In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine is the story of Ravindra Misal, who was born to poverty in rural India and is now a self-made man attempting to break India’s long-standing caste system. The story, by Anand Giridharadas describes Mr. Misal’s exuberance for a future unconstrained by the penurious conditions into which he, and others like him, were born. He is not alone. There are many more like him in India, eager young people unwilling to accept the limitations dictated by their “lowly” births. Driven by “the courage of their own dissatisfaction,” they strive to re-make themselves, to move from villages to big cities, to be in banking, not farming, and to develop something once discouraged by Indian culture and belief systems—individual personalities. These young people, the author argues, are likely to be the foundation of cultural change in the nation.
Opportunities for advancement in India, for those who are born to poverty, are limited because education resources are scarce for anyone other than the academic elite. Because there are no institutions offering quality instruction to these aspiring young Indians there is now, apparently, a new sort of educational institution, a middle-class “finishing school.” There students learn skills intended to equip them for better economic success. They’re taught English, something called “development of life skills,” interviewing skills, business fashion, confidence-building techniques and other classes that contribute to developing an individual personality.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, and it seems to be working for many as a way out of poverty. Why not have a sunny disposition, an outstretched hand and a spring in your step? The author of the article estimates there are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of them, enough perhaps to begin to change the country’s “essential character.”
But change it to what? People who can shake hands, make eye contact, speak English, and dress well? What kind of a society does that create? Their finishing school education has left them without deeper lessons, without knowing something about literature and leadership, philosophy and history. As the author of this article says, “Their heads were filled with…ways to win friends and influence people, not with the tolerance of Asoka, the poetry of Kabir, the universalism of Tagore.”
It’s a variation of the problem we’ve been discussing here, that is vocational vs. liberal arts majors. Sure, there’s far more rigor in a business education that there is in an Indian finishing school. But there are similarities in what’s missing from both the finishing school and the vocational majors—the cultural drivers that help people understand what’s important to do. It’s not enough to know how to drive. You have to have some idea where to go once you get behind the wheel.
When millions of young Indian people become the products of finishing schools, their economic prospects will be far better than their humble beginnings would have promised before. But the author of this article suggests it isn’t enough to know how to win friends and contrive teams if those acts aren’t grounded in a cultural heritage that acts as a guidance system. Exactly the same can be said for business schools producing graduates who are under-prepared in the same ways, lacking the cultural context in which they’ll be operating.