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Educated youth should put their privilege to good use

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Tulsi Jayakumar

This is that time of the year when business schools across the country prepare to admit students for two years of intense training on how to manage an organization, especially a for-profit one

This is that time of the year when business schools across the country prepare to admit students for two years of intense training on how to manage an organization, especially a for-profit one. As participants go about the ritual of selecting and being selected by B-schools of their choice, money is on everyone’s mind. They may well be crooning that 1963 Beatles number, Money (That’s What I Want), the lyrics of which go thus:

This is that time of the year when business schools across the country prepare to admit students for two years of intense training on how to manage an organization, especially a for-profit one. As participants go about the ritual of selecting and being selected by B-schools of their choice, money is on everyone’s mind. They may well be crooning that 1963 Beatles number, Money (That’s What I Want), the lyrics of which go thus:

The best things in life are free./ But you can keep ‘em for the birds and bees./ Now give me money (that’s what I want)./ That’s what I want (that’s what I want).

The best things in life are free./ But you can keep ‘em for the birds and bees./ Now give me money (that’s what I want)./ That’s what I want (that’s what I want).

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The choice of a business school typically depends on an estimate of the return on investment in graduate education, which each ‘investor’ tracks scrupulously. Some may plan to start their own little entrepreneurial ventures upon graduation, with the intent of being their own masters and making money independently. Others may expect to take up highly-paid corporate jobs.

And so it is that year after year, at this time, as a faculty member of a management school, I meet bright, privileged youth with mostly money on their minds but with scant ability to reflect on deeper issues affecting society. Interviews then become forums where opinions on issues such as the Disha Ravi case, or challenges facing the economy and society (or involving politics), are often met with a nonchalant “I am not interested in politics and don’t follow it" response, or some superficial explanation. It makes one wonder whether India’s privileged youth really care for such issues.

And yet, in a recent article, Manu Joseph portrays activism, privilege and youth as a heady cocktail in current-day India that he argues is best avoided (bit.ly/3uRa6qK). Exhorting the country’s privileged youth “of sound mind" to quit full-time activism, Joseph encourages them to “refuse to work in non-profit organizations, sack themselves as humanitarians and develop a suspicion for the hyper-morality that emanates from the West". Instead, he asks them to think materialistically—make money or start a business and do well in the material world. Activism-oriented do-gooding, he rues, is an inefficient way to make the nation a better place, and India’s young, especially its better-off, would do better to encash their luck in the for-profit material world.

My mind, wedded to a mission of ‘influencing practice’ and ‘promoting value-based growth’, balks at the thought of a generation driven by the sole purpose of making money—a generation that lives and swears by ‘YOLO’ (You Only Live Once) and is driven by ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out), the anthem song for which may well be Party All Night. Activism, however, already appears to be an anachronism for this generation and the last thing on the mind of such privileged youth.

Activism, especially youth activism, is far from a Western construct or hand-me-down. India’s Freedom Movement was led to a significant extent by people from privileged backgrounds who chose to accept the hardships of their endeavour.

Subhas Chandra Bose, the son of a prominent and wealthy lawyer, renounced a possible civil-services career after passing its examination in 1920, and was imprisoned for his nationalist activities even before he turned 25. Bhagat Singh, a folk hero of the Indian Freedom Movement, began to protest British rule when he was still young and was only 23 when he was hanged. Gandhi’s satyagraha (passive resistance), which formed the basis of the struggle for independence that he led, was partly the result of the discrimination he witnessed as a relatively privileged lawyer in South Africa.

However, activism today has come to be seen as a dirty word, with dissent and dissenters frowned upon. Yet, much of the political and social change for the better that we have had in India and around the world has been the result of youth activism.

The moot question is: Should people, more so the youth, accept passively the status quo, or should they dissent and look at issues critically? If the latter, who should carry the flag for such a change: should it be the privileged youth, with their economic security, or should it be the weak and financially insecure? Should the privileged youth restrict themselves to excelling in their chosen fields and concentrate on making money to improve overall national welfare (as Joseph urges)?

As a career academic, I believe that higher education, which is the preserve and privilege of only a small proportion of youth in India, should not be directed at narrow self-interest and the worship of Mammon. The youth should be encouraged to be better informed and engaged with what is happening in society and the world around them.

It is about time that Indian youngsters across school, university and B-school campuses are educated to look at various larger issues critically and express dissent in a reasoned manner. This is all the more important in a country that has the distinction of being the world’s youngest large nation in terms of its demographic profile.

Privilege and its associated opportunities for good-quality higher education in a place like India must never be squandered. The youth should be encouraged to become responsible citizens and change agents in the creation of a better society, rather than passive consumers, managers and leaders who accept the status quo if it serves their immediate material interests.

The views expressed here are personal.

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