Is the Pen (drive) Mightier than the Sword?

If you have served in the armed forces, chances are you would have come across an acronym called PCK. No, it does not stand for Pedagogical Content Knowledge popularised by American educational psychologist Lee Shulman. This one stands for ‘Previous Course Knowledge’. Basically, an unofficial treasure trove of solutions, answer keys and course material carried on small portable media and passed on from course to course.

People of my generation grew up without computers and smartphones. Copying someone else’s work itself was hard work. Then came computers, MS office and Google. Sliding a mouse over vast tracts of information on a screen was now enough to make someone else’s work your own.

In many ways, we encourage and incentivise this syndrome all the way from our schools. The seeds are sown through the rote method of learning that dominates our education system. I have two boys who often returned frustrated from school. It’s no fun losing marks and having teachers point out that ‘you have written much but you haven’t written that’; ‘that’ being the suggested answer key.

It’s a huge problem in the armed forces today that nobody wants to face. A plethora of anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin and Duplichecker are available online but not adopted either due to sheer indifference or citing security and IPR concerns. The pedagogy followed by higher centres of learning like the Defence Services Staff College, College of Air Warfare, Army War College etc tacitly feed the scourge of PCK by encouraging ‘template’ solutions and model answers to topics, some of which may lie in the realm of Grand Strategy.

In some units, handing down PCK has become a rite of passage when the unit’s officers go on courses. I remember vividly how some of our colleagues from sister services used to carry small pieces of paper (known colloquially as farra or kunji) during the Staff Course. These contained miniature transcripts of presentations that the Directing Staff (DS) would cover that day. There were marks for classroom participation nobody wanted to give up. But here’s the problem. DS would keep passing the question around till somebody with PCK popped the exact bulleted script waiting on the DS’s next mouse click. “Ah! That’s the answer I was looking for”– a eureka moment would soon follow. Wargaming through sand model discussions was fine tuned to a drill, down to wielding the wooden pointer. True, ‘answer keys’ enable objective assessment and make life easier for teachers who have to correct huge volumes of written work. Tools like the Standard Appreciation or Commander’s Estimate provide a framework for approaching complex situations. But while the concept by itself is brilliant, in this orgy of marks, PCK, and flash drives, original thought and ‘out of box’ thinking has gone up in small wisps of electronic smoke.

In a desperate move to curb PCK in Staff College, then Commandant Lt Gen ‘Tipsy’ Brar  banned all computerised solutions and turned the clock back to the eighties by banning printouts and mandating handwritten solutions (61st Staff Course, 2005-06). That, like Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Demonetization’ exercise, sent minor shock waves rippling through our course but eventually changed nothing. People with PCK did the course twice – first rustling it up it on computer, then copying from the printouts!

Often, time pressures or a premeditated deficit of guidance in dealing with complex issues may drive students into the open arms of PCK. While institutes may argue that excessive hand-holding dilutes learning, they silently gloss over gigabytes of PCK that abound in the environment. Why not go more open-book, officially supply such material, and encourage students to throw away their CD spools? No way. Old habits die hard on either sides of the student-staff divide. The truth is, even teachers & trainers today rely on PCK to stay afloat.

Another offshoot of PCK in the armed forces is the rise of all-powerful PowerPoint. Almost everything today at a HQ level has to be ‘bulletized’ before it can be digested by high-ranking officials. Officers are prepared for this new-age malignancy during courses where theatre-level wargames are decided not in terms of original thought or ‘out of box’ thinking but through the quality of slides and speech-slide coordination. It’s like some Bollywood movie gone wrong. Only in real life, blood, and not tomato ketchup, would flow.

I was fortunate to avail some high quality lectures from an older crop of professors during the AFP course at IIMA. The joy of starting from a blank blackboard and unraveling a topic through no-holds-barred discussion without the crutches of projectors or PPT is something many will never experience in future. Have a look at the venerable Prof. MR Dixit’s ‘blackboard management’ during a one-hour session on Strategic Management (IIM Ahmedabad, 11 Jan 2014).

