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Semiformalishmaybe

Plan Bs and Dignity

I thought this TEDtalk about a informal university system for the deeply-poor-and-disconnected villages of India was really interesting, but I have mixed feelings about it.

The speaker grew up in a privileged family, but stepped off the beaten path for the wealthy in India by moving to a small, disadvantaged, disconnected village to see how they live. After a time, he had the idea of starting a "university" for those people, in the sense of a place for collaboration for the relatively unskilled labourers of the world practicing often-but-not-always traditional professions. They do neat stuff, offering a way for midwives and shamans and such to share knowledge. They've also had outreaches to similar places in Afghanistan and Africa. Many of those they teach are illiterate and don't speak the same language, so it's very hands-on and uses sign-language for communication.

So far so good. I see this as a great way to improve the lot of the many people who have so far been outside the reach of the modern world, and at least some of it reaches up into semiskilled labour, like wiring villages with solar power.

What bothers me is that he seems to enjoy thumbing his nose at more formal education and the fully-modern world. I see his work as being enormously valuable at building a fourth tier for education, after our three existing tiers:

  • Proper Universities that educate people on the deep theory behind disciplines while also providing people with a broad understanding of the world needed for personal growth/being a good citizen. (Also typically advances those fields)
  • Vocational Schools/Colleges that educate people enough in a discipline to fill reasonable roles in the economy in that field, often providing additional business knowledge and other practical skills for added depth
  • Pre-University schooling in developed nations that provides literacy, a reasonable survey of a variety of fields, and other qualifying knowledge needed to learn many fields (like basic maths)
His fourth tier is great for areas in developing nations that are left out from the modern world. He should be proud of what he's doing, and that areas of the world that are neglected are seeing some improvement in their lot. I don't think he should pose his work as a better alternative to the higher levels of development possible; it's an excellent stopgap measure until we can actually bring access to the higher levels of education to everyone, not a fully-fledged-and-equal alternative. I think he's doing a grand thing, I just feel he's thinking about it wrongly. Eventually we want everyone to both have the kinds of practical vocational skills and the theory behind them that helps people more flexibly apply them (plus the broad knowledge needed to be a good world citizen).

It is an open question whether, with the proper place and scope and role of these schools understood, the ego and drive needed to sustain them would be there. Founders and students might need to wrongly think that they're actually competitive with fully educated people in order to really throw themselves into this. This might amount to a 「Noble Lie」.

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