An Unconventional Take on the Future of Education

August 11, 2020


By Roshan Paul, Co-Founder and CEO, Amani Institute

This text below was inspired by a keynote Speech Arthan invited me to give in July at their virtual conference on Building Civil Society Organizations. If you’re more of a video person, you can watch the recording here


When we talk about the future of Education, some people might focus on the education sector in their own countries, some might pitch for online learning, and currently the big topic is how we can re-open schools and colleges post-covid, which would also make for a reasonable keynote.

But there’s a topic more pressing to me: you. Each of you. As individuals, and as adults, facing a fast-changing future. And perhaps in there we may find some clues to where education too must go in the future.

There are 3 themes that are important to me, and have given me guidance in my own journey as an educator. These are:

  1. Reinvention and Lifelong Learning
  2. Living out Loud
  3. Our highest purpose

Reinvention and Lifelong Learning

“He not busy being born is busy dying”– Bob Dylan

This was my Dad’s favorite quote and I learned it from him. 

I’ve reinvented myself twice so far. The first was 2 decades ago when I gave up my dream of a career in cricket to move to the US to study. Rather than being bitter about the corruption in cricket at that time that prevented people like me from having a career, I saw the opportunity to build a global life and a global career. A few years later when I was a cricket journalist, I was offered the opportunity to drop out of university and just be a journalist but I said no because I knew I had to find a life outside cricket, something that would bring me more meaning.

A bigger reinvention happened 10 years later. After working in social entrepreneurship for 10 years, in 4 continents, 500+ social entrepreneurs, I decided to start a new organization working in leadership development and adult education. But prior to starting this organization at 32, I had no background in education, no formal training, not even any real teaching experience. And here I am, Co-Founder and CEO of an organization that has trained thousands of individuals all over the world.

Sounds crazy, but this is not that rare. Most innovators come from outside their field. Experts usually don’t change the status quo.

I’m sure there will be many more reinventions in the coming years.

I think it should be easy to see why this is important today. Nobody could have predicted what 2020 was going to be, and nobody can predict yet how this will shape 2021 and beyond. Maybe we’ll have another Great Depression or maybe we’ll have the Roaring Twenties all over again. The only thing we know for sure is that the times are going to keep changing (Bob Dylan, again). The only smart thing to do is to keep changing with these times. 

Just 2 years ago if you would have asked me if Amani Institute would ever have an online version of our master’s equivalent program in social innovation, I would have said “no way”. And yet, as we speak, people from all over the world are enjoying our first ever online special edition of the program. We’re having a full class with 40 new fellows from more than 20 countries, and this wasn’t even in our plans until April! We had to re-invent our whole program. Quickly. And we did. It was the only way. We have to keep being born, else we will start to die. 

If you’re not making plans for your own learning during this time, I suggest you do. Don’t over-think what you should be studying because, again, nobody knows where the world is going. Follow your nose and learn what your gut tells you to learn, and it will be worthwhile in hindsight. You can read a series of books on a topic, or interview a set of experts on a topic, or watch a documentary series, or do an online course. There are so many options! Whatever you do, keep learning new things. Keep getting born. 

Living Out Loud

“Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers”. John Le Carré

You see, the problem with reinvention is that you have to accept that you will be called crazy. People have told me I’m crazy many times, but there have been two main moments. First, when I graduated from college, it was a recession year. I was on track to be offered a great job at a prestigious company in the US that would have added value to my CV for the rest of my career. I would also have been making more money at 22 than my dad was at 50! When I turned down that opportunity, I didn’t even know what I was going to do instead. I just knew it wasn’t going to be that. And because it was a recession year, everyone thought I was crazy. But I was living out loud. 

10 years later, I was back in the US with a great job and I was about to apply for my green card when I decided to quit and move to Kenya to start an NGO. “Leave a green card and start an NGO in Africa?” Again, everybody thought I was crazy. But I was now obsessed with the idea of helping people build more meaningful careers and I wanted to do it in the global South. Since then we have also launched this NGO, Amani Institute, in Brazil and right here in India, and I think I’ve learnt more in doing that than I ever would have if I had stayed in my comfortable job in Washington, DC.

This is what I mean when I say that education is also about “living out loud”. Not just “thinking out loud” but living out loud. When I made these decisions, I didn’t know how they would turn out. My actions were questions, not answers. And the only way to answer those questions was to live them out.

I’ve also acted out other questions. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I started a network of “peace building entrepreneurs”. That didn’t last very long. When I lived in Kenya, I started an amateur improv comedy group that also only lasted a few months. In the last one year, I’ve created an Instagram project called Acting Global (check it out and participate!) but I honestly have no idea where it is going. These projects were all questions, and I learned so much from asking those questions, even if I didn’t always have the right answers. I also met lots of new people who added so much to my life that I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t lived out loud. And perhaps most important, I’ve had a lot of fun doing these crazy side projects!

Our Highest Purpose

What is the highest purpose of education? Think about it. I don’t mean something like to get literacy or to find a job. I’m talking about a more transcendent purpose for education. 

For me the best answer to that question is in this quote from one of the most famous educators of all time:

“Establishing lasting peace is the work of education; all politics can do, is keep us out of war.” Maria Montessori

Now there’s an ambition, eh? Talk about a vision for change! This is why we are called Amani Institute. Amani means “peace” in Swahili but it comes from the word Aman, which of course means peace here in India too. 

When we started out, we were only going to focus on the education of peace builders, people who go to work in war zones. But then we realized that the only way to a lasting peace is not just to solve conflict but to solve all social problems. And we need as many change makers as possible if we are going to solve all social problems.

If the highest purpose of education is about establishing lasting peace, then our potential student base had to expand from peacebuilders to all change makers. And in today’s troubled and polarized and increasingly intolerant world, this seems to be a more important task with every day. 

What is your highest purpose?

I’ll tell you mine: it is not only about education, though education is currently the means to it. My highest purpose is to help everyone achieve their highest potential, so that where you are born doesn’t determine where you end up. 

I encourage you to find your highest purpose, and then keep learning and reinventing yourself if you need to in order to go in that direction, and live out loud so that we can all help you get there. Thank you for listening!