Prof. MR Dixit’s Blackboard in IIMA, Jan 2014

Instead of a deck of OHP slides or a soulless PPT, all he used was a box of chalk and a class full of participants. I wonder how many officials who occupy high chairs today have ever dusted chalk powder from their hands, growing up on the continuous sedation of PPTs and ‘Briefs’. The result is a younger generation that, when faced with a task or problem, first scrambles to Google or their laptops. People who must keep their head in the face of real bullets have become victims of ‘bullets’ on a screen. Or a crisp white sheet of A4 paper.

It’s not as if plagiarism goes on only in the armed forces. Academia and research-intensive organisations are not immune to this scourge either, thanks to the blind race of turning out more and more research papers and publications. A professor from one of the top-ranked institutes of India I spoke to lamented the many unprofessional practices that go on in the name of research in India. Giving importance to quantity over quality of research output, lack of original thought, rising plagiarism, coercing younger faculty to share authorship with seniors who have hardly contributed to the research, the list goes on.

Neither is ‘cut-copy-paste’ or ‘death by PowerPoint’ the exclusive bane of Indian military. Elisabeth Bumiller reported on this malaise in her seminal article ‘We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint’ in New York Times, Apr 2010. In one of his briefings, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, a highly acclaimed soldier and former leader of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, was reportedly shown a PowerPoint slide (below) meant to portray the complexity of American military strategy in Afghanistan (over 6800 US troops died in that campaign post 9/11).

A PowerPoint slide meant to show complexity of American strategy in Afghanistan (Pic courtesy New York Times)

Gen McChrystal, as the story recounts, looked at the slide and remarked wryly “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war”.

Another high ranking US official, Brigadier General McMaster likened PowerPoint to an ‘internal threat’ that can create ‘the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control’.

In effect, cognitive deficits are being ‘buffered’ through nice-looking slides and neat printouts.

Hope my Indian Generals, Air Marshals and Admirals are listening. After ‘Ketchup Colonels’, we don’t want ‘Keyboard Air Warriors’ or ‘PowerPoint Admirals’ …people who need the support of PPTs and briefs to stay afloat and are unable to proceed from a blank sheet of paper.

Throw that PCK. Don’t let the pendrive become mightier than the sword.


© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2017. All rights reserved.

Views expressed are personal. I can be reached at

11 thoughts on “Is the Pen (drive) Mightier than the Sword?

  1. How true. The ppt culture is deep routed in our professional day to day activities. Senior hierarchy doesn’t believe in reading volumnous papers , prepare post that are reviewed at different levels before being presented to the top boss. Very well said.

  2. Possibly templating a solution was born out of a need to learn from past success or failure. We must use technology and not be used by it. Focus on innovation rather than cut & paste.

    1. Impressed by ur clarity of thoughts and the way you have given the blank paper a new meaningful definition , which we all should think, not only in the armed forces, but also teach our kids as to how to think on their own head and not go by previous conceived things.. u rock KP.

  3. Absolutely bang on KP……however, most ppts today pertain to presentation of data which has become voluminous … is definitely easier to project it for a larger audience in the present form…….additionally , planning imperatives for ops is also much easily depicted on the screen with the kind of tools available…….. IMHO, use of ppt should probably be banned in our training schools/ institutions which have become slaves to it….they need to start with a blank board.

  4. Somehow we need to encourage free ideas, thoughts and speech. Conformity is a run of the mill approach with which you cannot win any race.

  5. Very thought provoking article. Thank you. I have struggled against the Power Point culture in my teaching. The beautiful blackboard work that you shared is a dying art. I wish young lectures were taught this. When students see their teachers working from blank paper they will learn by osmosis to do the same.

