Elite education doesn’t guarantee good values
A politician’s calculator tells him where the votes are. Education plays some role in shaping him. But, in the end, he selects what serves his interests. That decides whom he honours and what he condones
Jayant Sinha has the kind of résumé that many Indian parents dream of for their children. First, he goes to the hard-to-get-in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Delhi, then the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, and, finally, the pinnacle, Harvard. Sinha’s career then follows the trajectory that is predestined for such masters of the universe—McKinsey & Co. and then the Omidyar network.
And then Sinha gives up all that and returns home. He helicopters into Indian politics, and is appointed a Union minister of state, first for finance, then civil aviation. This is like a fairy tale coming true for many in the Indian middle class, reinforcing their fond hope of a government comprising capable people who would bring their world-class skills to serve the country. They wouldn’t do it themselves, but they want “people like us” (PLUs) to get into politics, because traditional politicians have been ruining the nation.
And then there is this grotesque, appalling image, of middle-class morality embracing barbarity. Sinha garlands men who have been found guilty of lynching meat trader Alimuddin Ansari, but whose sentence has been suspended by a higher court, and who are now out on bail. After stunned PLUs—journalists, academics and others (some of whom he would know personally)—rebuked him, Sinha said he supported the rule of law and opposed violence, but one must not presume guilt, missing the point that a properly-constituted fast-track court had sentenced the men. And while they are on bail, they haven’t been acquitted.
How could Sinha turn out like this? Is he any different from the minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises, Giriraj Singh, who visited riot accused in jail in his constituency, Nawada, or tourism minister Mahesh Sharma, who paid his respects to the body of a man who had died in custody—a man accused of killing Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015, in one of the early cases of lynching? There are other Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) politicians who have supported cow vigilantes. But Sinha isn’t supposed to be one of them. Why would he join such company? What went wrong? Didn’t his privileged education set him apart?
That questioning is fatally flawed. It assumes that the combination of elite education and a blue-chip career inculcates values not found elsewhere. An individual’s sense of ethics and the values of an organization are mutually exclusive. They often intersect, but just as often, don’t. Sometimes, the meaner instincts get sharpened—notice the number of alumni from top business schools or executives of large corporations in the US who are in jail for ethical transgressions.
We learn the basics—what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what isn’t—when we are young. We draw lessons from seeing which incentives reinforce what type of behaviour, and what leads to punishment. Parents, elders, teachers, all have a role in shaping our conscience.
By the time the student goes to IIT, he is in his late teens, and when he starts post-graduate education, in his mid-20s. He may be nearing 30 by the time he enters a consulting firm. That’s not an age when fundamental values can be taught: what’s good and what’s evil, whether ends justify the means, or whether means matter. If you see bad deeds going unpunished and incentives rewarding such conduct often, you might conclude that the goal alone matters, not how you get there. And a clever mind can rationalize and justify many things, including garlanding men found guilty of lynching by a fast-track court.
Sinha studied engineering and business. Engineering schools teach how to apply science and technology to solve problems and to make the world more efficient. An MBA degree helps analyse problems and provides tools to fix them. These are practical degrees. Only some business schools require courses in ethics, and the focus is often on legal compliance, not on normative values.
In The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, And India’s Future (2007), the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum laments the decline of liberal education in India, arguing that the rigid educational system is to blame for the rising appeal of fundamentalism, because the better-educated science graduates in India aren’t sufficiently exposed to humanities. Liberal arts education reveals nuances and ambiguities, where truth may be illusory and subjective; technological education emphasizes certainties, its logic binary, and truth a theorem to be proved. Those world views can clash—C.P. Snow feared just such a division in his famous Rede Lecture on Two Cultures.
Great scientists do appreciate nuance—they know that pursuing truth is long-drawn. But for those exposed to learning by rote, including many Indian students, the emphasis is on acing exams and seeing things in black and white terms. (There are many exceptions, and, in India, exceptions can run into millions.)
The question—how could Jayant Sinha do this?—is profoundly wrong because the assumption that his education prepared him to be compassionate and learn right from wrong is questionable. As former Mint Lounge editor Priya Ramani puts it in an article, the only person who deserved Sinha’s garland was Ansari’s widow, Mariam Khatoon.
A politician’s calculator tells him where the votes are. Education plays some role in shaping him. But, in the end, he selects what serves his interests. That decides whom he honours and what he condones. And he bears the responsibility for his actions.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
Comments are welcome at email@example.com. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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