In the development of human thought, the letter has always been a major medium of expression. The postman has, over the entire existence of humankind, facilitated the sharing and evolution of ideas. Spinoza wrote detailed arguments, proofs and treatises in the form of letters to his friends, usually as replies to questions or statements that they wrote to him. Given the times had any of Spinoza’s works been published he would have most probably been burnt at the stake. His friends maintained and protected these invaluable pieces of correspondence and later published them. The world is forever indebted to them.Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works is full of his letters, each one of them offering a piece of wisdom, for those who care to read.

Then there is the Open Letter. Emile Zola’s J’Accuse and MLK’s Letter From Birmingham Jail were not just political statements but also manifestations of the power of this medium.

But the Open Letter was a medium for expression of the common man as well. The Letters to the Editor were, probably, the most organised form of open letters through which citizens could bring to the public attention their views on the world. When one sees the proliferation of open letters in the blogosphere, once again, citizens have now a new platform to leverage the medium.

But the tools for publishing open letters aside, there is also the craft. A letter, whether private or open, is not a lecture. It is not a one-way traffic exchange. It is, rather, part of a dialog. A letter may be replied to thus starting a conversation or it may itself be a reply to something as was the case for Spinoza or Gandhi. A letter is one piece in a train of thought and is written in a way that keeps the thread going thus ensuring evolution of thought.

In that respect, this open letter which lectures Indian graduates falls way short of any of these high standards. Let’s see how it is written.

This is your new employer. We are an Indian company, a bank, a consulting firm, a multinational corporation, a public sector utility and everything in between. We are the givers of your paycheck, of the brand name you covet, of the references you will rely on for years to come and of the training that will shape your professional path.

This opening sentence, in a way, closes the argument. It immediately puts the graduate (and post graduate) on a rung lower than the author. By calling attention to the author’s status as “givers of your paycheck” “brand name“, etc, the author is driving home the point that he sits on a pedestal much higher than the student. In street Hindi, this is equivalent of saying, “hum aapke mai baap hai, isi liye aapki hesiyat / aukat samajh lo“. So is any dialog possible after this where the graduate (and post-graduate) can freely reply and add to the topic of discussion?

I don’t intend to go into the merits of the arguments laid out by the author. There are larger national issues concerning Indian graduates and being “employable” is one of many.There are also even larger issues running deep in many professions – finance, for example, is still facing a deep crisis of trust scarcity.  These are topics for not just a separate post but a full and detailed deliberation.

What I want to state here is that the “tone” and “style” used in the letter is itself an example of the attitude deficit that the author is trying to expose amongst the new kids. And it seems this attitude deficit is also evident in the responses to the open letter. I also would like to make it clear that this is not a personal character assessment of the author. In fact, I am extremely sure that Mr Chandra has the best of intentions in ensuring that new generations of business leaders make a positive difference to society.

But at one level, one needs to recognise that the hindsight of experience is a gift that our young lads don’t have. Often, we professionals after so many years don’t realise the distance that has come up between us and the student.

Today, we regret to inform you that you are spoiled. You are spoiled by the “India growth story”; by an illusion that the Indian education system is capable of producing the talent that we, your companies, most crave; by the imbalance of demand and supply for real talent; by the deceleration of economic growth in the mature West; and by the law of large numbers in India, which creates pockets of highly skilled people who are justly feted but ultimately make up less than 10 percent of all of you.

There is no way a 21-year-old student will ever get to truly feel and assimilate the real dynamics of industry, economy and indeed, society. It takes years for people to get an insight into them. Give  them a break. These are the years when people have aspirations and dreams overflowing out of every pore of their body and however stupid or ridiculous they may be, they serve as motivational energy as they drive through competitive exams, family pressures, peer group comparisons, etc. Mr Chandra would have been, imho, much more enabling if he could have, instead of taking the higher moral ground,  tried to empathise with them and then laid out the possibilities open to them.

 

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