Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014

It’s not Harvard vs hard work

Investing in skill-building and opportunities for meaningful education is the only way to make hard work count for something. CR Sasikumar Investing in skill-building and opportunities for meaningful education is the only way to make hard work count for something. CR Sasikumar
Written by Bhaskar Chakravorti | Posted: March 4, 2014 3:24 am | Updated: March 4, 2014 9:11 am

We need to ensure opportunities for hard work. And that it is not Sisyphean toil leading nowhere.

The votes are in and we have a winner. After a war of words, the BJP and Congress found common ground; both Narendra Modi and P. Chidambaram cast their votes for hard work. Harvard, that noted refuge for the leisure class — where the most commonly handed out grade is an A, according to a recent admission by its dean of undergraduate education— is the clear loser. While Modi dismissed it altogether, Chidambaram hedged his bets by drawing on the “mere pas maa hai” card, implicitly acknowledging that whatever shortcomings Harvard may have had in nurturing his passion for toil, his mother has filled in the many gaps. “My mother and Harvard taught me the value of hard work,” the finance minister was quoted as saying during his budget speech to the Lok Sabha.

As an academic, it is hard not to feel wistful about the days when over-educated elites dressed up in homespun clothing and walked among the humble. Gone are the days when a Gandhi trained at the Inner Temple or a Nehru from Cambridge or an Ambedkar from Columbia could move the masses at their will. Today, Manmohan Singh’s Oxford PhD would be an effective tool to campaign against his party, if there weren’t already so many others in the toolbox. If it is of any consequence, Rahul Gandhi can proudly advertise that he never actually got a degree from Harvard, though he did attend some classes there (a fact that, no doubt, many of his detractors might bring up).

But enough of that useless nostalgia for the ivory tower. India is, indeed, in a post-postcolonial moment, where time manning the family tea stall should count for more than the hours wasted in existential angst patronising a campus coffee house. Modern India is, finally, a country of makers and doers — the home of the bootstrapped entrepreneur relentlessly seeking opportunity, the hub for disruptive industries that dismantle the global status quo, the birthplace of jugaad innovators who will change the world. Fancy degrees are for the birds.

Wait a minute. I may have got a bit carried away. Unfortunately, the facts on the ground may not give me licence to claim any of these things. Access to entrepreneurial levers and gaining economic freedom is a pipe dream for virtually all Indians; the disruptive (wish we could banish that over-used adjective) industries are not cutting it; and jugaad may be good enough to solve a small local problem but far from what it would take to scale up. Consider each, in turn.

First, economic freedom through entrepreneurship is a pipe dream. Since 1991, India continued…

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