For the past two decades, I have spent most days talking to people who count numbers or neurons. Every once in a while when they let me out of the reservation, I get to meet Real People – (RPs). After the usual chit chat, RPs usually ask me what I do and I reply that I study the mind. That gets me about a minute of silence, as if it was 30th January.
Then one of two things happens quite regularly: if the person is older and (often, though not always) male, he tries to convince me that his insight into the mind is superior to mine and if they are younger or parents of young children, they ask me for tips to make them or their children smarter. Unfortunately, I don’t have much to offer either of them. Science fiction novels and Silicon Valley hype to the contrary, the theoretical study of the mind is somewhat removed from applications.
That said, I want to convince you that two of my long term obsessions are worth your time and interest, perhaps even your money. The first has already been mentioned, i.e., the study of the human mind and human experience. The study of the mind doesn’t need much motivation; after all, we all have one and we find ourselves infinitely fascinating.
Second, every startup is in the business of finding a problem whose solution creates value, and value is as much about experience and feeling as it is about zeros and ones. My other obsession is education, especially higher education. These two are not unrelated; the more I learn about the mind, the more I am convinced that our higher education system is deeply flawed – not just the standard punching bag of rote learning and classroom skills, but also the memes in startup circles such as lean and agile thinking.
Lets start with some numbers. India is a young country, and one of our increasing successes – the education of a large majority of the population up to high school- is increasingly putting pressure on the higher education system. Half our population of 1.2 billion is below twenty five in age; assuming that those below twenty five are evenly distributed, it means that about 100 million people are of college going age. If we want about 20% of them to get higher education and assuming that assuming that a good college can have no more than 1000 students, we need 20,000 good colleges.
You and I both know how far our country is from creating that number of good colleges. So what are we to do? One school of thought thinks technology is the answer. I belong to that school every odd day of the week. On the even days I wonder at the naivete of technophiles. Given the way the human mind is structured, education is best done in a social, physical and face to face manner.
We learn from human beings, not computers, and I intend that as a word of caution at a time when technology in education is a buzzword and startups are threatening to change the face of education the world over. It might be worth asking if the current crop are making the same mistakes as their predecessors who pushed mail order degrees (cutting edge 120 years ago) and those who pushed TV based learning (cutting edge 60 years ago).
Don’t get me wrong; I am optimistic that technology can and will change education, but I believe it will be a new kind of technology; one that not only builds software and hardware, but also takes fleshware, i.e., our brains and bodies, into account. We don’t really know how those three come together yet. It is both a provocation and an opportunity and I hope to weave some of these threads together in future pieces.
The overall challenge for me is clear: how to make the mind sciences relevant to technology entrepreneurs and how to weave education and technology into that tapestry. I hope that many of you will find these issues interesting and raise enough questions for us to push the boundaries of the possible at the intersection of technology, education and the human mind. So let me end this column with a couple of cheers for the entrepreneurial mind, not only in startups but also in academia and in civil society, for it is that mind which will help us address the complex challenges that face our country and world.
[Rajesh Kasturirangan is part of NextBigWhat Select Program, an exclusive invite-only program that aims to bring together