Miscellany

An unforgettable lesson for Common Admission Test students

After all, MBA is what we sell, and even transcendence must bow to its aims.

 |  Miscellany  |  6-minute read |   22-09-2015
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A good speech, according to Aristotle, relies on three appeals to the audience: Ethos; which stems from the authority of the speaker; Logos, which uses reason to illustrate a point; and Pathos, which employs emotion. A good speaker, I tell my students at the Common Admission Test (CAT) coaching institute I work for, uses a mix of these three appeals to make his argument. (CAT is the test taken for entry to the IIMs.)

Why discuss Aristotle in a CAT class? Well, these grave ideas have to be presented to students so that they may prepare themselves for the all-important group discussion and personal interview rounds. The trouble is most of my students, and most students who take CAT generally, are engineers and are ill at ease with heavy-duty humanities.

But it must still be done. It is easier to express these ideas with the help of movie clips, and so I go about installing the projector. We start with Logos. I run a clip of Gandhi, in which Ben Kingsley is addressing a gathering of Indians settled in South Africa over a law that discriminates against them in matters of faith and matrimony. With carefully selected words and a seriousness that would put Daniel Day Lewis to shame, Kingsley arouses the crowd on the sheer injustice of having one law for the whites and another for coloured people.

The second clip, showcasing Ethos, is the first scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. SS general Hans Landa, played to silky depravity by Christoph Waltz, hounds a farmer into revealing that he has hidden his Jewish neighbours in the basement. On his orders, the guards shoot the hidden men, women and children in a clean sweep that gives Art Spiegelman's graphic representation of Jews as mice a bizarrely evil authenticity.

Finally, there is Pathos. The projector runs the final clip from The Great Debaters, the true story of a small-town all-black debating team that took on, and beat, the (white) champions from Harvard. Set in the 1930s, this is by far the most affecting clip, as the boyish-looking Denzel Whitaker takes apart the specious arguments for racism forwarded by his opponents. He dismisses them one by one, until he concludes with dramatic flourish: "An unjust law is no law at all, which means I have a right, even a duty, to resist - with violence or civil disobedience. You should pray I choose the latter."

The mood in the class after these screenings is sombre. Students look inspired, their faces aglow with an exalted sense of possibility. It is one of the few moments in class that remind me of the reason I became an instructor in the first place. Most CAT classes are about repeatedly drilling into the student the wondrous cachet of an IIM education. But this right now is altogether different, a simple dip into soul-satisfying stuff.

Prateek, a student, raises his hand. "Sir, I need to ask something," he says, eyes glinting with enthusiasm. He is the lost sort, perhaps attending MBA preparation classes at the insistence of his parents. A poet at heart, if I should be generous.

"What are the different specialisations in an MBA, apart from Finance and Marketing? I am not really interested in Finance. I relate only to technology," he says.

The class laughs, and I cannot skip a smile myself. In the rarefied post-screening air of the classroom, it is disingenuous to bring back talk of moolah and the MBA rush to attain it. But with no one else forthcoming, I have little choice but to answer Prateek's question. After all, MBA is what we sell, and even transcendence must bow to its aims.

"Well, you should do Systems," I tell him. "With Systems, you will hold a managerial position in an IT setup. You can rise to become the CIO in which case you will report to the CEO on how to improve the IT infrastructure to reduce costs for the company. Apart from this, you can also consider Operations."

"Is that supply chain management?"

"Yes, inventory control and cutting costs. If you are into all that, Operations is for you."

"I don't know if I am interested in it. I have never done it."

"Then stick to Systems."

"But are Systems people respected? I am told only Finance and Marketing guys are looked up to."

"That is a slippery slope, if you ask me. Of course, Systems guys are respected. But are they as respected as Finance? Maybe not. Are they more respected than HR? Any day. Within Finance, you are more respected for investment banking than commercial banking. Within investment banking, there are hierarchies - buy side versus sell side. There is no end to this."

"But, I feel truly transformed after this session. I don't want to do something that is any less than the next thing. We just saw Denzel Whitaker. He proved himself in the face of stiff competition. I don't want to tread the known path. Yes, I know technology, but do Systems guys make good money?"

I find that I am lost for words. The movie clips are supposed to engender a different sort of inner churning. I fought with my manager to play them with the plea that they will improve the students' communication skills, so essential for the second round of CAT. In my heart, though, I was hoping to have an intimate moment with them, one in which we could talk about sublime stuff.

But here was Prateek learning altogether unexpected lessons. I humour him: "Yes Systems guys do make money. But then money is relative. I recently learnt that a partner in an executive search firm earns between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 1.5 crore, and that's excluding performance bonus. Now that's stellar. Does that mean I should go back to the recruitment business? Did I make a mistake in joining CAT training? Am I willing to slog to earn the big bucks? No, no, and no. I want to have a life too. Systems guys don't earn as much as Finance guys, but they are not on the road either. Then again they may have a better quality of life."

He replies: "Okay sir, let me think this through."

Even if I find this particular detour distasteful, the class has come to achieve a pleasing thrum. I make another attempt to get my students to discuss the movie clips. "Who wants to talk about what Ben Kingsley tried to achieve in the Gandhi clip?" I venture. Some hands shoot up, and I scan the room, fully aware that my avowed aims can result in myriad, wholly unexpected outcomes.

Writer

Vikram Johri Vikram Johri @vikramjohri

I write for a living. Sometimes the words comfort the heart too.

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