Transforming elite education for the 21st century

By Chandran Nair

This article is based on the keynote address to the ECIS Administrators’ Conference in Malta, in April 2010. It is publised in International Schools Journal Vol XXX No. ! November 2010 (p15-21).

As of today 2.7 billion people, more than a third of the world’s population, live on less than US$2 a day. Poverty and its accompanying tragedies are endemic to massive regions of the globe; 17,000 children alone die of starvation each and every day. As recently as the 1950s China’s GDP was less than it was in 1000, and in 2009 only one in two Indian women was literate. 24.5 million Africans suffer from HIV, with 92% of the world’s AIDS related death’s occurring there.

As human demand continues to grow, increasing pressure is exerted on the finite resources of the environment. Imagine a world of 5 billion Asians consuming like America. Today, 40% of worldwide agricultural land is classified as seriously degraded, causing low productivity and soil erosion that threatens the livelihoods of the hundreds of millions who depend on farming to support themselves. Demand for water already exceeds supply in many parts of the world; millions suffer without access to clean drinking water and the United Nations Environment Program projects that 1.8 billion people will experience water scarcity by the year 2025. And more than a million people a year die from airborne pollution alone, not to mention the millions more who suffer from lung disease and shortened lives. These figures will only increase as the world’s population climbs towards an expected 9 billion by the middle of the 21st century.

Globalisation, often heralded as the key to world prosperity, has come with its own set of problems. The benefits of interconnectivity are usually diffuse over countries and continents, while its ill effects are geographically concentrated. The promise of cheaper supermarket produce means little to the farmer who can no longer produce grain cheaply enough to sell at his local market, just as cheaper textiles do not comfort the man whose entire village has been put out of the weaving business. Globalisation has brought great wealth to some, but it has also facilitated the exporting of deforestation from rich countries to poor ones, and the spewing of industrial waste near the homes of those too desperate trying to survive to do anything about it. As always, an inordinate share of the burden is born by the less fortunate members of humanity. The long term effects of pollution and climate change are a distant worry to a slum dweller in Jakarta or Lagos trying to find his next meal.

Such are just a few of the major problems the world currently faces. They are complex, they are massive in scale and they will take both time and talent to solve.

So it is fortunate then that school commencements are almost always filled with talk of training the next generation of leaders or equipping a new generation with the skills they need to solve the world’s problems. And yet more and more of the most promising students from around the world end up working at corporations involved in finance or banking with decidedly few social interests. Others go on to work as doctors, lawyers or consultants, in other words, talented men and women who are employed to solve the problems of the rich, not the problems of the world. Such results seem at odds with the rhetoric about saving the world or ending poverty. Whether or not these young men and women have the skills to tackle such difficult social and environmental problems is irrelevant, because most of them certainly don’t have the interest apart from their fleeting involvement in elite voluntary programmes which enhance resumes and provide a feel good. Make no mistake; this is a failure of education. Undoubtedly one of the most important questions in debates concerning education is ‘What is the purpose of education?’ But really there are two questions here - what is the purpose of education as it currently stands, and what ought its purpose to be. A good education certainly ought to involve the acquisition of knowledge and skills both abstract and technical, which are increasingly necessary for operating in a complex world. And yet although knowledge becomes obsolete, facts are forgotten and skills are lost, a truly good education remains valuable because it teaches us not just what to think but how to think. At its best, education is not the acquisition of knowledge itself but rather the acquisition of an intellectual curiosity, one that wants the truth and desires to seek it out. That is what in turn drives empathy and socially responsible actions. Most of all, education is about shaping the characters of those who go through it. As the English critic John Rushkin once said, "Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave."

But unfortunately this is rarely what is meant when someone talks about good education today. Rather a good education has increasingly become less about the quality of the education itself and more about the institution at which it is received. Preferably one with a big name and powerful networking opportunities, one that successfully funnels its elite students into other elite schools and technical academies, and most of all one that eventually guarantees as high a salary for its graduates as is possible. Even in the recent debates about the advantages elite schools offer over their less famous counterparts, the argument is often framed only with reference to the starting salaries of their graduates. Whether or not Yale is considered superior to another institution is not judged on the quality of its faculty or the size of its classes, or even on the achievements of its famous alumni, but on the average wage for a graduate relative to the cost of its tuition. Business schools regularly discourage students from pursuing careers in NGOs or charity organizations because such professions are comparatively lower paying and lower graduate salaries can damage a school’s standing in one of the ubiquitous, and meaningless, published rankings. For example, the top three criteria for the Financial Times Education section consist of weighted salary, salary percentage increase and employment percentage. One could hardly think of a more counterproductive strategy, and this is done deliberately.

