The Class of 2020
Congratulations to the Class of 2020. This is the time to cast a quick look at what has happened and where we are going.
First, it is clear that we live in a time of unprecedented change.
I am not even talking of the coronavirus and the lockdowns, disruptive though they are and they have messed our plans in so many different ways.
To put this pandemic in perspective, more serious influenza pandemics swept over the world post-Second World War in 1957 and 1968 in each of which a million people died, and nobody remembers them. The big influenza pandemic of 1918, the Spanish Flu, is estimated to have taken 50 to100 million lives, and even that is a footnote in history.
The complications brought to our life by the coronavirus will pass.
But there is a greater process at work. I am speaking of the disruptions caused by pervasive automation that is leading to permanent disappearance of jobs. Unlike the industrial revolution that replaced brawn by machine, the current AI revolution is replacing human minds.
The coronavirus has only hastened the process of automation. Since robots don’t catch the virus, there is talk of using them to replace humans in soldiering, agriculture, hospitality and meat plants.
How to maintain social peace in such a period? Experts are talking of UBI, universal basic income. But as we know, we don’t live by bread, movies, and drink alone. Are we marching into dystopia? We don’t know. But I believe in the future for humans are resilient and a way out will be found.
There are other pressures at work.
In recent years, experts were startled by the fact that nearly 95% of the students in the graduate programs of electrical engineering , computer science, and management information science, the three majors leading to tech and finance jobs, were mostly from overseas. This was happening all across the United States.
What would that do in the long term, given that American business and political elite had decided to ship out nearly all manufacturing to China?
It was evident that due to poor teaching of math and sciences in high schools arising from a misguided pedagogy, Americans were not present in substantial numbers in the pipeline connected to prized jobs in finance and tech areas.
Something had to give.
And so we came to have economic nationalists on one side and proponents of the status quo on the other. And then from time to time we saw fascists and communists show their face, doing what they could to bring the entire system down.
There are those who claim that globalization embraced by the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union has not been so good after all. The theory was that it was going to be good for all sides. But in reality, the working class in the United States has suffered, although it has may have been good for certain other countries. No wonder, opponents of globalization have begun to win elections in Europe and America.
Globalization can only work if there is uniform development in all regions and not if there is imbalaced production that we see now.
A lesson from history: Indian economy hollowed out during British Rule when local manufacturing largely ceased because of tariffs and taxess and later because of the advantage British factories came to have from the efficiencies of the Industrial Revolution.
It is estimated that India’s share of the world GDP went down from nearly 25% in 1790 to just 1.4% in 1914. And since it happened slowly, nobody knew whom to blame. The British administrators could act as guardians of law, order and virtue, while their policies prevented Indians from building factories to compete with Britain.
Now, in spite of recent gains, India’s share in nominal terms is less than 4% and perhaps twice that in PPP.
I am saying all this to make the point that the next few years will be of enormous challenge.
But with challenge comes opportunity.
With machines doing increasingly more tasks, the value of education will be in activities that require imagination and lead to human development.
There will be focus on individual creativity and fulfilment. Rather than the school or college counsellor deciding what profession is good, the student of awakened mind will know which path to take.
I exhort you to be the leaders of a new world where education is less of the mind as a vessel to be filled with information — forgotten soon after the semester is over — and more of a flame that is lit as was envisioned by the Vedic sages.
You need the light of that flame to understand what is going on and how to negotiate your way ethically and with compassion, with the larger good in mind.
Schools and colleges will have to go beyond the current focus on information, which is anyway at the fingertips of all via the smartphone. To place this information in context remember that 95% of the jobs in the real world require nothing more the use of Excel Spreadsheet.
In the new world, mere technical skills will not be that important. Education must inculcate character. The Yoga Sutra speaks of virtues such as purity (clarity of speech and action), contentment, self-discipline, self-reflection, and attunement to consciousness. These virtues fortify the individual in dealing with change and uncertanty.
The Bhagavad Gita says that the person of discipline can be whatever he or she desires. “In whatever way people surrender unto me, I reciprocate.”
But the mind can be a wonderful instrument or a hindrance in one’s path:
बन्धुरात्मात्मनस्तस्य येनात्मैवात्मना जित: |
अनात्मनस्तु शत्रुत्वे वर्ते तात्मैव शत्रुवत् ||
“For those who have conquered the mind, it is their friend. For those who have failed to do so, the mind works like an enemy.” (Bhagavad Gita 6.6)
Everybody does Yoga these days, but while asanas are great for fitness and concentration we need to go to the next step and learn to cleanse the mind so that each person, no matter what their origin and status or the color of the skin, has access to the extraordinary capacity to create that is everybody’s birthright.
Adding such wisdom to the knowledge you have gained in classroom will prepare you for the challenges of career and life and make you exemplars to others.
Blessings and आशीर्वाद.
This was delivered as the Marshal’s Address at the Virtual Hindu Commencement organized by the Hindu Students Council for graduating students worldwide on June 6, 2020