  6. A two day Naval Strategy Capsule was scheduled during the 2003 – 2004 Army Higher Command Course at Army War College, MHOW. Two serving naval officers from the Naval War College were nominated to conduct it.

    Of these the first speaker, (then an Indian Naval Captain) did the unthinkable. He arrived armed with ONLY two, somewhat worn out and patched, nautical charts of the Indian Ocean. Even the personalised red / green / purple laser pointer, which was the de facto elaventh digit of the course officers was conspicuous by its absence. The talk started quietly and the course settled down in anticipation of a long and well deserved slumber session.

    Then the unthinkable happened!

    As the level of the discourse reached progressively higher strata of excellence, the looks of sheer admiration by the course were only interrupted by questions and their replies with cross references and informed examples by the speaker. I have no doubt in my mind that those two days contributed more towards the understanding of the navy and its role in nation building amongst the follow service officers than a lifetime of inputs. When the capsule finally ended, it broke two traditions of the course.

    Firstly, and more significantly, there was not one man-minute of sleep which had been logged by the collective might of the course in those two days. Secondly, the Commandant climbed to the podium and asked all of us to give a serving defence officer a standing ovation and clap WITH OUR HANDS HIGH ABOVE OUR HEADS for what we had been fortunate to witness. His speech of thanks was short but unforgettable. It also called upon the course to emulate the extremly demanding standards set by that unassuming yet brilliant naval officer.

    Indeed the pendrive does meet its match if one puts mind to matter, as the speaker (then) Captain Sudarshan Yashwant Shrikhande (IN) demonstrated so admirably on that occassion.

    Mind over e-matter? Of course….just a matter of application and dedication!

  7. Hello, KPS,
    Perhaps we have met somewhere in the Navy, but I am not quite sure. Today someone sent me a link for your post on power-point warfighting. It is delightfully accurate, worryingly true and very well written. It led me on to many of the earlier posts and I must admire you for the range of subjects and the way in which you capture the essence of many of the arguments. My post here is mainly triggered by the comment by an old friend, Dhruv Jetley that I scrolled onto after reading your post.
    To say I was touched by what he wrote about lectures that I steered in Mhow 14 years ago would be an understatement. But, more than that, I felt satisfied that it may have struck a chord in some at least. I can’t quite remember the bit of the standing ovation that Dhruv so generously describes but that may also be because I have a way of shutting out embarassing moments!

    I agree with you about starting on a blank sheet, etc. Plagiarism is rampant everywhere and sadly quite acceptable. My oped about a recently published “Joint Doctrine” and a day later scathing comments by Anit Mukherji (May 2017) mention the laziness of approach that abounds.

    Yes, in my visits to many Mil colleges, I have sometimes found it difficult to have a black-board or white board put in a lecture hall. It is also true that while not making PPT a central instrument of discussions, many of us feel that an instructor has not done his job if he has no slides or very few slides. Staff Colleges occasionally have presentations where the slides are garish enough to make the assault of colours, moving scrolls and music in evening English TVchannel “News” seem dull. Attitudinally, we could end up valuing style and symbolism over substance.

    Yes, strategy and operations are so flexible that blank papers and fully working brains could be more helpful than crowded slides and minds nearly bereft of new ideas and thoughts.

    Keep up the fine thinking and writing you do. If you can, please send me Dhruv’s number. Wanted to say VMT for recounting 2003, even if he may have erred on the side of much kindness to me.
    Sudarshan Shrikhande

    1. VMT Sir. You taught us in ASW School back in 1991-92 (40 ICC). You were an inspiration then as you are now. I am glad the post reached you. VMT for being the role model for the likes of us. Pride & respect, kps

      1. So, that puts you in the first of the 10+2 Navac batch, I guess. What a fantastic lot of officers. Your large batch, as I joked then was divided into “three halves” for Subs courses. Not only enjoyed teaching you then, all of you brought much credit to the Service as you moved up and on and even sideways such as you. Happy landings…

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