Much is often made by critics of the exclusive nature of the world’s best schools, and how this has enabled the world’s privileged classes to perpetuate themselves. It is beyond doubt that the high-cost of a world class education is an impediment to talented people from poor backgrounds, but is it any better that the graduates of these elite schools, the fruits of all those prohibitively high tuition fees, are being funneled into jobs that benefit only the rich? Yes it is a problem that the best education is expensive, but this is because funding the best education is expensive too. Assigning all the benefits of the best education to those in the rich world however, is far less defensible. According to post-school recruitment data, 45% of graduates from the Harvard Business School class of 2008 went into financial services, a slight increase over the previous year. In 1937 just three Harvard graduates, or 1% of the class, went into securities directly from business school. These students are being trained to help the rich, and each other, get even richer, and they know it. Many students believe that the biggest benefit of going to an elite business school is the opportunity to network with classmates. The art of networking for private gain begins at the age of fourteen. There is a deep-seated belief amongst these students that members of the elite can, and should, help each other make more money. How many of these people will ever enter careers that benefit the less privileged in society? How many will tackle the big problems of the third millennium?

The time of youth spent in schools ought to be, for those who can afford the luxury of an education, a time of exploration and inspiration. It is during these formative years that we discover the subjects that interest us, the issues we are passionate about, the problems we yearn to solve. Educators and institutions should be actively encouraging this process, instead they are stifling it. Rather than fostering a habit of honest enquiry or skeptical questioning in students, schools reward those who conform to a fixed curriculum and punish those who show signs of independence. Students, far from being encouraged to discover purpose in their studies, are harried from class to class and prodded to score in a higher percentile. The ideal of a successful graduate has changed from one who is learned, curious and productive to one who has a perfect transcript, is successful in their career and possessed of the appropriate social status. In other words, emphasis has been shifted from qualities that are more abstract and nebulous, but also more valuable, to numbers and titles that can be processed in a database. And this has resulted in the students’ themselves changing their approach to education accordingly, often for the worse. Proper schooling, for all its costs, also pays out in one altogether invaluable resource, time. Time to decide who it is that we are and what it is we want to do. And yet this time is squandered by more and more students every year, for whom education has become simply another necessary step on the way to corporate success, and elite institutions just another stepping stone to high-flying jobs on Wall Street. Students ought to see classes as a privilege, instead too many see them only as a burden to be endured. They ought to see teachers as mentors, guides, or kindred spirits interested in the things that they are, instead they have become aloof invigilators to be pleased and placated for a grade. Study and activity ought to be enjoyed; instead they have become boxes to be checked off in the crafting of a competitive resume. The fault does not lie solely with the teachers. They are intelligent and dedicated and often all too aware of the problems with the education their students receive. It is not for lack of knowledge or caring that so little is done, but rather because the teachers are only one part of the equation, and ultimately the power to effect change does not always lie with them. Rather it is the parents, those who pay for the schools and the teachers, that more often than not have the final say, and it is they who are pushing the agenda of profit making as the primary goal of education. For the wealthy parents who send their children to elite institutions, education has become simply another financial investment, and one that had better boast a good rate of return. Too often the teachers themselves are victims, judged by the same misguided standards as their pupils, their talent and empathy are marginalized in place of those willing to inculcate self-interest in their students. The parents and benefactors of schools are encouraging the culture of the marketplace into schools, and that is the last place it is needed.

Such assembly-line education means that far too often students enter, endure, and exit school without discovering what it is they are passionate about, and that is a true pity. Instead of interest they cultivate contacts, instead of passion, they value more worldly success. It is not a failure of morals, but a failure of imagination. Students enter schools full of other students like themselves, and their worldviews are colored accordingly. This is not a simple problem. Everyone is and always will be biased by the environments where they live and were brought up in, but no concerted attempt is being made to make these students aware of their biases, or even the fact that they are ineluctably biased. They grow up in a world removed from the threat of arsenic laced water, endemic malaria and subsistence farming, situations which form a daily reality for hundreds of millions of people across the world. The solution is not to reduce richer students to poverty, but to make them aware that their view of the world is inevitably colored by their wealth, just as those less fortunate than them are inevitably biased by their poverty. Far too often students graduate with too little humility, not simply because they overestimate their own abilities, but because they have no sense of how the local history, geography and culture have all come together to shape the persons that they are. The incredible statistical good fortune that they have been blessed with even to attend a school is lost on them, and so are the responsibilities they have to those who are not so lucky. Make them see how easily it could have been them in an Indian slum or a Vietnamese sweat shop, and perhaps this will change.

Instead they proceed under the illusion of self-made infallibility, and a sense that their education has provided them with all the right answers, often with little or no practical experience to back it up. Far too many are convinced that top-down solutions are always the answer, that a day’s worth of ratiocination will materialize solutions to complex problems, and that theoretical knowledge is immediately applicable to practical problems. No attempt is made to rectify this situation; no distinction made between classroom learning and experience in the field, no line is drawn between success in an exam and success in the real world. Not nearly enough energy is invested in improving not just a student’s test scores, but their awareness of themselves, the world around them, and their place in it. Such questions require out of the box thinking, and the answers can’t always be taught, sometimes they must be arrived at. But perhaps that is exactly what one of the biggest problems with modern education is, the mistake that schools are simply a place where answers are taught, and not also a place at which they are arrived at.

