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Manipuris in Mysore Taco Bell: Why English and philosophy are key to India’s jobs crisis

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They are central to building a skilled India.

New Year’s Day is a good time to reflect on what we need to learn in order to be successful and relevant in the years ahead.

We enter 2019 amid profound uncertainties: the world order is changing, global economics is changing, our domestic politics is changing and a lot of this is being driven by profound changes in technology. We have to find jobs, plan careers and prepare our children at a time the very definitions of the words jobs, careers and yes, even “our children” are up for review.

So what knowledge must we be equipped with to thrive in the coming years and decades? Asked this question, a couple of years ago Bill Gates told LinkedIn’s Daniel Roth: “I do think of basic knowledge of the sciences, math skills, economics — a lot of careers in the future will be very demanding on those things…to the degree you like science, engineering and economics, pick as much of that as you have an appetite for because those are the agents of change for all institutions.”

Now Gates, besides being one of the richest people in the world, is also among the most well-informed, insightful and well-connected individuals. He is not, as he says, advocating that everyone should be writing software, but “you need to understand what can engineers do and what can they not do.”

Also read: Hindi is not dead. Long live English!

Few of us in India need convincing that science, maths and engineering are important. His advice on economics is sound, but might come as a surprise to many. While the subject is included in some of our high school curricula, it is taught more like history, rather than as an analytical method like mathematics. Whether we are working professionals or students, getting a good handle on economic reasoning is important, both to succeed in our careers and to be good citizens. (No, economics is not accountancy, and accountants are not economists. To confuse to two would be to make a costly mistake.)

Gates was speaking to an American audience so, understandably, he doesn’t mention English. For us in India though, proficiency in English perhaps ranks ahead of our aptitude for other subjects. India’s economic success over the past three decades is primarily due to our professionals’ ability to work comfortably in English-language environments.

It is foolish to undermine this advantage at a time global competition is growing even more intense. So, regardless of what our political leaders want us to believe, and regardless of the damage they do to our future by running down English education, it is in our individual interest to acquire proficiency in English.

Also read: Why universities need to equip students with humanities education for fourth industrial revolution

The job crisis affects different parts of India in different ways, but I would bet that our English-educated youth have better prospects in India today than their monolingual counterparts. I am writing this from Mysore, where almost the entire crew of the new Taco Bell outlet comprises of smart young people from Manipur who speak fluent English. Leaders, parents and teachers do our children and young people a tremendous disservice by discouraging English education.

As Shyam Babu, senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi says, “English is no longer just a language – it’s a skill. Without it you remain an unskilled labourer.”

The big factor Gates missed out, however, just like he missed mentioning the internet in his 1995 book The Road Ahead, is philosophy. Yes, that’s right, philosophy.

Why? Because it is philosophy that allows us to navigate in a world where technology has advanced to the frontiers of fundamental human capabilities. Science, engineering and mathematics will allow us to develop technologies like artificial intelligence and gene editing, but it is philosophy that will help us think how and how not to put them to use.

Unless philosophy is understood by a wider section of the population, important questions around what it is to be human, what is ‘ethical’, what should be permitted and what forbidden, and why, will be appropriated by religious groups and other vested interests. Clearly, a secular democracy cannot allow its ethical and moral values to be determined by religious dogma or preferences of interest groups.

In fact, morality ought to be an outcome of public reasoning which, in turn, requires citizens to have a basic understanding of philosophy.

Already, many of the most interesting jobs today demand a grounding in philosophy. Corporations deciding privacy policies, data protection, R&D strategy, laboratory research protocols, corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, environment policies et al need professionals who can reflect on the deeper questions. In the absence of ethical reasoning skills, technocrats can make grievous errors of judgment.

Also read: Is the English language too powerful?

In the short run, our business and public policy schools must begin to teach philosophy seriously.

Our high school curriculum is packed, but I think economics and philosophy should feature in it (Sorry kids! But it’s for your own good.)

And, you don’t have to wait for this to happen: you can make a start this year by making philosophy a part of your weekly reading. It could help you in your career. Even if it doesn’t, you’ll be a better person for it.

You are welcome.

Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.

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  1. This is quite insightful. I second your thoughts on the importance of Economics and philosophy in today’s world. I’m student of Human resources and I could relate to this article well.

  2. No country has created jobs en- masse by resorting to a foreign language, nor have English speaking countries avoided job crises. Scientists have confirmed that skills are best absorbed when taught in the mother language. While humanities are essential it is not useful to teach them in English in India. Those who think, write and read efficiently in one language, their mother language, fare the best.

    • While you’re right when you say skills are absorbed best through the mother language, India has come too far now to go back and start demanding all skilled labour to be transacted in the mother language. Besides we have a huge number of languages all across, and attempting to enforce local language for skilled labour will lead to further challenges for the ever migrating population.

  3. Thanks for an interesting article.

    It is not just in answering ethical questions like what ought to be allowed/forbidden or how one ought to act that philosophy is useful. It is also crucial to understanding what it means to know, and why there might be various ways of knowing the world (like sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts, religion and spirituality etc.), and their respective roles in a society.

  4. English is important in the near future only( next 25 years maybe). With advances in machine learning/AI a babel fish(hitchhiker guide to galaxy reference) like device could very much be a reality. After maybe 50 years, English might well become a language again, and not a skill. The future is multilingual!

    Doesn’t economics include philosophy? Ethics and morality aspects of philosophy are included in economics.

  5. Mr.Nitin
    Can you recommend a good Philosophy book for adult beginners and one for school kids?
    Philosophy is such a vast subject that I don’t know where to start
    Just like how AI is the buzzword but the layman does not know how to make heads or tails of it because we don’t know where exactly to start dipping our toes into that ocean.

    • Hi Loga,

      For adults and older kids, I recommend Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass.
      For kids, there’s a beautiful The Children’s Book of Philosophy, by DK

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