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A leader for an educated India Azim Premji

A friend and I were engaged in a discussion on education. I was onto my usual argument. That education is an important tool for individual development and for social progress.

Print Edition: January 13, 2008

Azim Premji Chairman & CEO, Wipro
Azim Premji
A friend and I were engaged in a discussion on education. I was onto my usual argument. That education is an important tool for individual development and for social progress. That the Indian IT industry is a good example of how knowledge can catalyse the fortunes of a nation.

My friend gave me a patient hearing, and then asked me, “Why is the ‘educated’ software professional unable to see that he should be bothered, directly and personally, by farmer suicides and melting Himalayan glaciers?”

This comment in a way mirrored another issue I have been reflecting on. Looking back at 2007, I see two overarching narratives. The first narrative is of ‘Emergent India’—a nation growing in confidence and willing itself to become an economic powerhouse.

The second theme is that of the ‘Other India’, where socio-economic development still remains a distant reality. Paraphrasing a renowned journalist, it is the story of a booming Sensex and of a hundredthousand farmer suicides.

The thing that bothers me is the schizophrenic nature of media reports around these two narratives—as if ‘Emerging India’ and ‘Disadvantaged Bharat’ are stories of entirely different countries.

Therefore, it took me sometime to assimilate the true extent of my friend’s contention. Essentially, she was commenting on our inability to see the bigger picture of relationships that connects all of us together.

Before I could respond, she continued: “We have overvalued the importance of schools. I suspect no school can really teach a child to become an independent thinker or learner ... or to be able to truly relate with the world. It is the inherent characteristic of any system to imbue a spirit of conformation. And I do not see how the school system can be any different. Even in the best schools, irrespective of what else we teach them, our children learn how to conform. Let’s not bother about education!”

Role of education

I have involved myself deeply in Indian education for the past decade. In Wipro Applying Thought in Schools, we have partnered with the country’s leading social organisations to work for holistic school improvement.

Azim Premji Foundation has pioneered several innovative programmes
A typical school
Similarly, the Azim Premji Foundation has pioneered several innovative programmes in government schools. Put together, they are one of the largest non-government initiatives for educational reform in India.

And suddenly, here was a friend suggesting that all this was ill-conceived. That perhaps, in stressing on quality education, we were misguided.

Our conversation triggered several debates in my mind, which I will try to present here.

The arguments in favour of education are wellknown. For the individual, education offers the opportunity to explore a wider set of ideas than is often available at home; and in doing this, it also widens possibilities for the future.

A student in a corporation school once told me he wanted to become an astronaut— and good schooling can help make this happen. For society, education holds the promise of developing citizens who will make our social dreams more real. And so on and so forth.

However, these are abstract ideas. My friend’s objection was more direct: if education does not have an important role in resolving the greatest challenges of our times, then it is of no consequence. This is a fair comment, and it merits further analysis.

The challenges

Let me begin by listing what in my view are the three defining challenges of this day and age.

The first challenge clearly is equity. Indian society is becoming increasingly fragmented, and the gap between the haves and have-nots shows no sign of receding.

Equity might be a distant goal, but surely the first steps must be taken. We need to ensure that every citizen has access to quality nutrition, housing, education and healthcare, and the opportunity to participate in mainstream social, economic and political processes.

Students must be creative
Students must be creative
The second challenge is environmental. It is estimated that, given the speed of glacier melt, the Himalayan river systems, including the Ganges, Yamuna and the Brahmaputra, will become seasonal.

Rising sea levels will threaten our coastal communities. And monsoons will become more erratic. All this, it is predicted, will come to pass in our lifetimes.

Global warming is a reality, and will begin to impact the most basic of necessities— food and water—sooner than we might imagine. The challenge is even greater for India given the stage of economic development we are in.

The coming years will see a significant surge in our energy consumption, most of which will be met by burning increasing quantities of fossil fuels.

The third challenge is somewhat more abstract; it is about the width and depth of Indian lineage and culture. The form of development India is witnessing has created a narrow idea of success, where everything is evaluated in material terms.

I see a consolidation of views, attitudes and tastes; a movement from the heterogeneous to the homogenous—to witness this, one needs to see no further than the nature of programmes and advertisements on any of the popular television channels.

The Indian quintessence lies in its ancient local histories, and in its diverse cultures and systems. I wonder if, in the rush for a uni-dimensional prosperity, we are letting go of that mosaic of harmonious divergences that makes us who we are.

If, as my friend suggested, the man on the street does not feel “bothered, directly and personally, by farmer suicides and melting Himalayan glaciers”, then let me posit that no amount of structural tweaks or policy changes can truly help us face these trials.

I imagine that it will take a large number of courageous, creative and caring citizens—people who feel personally responsible for the state of society and ecology, and are charged with the agenda for transformation —for India to begin to fundamentally respond to these monumental challenges.

Intense process of exploration and discovery
Teaching processes need a serious rethink
And this is why I believe so strongly in education. A good school guides the child through an intense process of exploration and discovery.

By inspiring independent thought and creative action, the school can set fire to the child’s innate curiosity. In an open and caring environment, the child will begin to relate to different ideas, opinions and people. By continuously probing and asking the right questions, the teacher helps a child to develop the ability to look at one issue from many perspectives.

When such an environment is created, I envision that the school will create a community without prejudice, leading to the birth of independent thought and empathic action.

And when a large number of schools become this way, then I foresee a new cadre of citizens engendered with a fresh vision for life.

Let me also risk saying that I see no possibility of real social change if the basic character of our schools does not undergo a metamorphosis.

Here, I cannot but agree with my friend. For far too long, our schools have been guilty of making children accept assumptions and opinions as facts. It is rare that students are given the space to inquire and form a considered view.

This process of forming opinions without sufficient scrutiny then becomes a lifelong process. Our desire to accumulate material wealth; our simplistic understanding of development; our inability to empathise with those who think, believe and act differently from us—to me, all these only serve to illustrate how our school system has failed us.

I feel compelled to issue a warning. Our schools— the popular public school, the local government school, the elite international school, the old convent school—every school has to change. And change now.

We can no longer afford to remain complacent with archaic and didactic processes of teaching and learning. This is the time to wake up and act.

Education holds the promise of developing citizens
Education must help in meeting challenges
When the man on the street, the next software engineer, the next farmer, is a person who feels and lives a life deeply connected with society and nature, only then will we see the true Indian revolution.

Like all revolutions, it will begin small, in one school, in two schools. But it will spread, it is spreading. Each day, my colleagues working with schools, talk to me of a new discovery—another school experimenting with innovative practices, or yet another teacher breaking the trend of mechanical work.

The ripple is spreading, the stories are spreading. The narratives, now schizophrenic, will begin to merge. The next decade will be a watershed, one way or the other.

Let’s be bothered about education.

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