If we don’t embolden the blue collar worker enough, we will get a nation of engineers who know, who can and will quote statistics, but who can’t get the job done
Economic imperatives are aligned with the gig economy
We want to educate our children into careers that empower a brain drain which, if left unchecked, may take away or push out more than 25% of the population
A friend of mine pointed out not too long ago that nearly every Sri Lankan parent wants his or her child to be a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, an accountant, etc. This friend, who was clearly incensed by it, contended that if everyone wanted to become a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, or an accountant, “No one would want to acquire the skills necessary to repair a leak in their homes, or on a wider scale, the skills necessary to get rid of garbage dump collapses and other issues which clearly need hands-on expertise that paper qualifications and white collar professions do not pass on.” The gist of the argument was the same argument I pointed out weeks ago in this paper: if we don’t embolden the blue collar worker enough, all we will get is a nation of engineers who know, who can and will quote statistics, but who can’t get the job done. It’s like identifying where a transmission line has tripped and gone off, but without the necessary fleet of workers and inspectors who know how to get up and fix that line.
However, this friend was bothered less about the divide between blue collar and white collar than the (even more) perennial and fundamentalist divide between those who take to professional fields and secure jobs at the cost of those career options which are seen at the fringe and are hence not favoured as much. “Chekhov wrote beautifully, there is evidence to suggest that his encounters at Sakhalin Island, traumatic as they were, helped him perfect his prose. Is there any reason to suggest that he would have been better if he remained a doctor, without taking to literature?” he characteristically quizzed me. Of course, I was stumped, in particular because some of the world’s greatest and most loved writers, like Bulgakov, Somerset Maugham, and the immortal John Keats, dabbled in, if not took to, the field of medicine. “If doctors learned to read and write, if they could versify, the world would be a better place,” a teacher of mine, reflecting on how compartmentalised we’ve become, put to me one day.
Sri Lanka has always faced a higher education problem. Of those who qualify for entrance to a local university, only very few actually get in. To top it all, a rigid arithmetic formula designed to address inter-regional disparities ends up preventing candidates living in “privileged” areas from making it beyond their A Levels. One student I know, from a Colombo school, had to sit for his A Levels thrice. On all three occasions he had received exceptional marks (three As, to be specific), but because he was from Colombo, and because he had studied in the Science stream (heads up the most difficult stream to get through in the local syllabus), he had to perform more exceptionally than students from less privileged areas who had got in with two Bs and one C. One could call this a tragedy, a necessity, or a twist of fate and karma. I prefer to see it as a consequence of the way we look at education, and the problems attendant on what we privilege and what we think our children and students should become.
I know and know of students who say they regret choosing Science for their A Levels. I know and know of students who, after trying Science out for one or two years, feel so famished that they switch to a subject which tests their so-called right brain (Art, Media, Geography, History, Economics). All this is part of a tragic roundelay: we want our children to become doctors and engineers, forgetting that medicine and engineering are two fields in Sri Lanka which, paradoxically, push their practitioners to leave their country in search of better prospects, and greener pastures, elsewhere. We want to educate our children into careers that empower a brain drain which, if left unchecked, may take away or push out more than 25% of the population (that is, the percentage of the young, between the ages of 18 and 25, resident) in the future. This is a risk we are taking with the young, and the irony is that only a small proportion of those who pass out from their A Levels, and qualify for entrance into a university, actually go beyond what they’ve done. If there is a bottleneck somewhere, there must be a solution somewhere. The solution, as always, is to look for alternatives.
That’s where alternative career options come into play. Take any school, particularly from the more affluent suburbs within Colombo, Kandy, and Galle, and chances are that the number of those doing Science for their A Levels vastly outstrips that of those who do Maths, Commerce, and the Arts (and in that order). In the early days, being a doctor or a lawyer was seen as a status symbol in a context where a village, or an entire region, boasted of only one or two practitioners in those fields. Now, with the democratisation of knowledge and the drive away from specialisation (ironically, the gig economy, or the economy of Uber and PickMe, has enabled people to work with multiple jobs, two, sometimes three, and very often within the same day), along with the wave of protests and notoriety which have greeted doctors (over SAITM) and engineers (particularly over those at the Electricity Board and their ambivalent preference for coal over renewable energy), people, particularly young people, who have been encouraged to pursue other options, are pursuing them well enough. They are not rich mansion owners by any stretch of the imagination, but they are doing much better than those who labour on to be practitioners of the more renowned professions. Clearly, economic imperatives are aligned with the gig economy.
Being productive means working at a job that you are happy with, so happy that it translates at the end of the day to more work, more output, and a better deal for both the consumer and the producer
There are those who suggest that the gig economy works well in countries where “productive sectors are declining”. While true, this rakes up the inevitable question, “What is productive and what is not productive?” Sound engineering, advertising agencies, and of course taxi cab services, are for me the definitive sectors of the gig economy. (Sound engineers can be part time lecturers or musicians, copywriters at advertising agencies are now increasingly being recruited as part timers or freelancers, while taxicab services, whether multinational or localised, are thriving in Sri Lanka through drivers who work at night and work during the day in other, more respectable and formal occupations.) It took a great many months and years for the gig economy to catch up with Sri Lanka, or rather for Sri Lanka to catch up with it, but chances are that once we’ve caught on fully with it, it will be here to stay for a long, long time. Which brings me back to that question I posed before: What is productive?
To me, being productive means working at a job that you are happy with, so happy that it translates at the end of the day to more work, more output, and a better deal for both the consumer and the producer. Medicine is a productive field if its practitioners fall fairly and squarely into this definition. If they do not fall into it, they start looking for greener pastures, and once they embark on their search, their quest, this inevitably leads them elsewhere. If productivity is to flourish, thus, there’s no harm in carving paths in other jobs and other areas, especially the arts, where the very definition of “a good job done” is to come up with a work that satisfies its client. Contemporary society has found a way of compounding art and commerce; the necessities of the one are those of the other, and through advertising, artists have discovered a niche. Of course, one can argue that for every successful music entrepreneur, there will be a dozen others who will fail and flounder. But that’s how creative industries operate: a grand phenomenon built on the failures and flaws of its predecessors and its past.
I have never understood this obsession over driving children into “respected” fields parents prefer nowadays and chances are I never will. While they have justifiable reasons, the statistics and the trajectory of those sad statistics into the future do not justify those preferences for science, engineering, accountancy, and law over the arts, economics, history, media, and geography. After all, if this were a nation of scientists and engineers only, and if those scientists and engineers didn’t know a thing about how other fields operate, we wouldn’t have much to pin our hopes on, with respect to the future of the country or the future of those who take to science and engineering.