I watch Chef’s Table on Netflix not because I love to cook, but because the series focusses on how Michelin starred chefs from around the world came to be who they are. The series goes into what inspires them, how they marry disparate fields, geographies, ideas and ingredients to produce what they do. The series is ultimately about innovation. Ideas. How austerity, an inquiring mind, an indomitable spirit, faith in self and love shaped the lives of individuals whose kitchens and restaurants effortlessly command waiting lists that sometimes exceed over a year. In a similar vein, a recent documentary I saw on the fashion house Dior, focussed on the life and vision of its founder, Christian Dior. In breaking so sharply away from the austerity that coloured post-war France, and by using reams of cloth to adorn women, Dior created what Harper’s Bazaar called at the time a new look, creating a revolution in fashion and also, in how it was presented. Here to was an individual who was inspired by more than what surrounded him, and had a vision beyond the circumstances and context that coloured, and indeed, held hostage the present. How do we cultivate individuals like this? Innovation and invention are based on a healthy imagination, lateral thinking and critical appreciation. And yet, Sri Lanka’s education system is designed, from kindergarten to university, to actively seek and destroy all three.
How do we go from producing robots, who merely vote and wait, to citizens who interrogate and truly participate?
Recently, I asked some individuals to come up with ideas around how two key historic events, the anniversaries of which fall next year, could be presented in a way that was original, avoiding tired tropes and ideas that had been employed in the past. It proved near impossible for them to do this. Often invisibly and long after formal schooling, Sri Lanka’s education system and societal structures debilitate and stunt the mind. I have witnessed this at Colombo University, the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and other places I’ve taught over the years – where there is an almost complete inability by senior, often very experienced students to come up with a critical question, or any original commentary around a challenge posed. Tellingly, even some who have been to international schools, ostensibly free from outdated syllabi and outmoded pedagogy, continue to be hostage to received wisdom, uninterested in reading anything other than what is professionally required, absolutely necessary, required for career progression, or will be talked about at the next job interview.
There’s some hope. Saturday last week was almost entirely spent listening to young adults, between fifteen and twenty, from across Sri Lanka pitching ideas around social change, development, education and innovation as part of Ashoka Foundation’s newly established Youth Venture programme. The students came from Kandy, Colombo, Dehiowita, Puttalam, Matara and Negombo. What completely floored us as a group of three judges – who had to select those who would make it to the Ashoka programme which essentially developed their entrepreneurial skills to scale up their ideas – was the vision and original thinking that underpinned the submissions. From tackling clinical depression to teaching English language as a platform for inter-communal reconciliation at the village level, from clean and green energy ideas to food and electronic waste management, from their use of social media to mobilise supporters and volunteers to the manner in which in some cases, they had approached well-known corporate entities for logistics support and supply chain management, the students were uniformly able to present ideas that pushed the envelope around what many adults would have thought possible, or even desirable. It was utterly refreshing.
Almost all the students clearly came from austere economic circumstances. When probed as to how they started to think the way they did, many attributed it to an enabling, non-judgemental environment at home that didn’t scold, shame or censure failure. Others were clearly motivated by their teachers in school, or the science teacher in particular. Everyone had a safe space to experiment, fail, learn and try again. Everyone had champions – within the family and from outside – who believed in them and what they wanted to see, or achieve. One participant, an inventor who was barely a teenager and had won prizes at the national level for his creations, said that what drove him was not a search for answers, but a quest for meaningful questions! A pair of female twins, who had organised a shramadaana in their village to clean up a river, had somehow managed to bring together Police, teachers, elders, the Buddhist clergy and other children by sheer determination and spoke of how every rupee they had been given was budgeted and accounted for. Everyone talked about scaling up their ideas, inventions, innovation and work. Many were explicitly driven by a need to help others less fortunate. Fellow adjudicator Anushka Wijesinha, Chief Economist of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the head of its Economic Intelligence Unit, shared a deep concern that the older these students would get, the more they would risk their imagination frowned upon by institutional architectures or insipid individuals in authority. Towards the end of the day, the both of us encouraged them to keep failing, in order to keep learning, and to never give up an inquiring, inquisitive mind, no matter what.
This all matters because democracy requires innovation to sustain itself. Think of Ray Wijewardene. Harsha Subasinghe of CodeGen and Vega, the electric sports car he’s making. Shantha Lenadora’s pneumatic retractor which limits tissue damage in abdominal surgery. Many more recognised by the Sri Lanka Inventors Commission or prize winners of the annual ‘Ray Award’. In our country, we frown down on innovation, and the most we often manage is to reward really interesting inventions. But as University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School Professor Adam Grant notes, being an innovator isn’t just about creating a product, service, or new technology. The world (and Sri Lanka) needs more entrepreneurs of ideas and institutions. This is what the students at the Ashoka programme demonstrated. And this is what is so starkly absent from other, older strata of society and polity.
I don’t know what magic sauce needs to be conjured up in order to seed, sustain and scale the ideas we encountered in those children, and the hundreds if not thousands of others like them, who start young to dream big, and set goals to achieve the change they want to see. The status quo, our terribly corrupt, failing, conventional and conservative political, societal and educational architecture, wants them all to fail. To simply conform and supinely comply. To become subjects, actively debating, creating, working and living within strictly circumscribed limits – a spectrum of tolerance, couched as hard won freedoms, determined by those in power, in order to retain power. From strictly commercial domains to social change, from politics to the community level at villages, a shift is needed to value ideas. The Eightfold Path of the Buddha speaks often of what’s right- the right speech, right effort, right mindfulness. What’s right though isn’t what is accepted, or what’s already present. The children in front of us knew that, and projected into a world that is unjust, unclean, inequitable, unfair and dysfunctional, ideas that could make it better than before.
More than anything I have read or heard, just listening to these voices from across Sri Lanka gave some hope that despite how much the system tries to clamp down, the force of new ideas always shines. The challenge for us in positions of influence and authority is how to make the sporadic, systemic, the unusual, the norm and these children, our future leaders.
First published in The Sunday Island, 20 August 2017.