Time to unlearn the West?

Tuesday, 5 October 2010 22:18 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Recently, I overheard the conversation between two people, who were of European origin. They were planning to meet socially, and the line used was “let’s meet for dinner and drinks”.

In Sri Lanka we would never do that; i.e. meet for and dinner and drinks… We always meet for drinks and dinner. May sound like a subtle difference, but the fact is that we are worlds apart with our eating and drinking habits when compared with the West.

It is a general habit for Sri Lankan hosts, to see to it that their guests are suitably inebriated, before any serious food passes their mouths. An unhealthy habit I am told by the health watchers, but nevertheless a ritual fiercely followed by us Sri Lankans whatever our social background. Most Westerners (sorry for the stereotyping) will never hear of it. They may indulge in the odd aperitif but never alcohol in large volumes before meals.

This brings me to a certain point. The alcohol example may not be the best to illustrate this point, but we Asians are different to the West and therefore have to find ways to do things differently. For years we have been heedlessly following the West, aping them to such a degree that we thought (and still think) that even their systems of education were the best for our children. And what has happened as a result? A generation of our children has either moved or is planning to move to Western parts – why, because we think that there is where opportunity lies, more than what we would find here.

Is that really the case? Anyone who does some careful research will know that there is no hope of any opportunity left in the West. The once American dream has turned into an American nightmare. The Americans and the Europeans are now trying to lock their borders, in order to conserve whatever opportunity remaining for their own. This, from the people who were talking to us about globalisation a mere 10 years ago.

Every day we see the bastions of Western thinking and culture crumbling. The latest I read about was in a recent Fortune Magazine article. It’s a story about a guy named Josh Kaufman, a 28-year-old entrepreneur and former Assistant Brand Manager for Proctor & Gamble, who thinks business school, is pretty much a waste of time and money.

MBA programmes, he says firmly, have become so expensive that students “must effectively mortgage their lives” and take on “a crippling burden of debt” to get what is “mostly a worthless piece of paper”. Kaufman believes that MBA programmes “teach many worthless, outdated, even outright damaging concepts and practices”. And if that’s not bad enough, he insists that an MBA won’t guarantee anyone a high-paying job, let alone turn a person into a skilled manager or leader.

To Kaufman’s way of thinking, the only reason someone should go to a business school for an MBA is if they want to work for a prestigious consulting firm, investment bank, or a Fortune 500 company which uses elite business schools as a filter to decide who to interview.

“If you want to work in an industry that uses the MBA as a screen, you are effectively buying yourself a $150,000 interview,” he contends. “If you want to do anything else in business, if you want to start your own company, get a job in another field, you don’t have to have an MBA. It’s better if you don’t because of the debt.”

Kaufman is emerging as business school’s most unforgiving critic. Founder of PersonalMBA.com and the author of the forthcoming book ‘The Personal MBA,’ he’s a passionate advocate for what he calls self-education. Instead of paying up to $350,000 in tuition and forgone earnings to go to Harvard, Stanford or Wharton, Kaufman says a better way to learn business is to open the pages of classic business texts and learn on your own.

I am not in any way bashing the local business schools. But I think it is time that we read the signs of the times. I also think it is time that we rethink what the West has been urging us to believe – that the only way to success is to learn their ways.

Almost every day I see reports in the Western media such as CNN, stories that contradict earlier Western beliefs. Just yesterday I saw a story on how banks in the USA were relooking at the foreclosure policy on housing loans – why, because they did not do proper research on the people they lent money to; something our local banks could have taught them years ago.

My mother always told me “it is not what you earn, it is what you save” that matters – but I used to always point out to her the West as an example – a highly borrowed society who were yet successful (in hind sight only seemingly). I don’t have to end this story, it is now written in the annals of history.

I believe that one has to do some careful thinking in planning and channelling a child’s education, it is not about going with the flow. It is important for us in Sri Lanka to analyse what is taught in the higher educational progammes. Any master’s degree worth its salt must encapsulate local experience and knowledge, in business, commerce and politics. We need to teach the next generation, Sri Lankan and Asian lessons.

Just yesterday there was a CNN report on a family, using the story to showcase ‘how to live right’ and this involved how to live within one’s earnings. Here in Sri Lanka one does not need an MBA or like qualification to know how to do that, although I am not so sure about those in the West.

Having said that, it is not my intention to claim everything they have done to be wrong. I am sure if we switch to the habit of drinking after meals, we would be drinking in a far healthier manner; but it is also my view that there are many things that we have learnt from the West that the time has come to unlearn.

(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)