Charaiveti: An academic's journey-3

Topics BS Opinion | education | academics

By the time I started regular school, my father’s home-schooling had prepared me enough to sail through the various half-yearly and annual examinations relatively easily. Indian exams, certainly then and to a large extent even now, do not test your talent or learning ability; they are mainly a test of your memorising capacity and dexterity in writing coherent answers in a frantic race against time. I found out that I was reasonably proficient in both, and that it is for the lack of proficiency in these two qualities some of my friends, whom I considered highly imaginative and creative, were not doing so well in school.

My father did not believe in “positive feedback”, would not praise me for doing quite well in the various exams in school (and later in university) —he used to tell my mother that overpraise may go to my head; instead, he’d ask me why the gap in my marks (those days marks were in absolute numbers) from the student who was ranked second has not inc­reased compared to last time!

Looking back, I think this lack of positive feedback served one good purpose in my later life. It has helped me in trying not to overestimate myself in any capacity. Even when other people have gushed with praise for me on various occasions in my professional career, while that has been pleasant, it was for myself largely water off a duck’s back (in a symmetric way, facing attacks and criticisms has not usually dislodged my footing). I usually tell myself that I more or less know what I am worth, nothing more, nothing less. I think I am not prone to false modesty, but I remember what Churchill said, in his usual pompous haughty way, about Attlee: when someone praised Attlee as a modest man, Churchill reportedly said, “He has much to be modest about.” I know very well I have much to be modest about.

One major difference between the world of school and my home-schooling (plus playing with neighbourhood kids) was that it made you aware how important social skills are, in cultivating diverse friendships and particularly in interacting with students coming from vastly different social backgrounds. Coming from a low-middle-class background in Kolkata, I had until then no idea how different the lifestyle of rich kids was (these were days when there was no TV to give you voyeuristic insights into the life of the rich). So when one rich classmate invited me to his birthday party, and asked me to give him a “tinkle” so that he could give our driver directions about how to reach his home, I could not easily tell him that our family possessed neither a phone to “tinkle” with nor a car. My phone-less, car-less status persisted all through my youth in Kolkata.

At the other end, I had some difficulty with the lower-middle-class attitudes to poverty that I found among friends and relatives. Some of them were a bit sanctimonious. The famous lines of one Bengali poet say: “O Poverty, you’ve made me noble/ Given me the dignity of Christ.” But when you look at poverty from close quarters, as I did in the extremely poor families of the children I used to play with, and later in the many village surveys I have carried out as an economist, one can see how utterly degrading poverty often is. At the same time, I have also seen how valiant the fight against poverty (particularly by women who are at the frontline of this fight) can be. This fight is not always very noble or dignifying; one can see (and even appreciate) how canny and devilishly resourceful you have to be.

In general, in popular culture all around me canniness was implicitly or explicitly highly valued. Even in the children’s fables full of anthropomorphic animals, I often noticed how the clever fox outwits everybody and often wins at the end and is a kind of role model. As a child I also used to ponder about the oft-repeated dictum, “honesty is the best policy”; we were being asked to be honest, not because it was morally the right thing to do, but all things considered, and may be as a long-term strategy one should opt for honesty. I found out later that this is very much akin to the way economists are trained to think.

There are some other aspects of the culture of poverty that I observed with great interest in my neighbourhood in Kolkata. One is the obsession with personal cleanliness and rites of purification (say, the number of baths you take after touching the wrong things) merrily coexisting with complete indifference to public squalor just a few steps outside the house. Later in life I read some cultural-anthropological studies of the sharp distinction Indic culture makes between the private and the public, the home and the outside world. Looking at the squalor, disarray and the shabbiness, some of which could be substantially corrected and repaired with some amount of community effort, I often reflected, even as a boy, why it is so difficult for the community to get its act together. This has been a running theme in my subsequent work in economics, both theoretical and empirical — trying to understand the difficulties of collective action, both at the micro-level (why do farmers resolve their water conflicts with other farmers more easily in some villages, but not in others) and at the macro-level (why do some countries, say in north-east Asia and north-west Europe, seem to succeed better in collectively organising short-run sacrifices for long-run bette­rment). The particular quest­ion of the impact of hete­ro­geneity and inequality, both social and economic, on success in such collective action has always interested me. In early 1990s when I came to know Elinor Ostrom (later to be the first woman to get the Economics Nobel Prize, although her field was political science), she told me that I was one of the very few economists she had met until then who were keen on issues of collective action in the local commons (her preoccupation). I told her that it all went back to the dingy neighbourhood in Kolkata where I grew up.

In 1983 I was invited by All Souls College, Oxford, to give one of their endowed lectures. In three lectures I reflected on the problems of collective action being at the heart of the political-economy problems of India, an extremely unequal and heterogeneous country. These lectures were published as a short book in Oxford the next year, and since then I have noticed a peculiar asymmetry in its reception among economists and other social scientists. This book got a kind of benign neglect from most economists, but among other social scientists, it is my most-cited work. This, I think, is partly because I did not publish in the book the background technical-theoretical notes I had which would have interested economists, but partly because it was mainly about some general speculations on India. Mancur Olson, a pioneer in the economics of collective action, when his attention turned to developing countries, showed much interest in that book, though by then my own interest had gone beyond his concentration on macro-level free-riding problems.
/> The author is Professor of Graduate School at University of California, Berkeley. The article was first published in the blog 3 Quarks Daily

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