And if the most successful students are often deluded into thinking themselves the best and the brightest because they have done well academically, they are also taught to despise failure even more than they are taught to love success. Failure in class in unacceptable, failure in an activity is unacceptable, and failure in one’s career is completely unacceptable. Success, and success now, is the name of the game. Entering the job market with such a frame of mind is a dangerous thing - previously interesting opportunities may now seem too risky, or too obscure, for a promising young graduate. The fear of failure, and the need for guaranteed and immediate success, is not just a great deal of stress, it is debilitating. Luck, risk-taking and failure have always been the source of the world’s best ideas and innovations. Talent alone is not enough, the endless list of talented failures attests to that. Students should be taught this, or they’ll give up and move on from their dream job before they get that lucky break, indeed, they may never even take the risk of giving it a shot. But how many teachers would keep their jobs if they pushed their students in this direction? Exactly the kinds of experiences and opportunities that are most valuable are being discarded because they are not worth enough money. Instead, the attitude has become one of self-aggrandizement that loves immediate gratification. Why teach when you can do, why do when you can trade leveraged options?

Such a failure of imagination on such a large scale is not just some abstract tragedy, it has very real consequences. While some of the students who go on to work on Wall Street or in multinational conglomerates are motivated by their own ambition and desire, many more are simply corralled into careers by cunning and concerted recruitment efforts of said investment banks and other financial companies. Companies are eager to take advantage of the pressure, and the expense, of the modern educational experience to cajole promising students into early internships and training programmes. With the temptations of job security and outrageous salaries, many students find themselves being plunged into careers straight out of school that they never would have envisioned for themselves even a year earlier. It is, in a word, a seduction of the innocent. And it is precisely those students without strong intellectual interests and or ideals about which they are passionate that are most vulnerable to these tactics, because they have no compelling alternatives to a high salary and a safe job. The most important challenges facing society today aren’t easy, and the world needs people who are imaginative, determined, and unafraid of working on seemingly impossible problems. These aren’t the kinds of people schools as they are currently designed are training, but it is exactly the kind of people they ought to be training. Instead, the richest, most talented students, in other words, those with by far the most options, choose to simply discard their privilege of choice and experimentation for increasingly few professions.

As such there has become a dearth of the kind of capable and dedicated individuals society needs to serve as its leaders. John F. Kennedy, a Harvard grad himself, and his cabinet of academic ‘whiz kids’ brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster with their arrogance in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and plunged America into the Vietnam War with their ignorance. Robert McNamara’s world class education at Berkeley did little to illustrate to him the realities of the world, just as Henry Kissinger’s time at Harvard did not prevent him from bombing neutral Cambodia during the Vietnam War. These people lacked the vision and the empathy that is a necessary part of leadership, and part of the blame rests with their education. As it stands today the developing world has its own, growing share of young men and women who have received elite educations, but far too many have gone on to work for vested interests instead of making the best use of their skills.

It will probably be argued that many of these problems are a result of social mores cultural values, and that therefore it is a failing of society as a whole and not of education that more and more children have become content with intellectual and moral mediocrity as the price of achieving material success. But this is missing the point, for the point of a good education is precisely to shape the values of a society and, where appropriate, change them for the better. If children are not encouraged to think in school about not just how to be successful, but what it is to be successful, and of the responsibilities that accompany success, then where else?

Schools give a student certain valuable skills, but once they are taught these skills, they must be urged to do something with them. "The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action" said Herbert Spencer a hundred years ago, and it is as true today as it was then. Educators should be working to put this into practice by encouraging students to use the skills they develop in the classroom, by giving them a different yardstick with which to measure self-worth and achievement besides salary and by actively exploring with students career options and prospects.

The parents should be engaged in a dialogue that encourages them to think honestly and critically about what it is they want for their children. School should be a place where more than just academic matters are discussed; they should be a place where the choices that every person faces in life are tackled together, not by the student on his or her own, but with the support of educators and parents. What they should do with their lives, what it means to be productive, who it is they should look to emulate, these are questions education should be helping students to answer. Schools must make an effort to provide their students with the guidance that all young, inexperienced people can benefit from. Whether or not they follow the advice they are given is irrelevant, simply making them aware that they have a choice will be a huge boon.

Chandran Nair is the founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow. He is also Chairman of Avantage Ventures. His book is entitled, Consumptionomics: Asia’s role in Reshaping Capitalism and Saving the Planet. With assistance from Surya Balakrishnan.