Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is this criticism of Gen Next fair?

I am an old fogey. That perhaps explains why I have certain concerns about the younger generation. Concerns that may be expressed by way of the following questions:
  • Why do many young people seem to lack initiative?
  • Why are they unable to think for themselves?
  • Why do they seem so uninterested in the world around them?
  • Why don't they read?
  • Why do they find it difficult to write in English?
  • Why are they not focused on what it is they want in life?
As a teacher it is my privilege to meet and interact almost daily with students in their twenties, students to whom I pose these questions on a regular basis. I have realised over the years that, to a large extent, the System is to blame. Youngsters today just don't get the right encouragement in our schools and undergrad colleges. They are not taught the benefits of taking the road less travelled. They are not told that, provided work and assignments are not affected, it is okay to be rebellious and individualistic; in fact, the rebels are forced to "fit in".

Give these same young people the productive environment that should be theirs by right, I say, and they are bound to thrive.

I speak from experience here. Here's an excerpt from an e-mail I received not too long ago from a Commits alumna:

Most of us have come from colleges where the teachers themselves have no expertise or there is a complete lowered standard of expectations. My teachers in college barely knew I existed or cared or if I even turned in neat, well-written assignments. Three years went by in a blur and I had a total aggregate attendance of 38% in the first two years. I have always done extremely well in school and college and breezed through to the top of the class every time.

Work, however, was a nightmare; I didn't know how to write or format e-mails, submit detailed and well-written reports. Since I didn't even know what good standards were I would always fall short and I was labelled as 'disrespectful' and 'she has an attitude problem' even though I would spend hours working and put in a lot of effort. I spent two years at work crying every day and have even had a boss throw a report in the dustbin. I would 'hear' what they were saying but never get why.

And that's why I decided to get my Masters, although Commits happened by fluke on the day before the second entrance exam.

At Commits, life changed.

This e-mail reinforces my belief that if we don't overhaul the school and undergrad system, we surely cannot expect to see a change in the mindset of Gen Next.

These thoughts about the younger generation and the System came to the fore when I was reading poet and activist Meena Kandasamy's harsh criticism of Youngistan in the latest (16th anniversary) issue of Outlook.

Kandasamy's article, titled "All aboard the slave ship" and written in the form of an open letter, takes Gen Next to task for a multitude of deficiencies. Every paragraph shimmers with resentment, it seems. Here are a few excerpts:

You are a student. You seek to be highly educated, but you turn a blind eye to the academic terrorism that routinely cripples and kills poor students in universities. You never acknowledge the privilege of exclusivity. You strut about with the confidence that you will never slip below the poverty line. You never know the pain of exclusion. You would have never lost your home in a slum demolition drive.

You also think that India’s biggest problem is a boatload of terrorists from Pakistan. You have not heard of Khairlanji or Gadchiroli or Koodankulam; they are multi-syllable names of places that have never managed to sneak into your sublime conversations. Ultra-ambitious, you only enter lands that require your passport, your visa and your commercialised skill-sets. You are India’s shining, swaggering export. You have sold your soul for a song. You have sold your song for a sophisticated accent. You have sold your sophisticated accent for a sanitised silence.

You cannot make up your mind, NDTV and CNN-IBN do that for you. Therefore, you bleed before every heart-breaking, hair-splitting reality show and news bulletin. You cheer for Anna Hazare and glorify every Gandhian impostor. You are a self-anointed crusader against corruption. Your militant attire is Fabindia chic. Your deadliest weapon is candle-light. Your agenda is available online. You want to bring back the black money your politicians made, but you lack the guts to permanently put them out of business.

To her credit, Kandasamy understands that we are all in this together. Towards the end, she writes:

I writhe in guilt as I write to you. My searing anger at you is merely an exercise in self-flagellation; I lay no claim to a moral high ground. Sometimes, I am afraid that I am you. My dreams explode but my callousness kills me. I see in you every weakness that shows up in me. I write to you because I believe that you could be the stronger one.

Kandasamy's open letter prompted young journalist Rito Paul to publish a stinging rejoinder in DNA yesterday. "Spare me your sanctimony, your misplaced righteousness, and most of all the spasms that are making you writhe in guilt," Paul writes in his open letter to Kandasamy. He continues:

Yes, a certain section of the youth is certainly apathetic, as you write. And they shouldn't be. They should be more aware, and be more empathetic. I agree with that too. But what I disagree with is this: "Perhaps you will heed the call to arms, some day you will don combat gear. Some day you will step out of your selfish skin and speak up for the people. Some day you will wage war against every injustice and uproot every oppression. Some day your sacrifice will set us free."

How would you feel if someone wrote a piece addressing the men of this world saying, "Someday your sacrifices will set women free?" Would you not think it is sexist?

Paul then offers his defence of Youngistan's stance:

You know who'll help the oppressed? Well, they will, themselves. Just like they did in Kudankulam by going on a hunger-strike and forcing the government to reconsider its nuclear plans. And just like they did by protesting against the Khairlanji massacre in Azad Maidan and making sure the ones responsible were sent to jail.

This is a debate worth taking part in. Read Paul's open letter here (go to Page 8) and decide for yourself which side of the fence you want to stake out.
  • Illustration courtesy: Outlook

Curiously, the image and main headline on the magazine's cover appear to praise the achievements of Gen Next. So is Meera Kandasamy's open letter an attempt to redress the balance, so to speak? Or is it meant to provoke and get a buzz going?