles Percy (1959). The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press.
4. Martin Rose (2015), Immunising the Mind, British Council’s Policy and Insight Working Paper Series.
5. Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog (2016), Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education, Princeton University Press.
6. Toni Morrison (2004), Commencement Address, delivered to the graduating class of 2004 at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.
7. Fiske, Susan & Cuddy, Amy & Glick, Peter & Xu, "A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June 2002.
8. Banaji, Mahzarin & Greenwald, Anthony (2014), Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, Penguin Books.
9. Pettigrew T F, Tropp L R, "A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2006. 
10. Singer, Peter (2011), The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Princeton University Press, Page 135.
11. Kohlberg, Lawrence (1976). "Moral stages and moralization: The cognitive-developmental approach". In Lickona, T, Moral Development and Behavior: Theory, Research and Social Issues. Holt, NY: Rinehart and Winston.
12. Vekaria, Kruti & Brethel-Haurwitz, Kristin & Cardinale, Elise & Stoycos, Sarah & Marsh, Abigail. (2017). Social discounting and distance perceptions in costly altruism. Nature Human Behaviour.

Topics: Skilling

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