Education is one of those things that someone is always complaining about… like taxes, politics and the Indian cricket team. Among the educated middle class especially, there is almost unanimous, and amusingly self-denying, agreement – everyone seems to believe that education is the solution to a majority of our problems, yet they also believe that the current system of education needs radical reform.
The first question is what should such reform entail. The upper crust of Indian school and undergraduate students score pretty high in tests compared to the rest of the world, especially in STEM fields. However there is, perhaps, too much emphasis on learning by rote. The vast majority of students who are in not in the upper crust never use the knowledge they learn in school. Rather education ends up being a race for degrees, and the holistic aim of making informed and intelligent citizens is lost.
In contrast, countries like the US err on the other extreme. The US school system does away with rote entirely, to such an extent that a student’s entire knowledge is conceptual, never actually tested or even put on paper. This method is very effective in higher education, when the students are mature, motivated and capable of testing themselves, whereas the discipline of Asian middle and high schools is demonstrably much better for younger students.
So there are no magic bullets. Given such a nuanced problem, the more important question is who can or should reform education. Should it be the government?
An idealist might believe that the people are the government and each citizen must make choices that enable the change that they want to see in society. Cynics might believe that the government is a toothless organization, a purely regulatory body constructed only to maintain the status quo and give society stability, incapable of innovation. Neither can realistically expect “the gourment” to magically do anything by itself. Only the lazy and intellectually dishonest can truly lay any sizeable responsibility for major social reform onto the government while they do nothing.
I claim that innovation and social change has to come from the people. Many take the onus upon themselves personally and become teachers and professors who impact the system, one student at a time. I have wanted to be a professor myself for the longest time, and I probably will… eventually.
However, the democratization of information sharing has allowed talented, motivated entrepreneurs, even with no capital or leverage, a shot at making a bigger difference. The explosion of startup culture is has suddenly placed societal change within the framework and reach of a rational common man.
Some might question the faith that I express in entrepreneurs. How can we count on fickle dreamers for social progress? A company that fundamentally redefines the way we think and learn would come once in a generation, how is that be trusted an engine of change?
Its true, entrepreneurs are not reliable. But harbingers of change never are. Most of the explorers who left Europe looking for India probably just died trying. We scarcely remember them and focus, rather unjustly, on the one person who finally did make it. But the future does not hinge on that one person. Rather as more and more explorers and entrepreneurs dare to bet their lives and careers on a vision, they pressure society to notice them, and indeed follow them, until eventually change is inevitable. And sure sometimes they might not find their destination and land up in a whole other continent. But in the process they would have found a new way of doing things, a new world, which will live and die by its merits. And if it survives it has the potential to change the future.
This Friday marked the launch of Laughuru. It is an education startup aimed at making learning fun, and more effective, for middle school children in India. I had a small part in its development from the inception. But its primarily the hard work of Vaibhav Devanathan, my classmate from IITB, and the great team he has built around himself. He is a true explorer, having left a lucrative offers at McKinsey and Harvard Business School to pursue a dream.
Only time will tell how big an impact it will have. In the meantime, all an explorer can do is follow the compass in his head, read the stars and tackle what lies ahead. One rosy sunset, or one perfect storm, at a time.