John Sculley was a top executive at Pepsi and had everything going for him. At a time when Steve Jobs and his partner (Steve Wozniak) were just putting Apple together Jobs wanted Sculley to join the company and be its CEO. A hesitant Sculley was persuaded by a question that is now a famous quote: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world”? It’s often not where you started but where you finish that counts. Jobs had dropped out of college because he felt his calling lay elsewhere. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard the day he spotted an edition of the “Popular Electronics” magazine with a home-computer on its cover in 1975. He and his partner (Paul Allen) met the computer manufacturer and offered to write software for it. In one of his books Gates mentions that he felt he had nothing more to learn from Harvard. Both Jobs and Gates dropped out of college not because they were bad students or bad learners. They dropped out because they had their own visions.
So when Smriti Irani was appointed HRD Minister some folks questioned her educational qualifications for the job. The harsh criticism mostly came from Madhu Kishwar (an anti-Modi turned Pro-Modi activist) and Ajay Maken of the Congress. Naturally, our media then made a big story out of a petty issue. The response to Ajay Maken was easy because no Congi even has the moral or legitimate authority to raise this question as I tweeted him thus:
It is easy to dismiss a nit-picking politician but that does not answer the question if Smriti’s education or rather lack of it will be a hindrance to her new job. Some analogies that came to the defence of Smriti are also frivolous like this one from “Item-girls” specialist Suhel Seth:
Anyone who has read about Gates would know that he was a child prodigy with software designing and meddling with computers. He used to indulge in that since age 9. And when he saw the opportunity in software while still in Harvard he had a clear vision that one day every desk will have a computer. Classifying Gates as “not educated” is a silly defence for Smriti. Gates had a clear vision which has been borne out by the success of his company and by the fact that many desks in the world do have a computer now. There’s an old joke at Harvard where the Head tells professors: “Be kind to your “A” students because they will come back and be your colleagues. Be kind to your “B” students because they will be prominent public figures like politicians, lawyers. But be particularly kind to your “C” students because they will come back and donate money to our institution”. In other words, even top business schools mostly know which students are likely to succeed in which domain of life. Maybe Smriti had a talent for theatre and acting and maybe that’s why she dropped out of school.
I must mention here that I am only going by reports that she is 12th pass and I won’t bother verifying because it is immaterial to me. If she has filed any affidavits that claim differently that is for scrutiny and for her to clarify. In companies we often tell even the best MBAs “You may be an MBA but imagine you are only 12th pass, you will work like there is no tomorrow and find success”. But the question about Smriti’s education in terms of handling a ministry like HRD is not entirely invalid. After all, what we want to understand is even if she is going to be advised and receive a lot of counsel on policy-making will she be able to comprehend many concepts that form the basis for a good educational policy and HR development? Some with great degrees failed to comprehend good advice. Some with zero formal education who had to start to start with a zero base have often done better jobs. Time will tell.
That brings us to the question on what exactly is education? And that is the true purpose of this post. In simple terms education is a process of acquiring knowledge and skills to face life situations. Schools and colleges are a uniform formal system for such education for the masses. Each stage is a qualifying process for the next. Primary qualifies one for middle school, middle school for higher secondary, higher secondary for college and college for post-graduate and on it goes. This “assembly line” mass education is indeed meant for the masses to offer them enough knowledge and skills to make a reasonable citizen who can make an honourable living. But this system need not be the only one where knowledge and skills are acquired. Many who have found greater success in life have acquired such knowledge and skills from other sources. From the streets, from family, from friends, from experience and, most of all, from their own imagination, curiosity and dreams. At a starting point we tend to respect formal degrees a lot more. For other people we tend to respect their performance outcomes. But in the end in both cases it is finally the performance that counts and earns respect.
Just as Gates was a child prodigy in software, Smriti may have been a child prodigy in acting. Gates has contributed a lot more money to the world than many banks have. Sculley was selling Pepsi but shifted to computers. The reason is simple: Basic principles of sales and marketing remain the same regardless of the product or service. Has Smriti had her education in other ways than formal schooling? The answer would be yes because whatever knowledge and skills she acquired through her own pursuit brought her success. Did she migrate to politics successfully? The answer is yes; she joined politics and became an MP. Whether publicly elected or elected to the RS, she has demonstrated the knowledge and skill to get there. A renowned management firm is known to have once stated that after years of research they discovered there are only two indisputable truths “Water flows down and performance counts”. We have known people to migrate to different domains and responsibilities successfully. Smriti’s test starts now and time will tell whether she was the right choice for the job.
The outrage in some circles both ways; rubbishing Smriti and also dismissing anyone questioning her education stems from at least one possible reason and that is our most educated public figures have performed badly. In particular, people in govt and media with high qualifications from abroad have disappointed. The Macaulay Putris and Putras have heaped most scorn on ordinary Indians. Take a look at Sagarika Ghose:
It doesn’t occur to Sagarika that she spouts the same kind of filth that Mani Aiyar disburses with unrelenting frequency. She and Mani Aiyar are from the same Oxbridge clan. Mani Aiyar has been a darling at her channel for years and a regular panellist. Suddenly, Sagarika discovers Mani Aiyar is “foul mouthed” but didn’t have the guts to say it all this time when Congress was in govt. And why the comparison with Mani Aiyar at all? Why not with Rajdeep Sardesai or Barkha Dutt? They are all from the same clan but it is convenient to trash Mani Aiyar now for Sagarika because he has become irrelevant.
Education is not a limited venture or project. It’s a continuous life-long process. The purpose of formal or informal education is to make our children life-long learners. Any system or policy that contributes to it can do so through many different people with different education and abilities. Our job is to just keep learning. As for Smriti, water flows down, performance counts. That’s it.