On Education

July 20, 2019

One of the stark realizations I have had since I began my education venture is the social standing of an educator.

A while back I met someone from my distant past. We exchanged details about where we are and what we do. As we spoke about how our lives have transpired, I got hit with a question that took me by surprise. “What about your career?”

After two decades of software engineering doing everything from enterprise software to open source to independent products to consulting, across multiple continents, I find that the largest impact I have on this world is when I can make someone go “aha”. The question wasn’t a surprise, but the fact that the question came up in close quarters after having sufficient background was.

Leading tech companies use the best minds available to make sure the next addiction inducing / time wasting app reaches the most number of eye balls or to take the world one step closer to a fully decked surveillance state. I find that most of my peers are walking that world, safe in their bubble, feeling important, unperturbed by the state in which they are leaving the world for their children to deal with. This is the famed tech career from before and I had trouble imagining a world where the question is legitimate.

The value of an educator

Life’s purpose and meaning are daunting questions and each person has to find their answer. For the sake of this discussion though, let’s generalize to the extreme and take “the selfish gene” as life’s purpose. You exist so that your gene succeeds. In essence your success or failure is singularly determined by your child’s success or failure to thrive.

In that context, lets think about the job of an educator. What does an educator do? They try to increase the odds of other’s success. Being an educator is one of the most impactful ways to lead a life and also the most altruistic based on our premise.

Yet, educators are among the underpaid, overworked and unappreciated class of essential workers.

Now, I realize I have setup a straw-man for my case here. However, I think its a fair and agreeable approximation.

Under-appreciated teachers, under-served students

As parents, when we look for schools to teach our kids, we look for the best ones. We want our kids to do great. We want them to become leaders of their generation. We try to find schools that give our children a platform to launch themselves into careers that skyrocket them to the top of the world.

How many of us would be happy to hear that our children want to be teachers or support their desire?

Can you spot the irony here?

At Puthir, nobody escapes creation. We create new things every single day. Students and facilitators alike. To create an environment that inspires this generation where instant gratification is oxygen, to work hard without any extrinsic reward requires a lot of creativity.

We were fortunate enough to find an intern who was a natural fit. He loved the work. He created art and became better with each passing day. We were hoping to get him to join us full-time, establish a center for him. When it was time for him to decide on his career, he was not allowed by his parents to choose Puthir as it was a “teaching” job and that’s not why they paid for his engineering degree. That was not the only instance. There was another that took up a job as a drone in a call center instead.

Given the way our society treats our educators, where does the blame for these missed opportunities lie?

The great Indian assembly line

Sometimes as early as 6th standard (grade), but definitely by the 9th, kids begin their preparation to get into one among the approximately 3289 engineering colleges in India. After 8 hours spent at the school, along with their rote homework, they take up additional coaching early on so that they get a leg up over the million other kids vying for these seats.

Evenings, weekends, sometimes with a couple of hours of travel, they convert their brains into dumping bags for facts, routines and formulae. They gain expertise in following the routine without question, they listen carefully to the instructions, execute their tasks with precision, keep an eye on their peers to ensure that they are at par or ahead.

The assembly line is healthy. There is a large, profitable industry capitalizing on the peer pressure promising returns as long as the students put in the effort. An industry with reversed accountability. Parents, students and educators participate in this dance to create efficient machines that are built to keep their corporate overlords rich.

Where are our creators?

We like to brag. Look at the CEOs. Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella, Indira Nooyi. We are doing great. Oh, we love it. These great Indian success stories. The strength of our culture. The efficacy of our education system. Oh, every patriotic nerve in our bodies tingle.

But, where are our Sergey Brins and Larry Pages? Where is our Steve Jobs? Where are our inventors? Where are our creators? Why is our workforce inundated with stress, mental and physical health issues beyond acceptable levels?

The ones that escape the clutches of this assembly line, by a freak but fortunate accident, venture into music, movies or writing. They have gotten the opportunity to create. Opportunity to be original. Opportunity to find their voice and find themselves.

For a country that has the worlds second largest number of software engineers, our throughput when it comes to programming languages, tools, frameworks or anything that pushes the boundary is shockingly negligible.

It is time.

To focus on creation. Innovation. The previous generations had reasons to be risk averse. The eons of slavery perhaps even mutated some of our genes to be risk averse. But this generation of parents have no excuse. We are not enslaved. We are not without opportunities. We are not our parents. Our kids deserve a better chance, our support, our confidence and our backing for them to be leaders, change makers and path finders.

Reform in education will come when we raise the value and stature of an educator. We need to get more people involved as educators. Not the kind of involvement where people dream up a curriculum and ask the world do their bidding. Not the ones that think answering a question online is all that the kids need. But the ones that are willing to duke it out with the kids to make them better. The ones that are life time learners. The ones that can create things while helping others become creators.

That is a tall order. To get there, we need to treat our educators better. Provide more autonomy so that education becomes a place of creation instead of an assembly line where everyone follows the same centuries old routines without agency. From the education boards to the administrators to the teachers to the students treating education as a manufacturing process has to stop.

This starts with the parents. Our children deserve better.