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  • Ashwin Mahesh

School's out, life's in.

Of all the things I treasure about my education, I value most what Dr.Anjeneya Swamy taught me in one course at B-school. He is a small man, made a little in the image of Hercule Poirot, I tell myself sometimes, with his eccentricities, his startling language, and quiet convictions. Although I suspect I was his favorite student from my years at Pondicherry, he would be loathe to indicate so even in the slightest. He was one of those rare instructors who made me try to impress him, despite my inertial laziness; folks like him have made all the difference.

The very first day of economics class at business school, Dr.Swamy referred contemptuously to those seated at the back of the class as derailed bogeys, cut off from the intelligent world of which he was instructing us. To be sure, he knew that we would all, for the most part, (yours truly being the exception here!) go on to extraordinarily rewarding careers filled to the brim with money and opportunity. But his class was not a place to dream of those distant riches; instead it was a place to learn, to become aware of one's place in society, and to understand the foundations of its economic realities.

A few years after I had graduated from business school, I convinced myself that he was quite an oxymoron - a socio-economic egalitarian in an environment that unabashedly promoted material and individual wealth, a socialist in the lion's den of capitalism. But he was effective, no denying that. After the first week of E.F.Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, there was no doubt that he had won my heart and mind. The message in his bottle was simple and irrefutable, the evidence of my senses was its only buttress, and he used it well.

Our education, he averred with Schumacher's unerring instinct for the immediate, is not a passport to privilege in society, but a badge of honor we ought to wear with pride, and with the intent to serve the society which made it possible. Tie and lace parties on Cuffe Parade and the laid-back pubs on Bangalore Cantonment were easily at hand to all who passed within reach of the education we were receiving, and to merely embrace them would be no indication of special learning, he pointed out. The true measure of our learning must instead lie in the lives of those who benefit from it.

The utopian pronouncements of the Schumachers and John Galbraiths of this world aren't exactly the stuff of lore on Main Street, I assure you. Yet they have maintained the same tenacity that Peter Drucker or Tom Peters, at the other end of the spectrum, are known for. Strangely, it is not the validity of their economic theories that has engineered this; instead it is that their messages resonate in the dark places of our hearts, where we know with a gnawing certainty that we have arrived this far partly by denying others.

The thought has persisted through the years since; indeed it has mushroomed into a conviction I don't even question any longer. This past month, I received my Ph.D. at one of America's leading institutions of research into the Earth Sciences. As I contemplate the years that have led to this day, I realize again and again that milestones like these, though they may be personal, reflect the culmination of society's choices just as much as my own.

For better or for worse, this is how it happened. Some farmers worked the land so others of us could go to school, poor and malnourished children worked in our homes while we learned of faraway lands and the opportunities in them. Some folks washed clothes on crumbling sidewalks as we stepped carefully past them in our pleated skirts and pressed pants. As they remained mired in misery and ignorance, we married into fortune and awareness.

I say those things not to accuse anyone, but to draw attention to the fundamental truths about education in India. Some of us are educated, and others are not. Mostly, this has been possible because the corridors of power are lined with our values. The inertia of our efforts for the downtrodden and the willingness to protect our own interest has brought the urban middle and upper classes to the frontiers of opportunity on a global scale. But it has come at a terrible price for those who are not among us.

My education, Drs.Schumacher and Swamy taught me, ought to be a vehicle of service to those whose sacrifices have made it possible. For the lessons themselves, I cannot thank them enough, but I will hope that the application of my learning shall be the measure of my having learned them well. Now that school's out, it's time to find out.

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