Made in India?

Home-grown excellence in education remains elusive

We don’t need no education.
— Pink Floyd
On reading recently that the 2014 Pritzker Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in architecture, was awarded to Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, my first thought was: why doesn’t an Indian win such prizes? The Pritzker Prize honours a living architect for excellence in architecture, ‘irrespective of nationality, creed, race, or ideology’. The list of winners shows that 23 of the 35 winners have been from developed and advanced countries. However, in the last 35 years of the prize, there was not a single person from South Asia, let alone India, who was nominated.

Critics may argue that the Pritzker Prize, like others for excellence in different fields, is a Western-dominated award. However, there have been winners from Brazil, China and Mexico. What may be a valid claim is that there is a greater chance for creativity and individuality to shine through in the education system in, for example, the United States, rather than India. As a product of the Indian educational system, I can say that studying logarithms in middle school and calculus in high school has scarred my life. What, may I ask, is the point of poring over indecipherable figures in translucent sheets? Ruining the eyesight? Yes. Learning life-enhancing skills? Probably not.
Some exceptions, of course, prove the rule. Take the example of Subhash Khot, the Indian-American theoretical computer scientist who last week won the International Mathematical Union’s Rolf Nevanlinna Prize. He studied in a humble school in Ichalkaranji in Maharashtra, doing his middle school and high school years there, then topped the JEE to gain admission to IIT Powai before leaving for the United States. The winner of the IMU’s Fields Medal, Manjul Bhargava, also has Indian origins, but was not educated in India.
India-born scholars winning top prizes in mathematics is indeed great news. However, even this re-emphasises the point. Although their educational foundation might have been laid in India, they are, in essence, Western-backed scholars who were exceptional but whose talent was nurtured to the fullest in the West and not in their home country. They might be ‘India-born’, but are not or ‘India-nurtured’ success stories.
The Indian educational system, from kindergarten to university, focusses on rote learning. Although the Central Board of Secondary Education has come up with a number of measures to alleviate the anxiety of students, this is surely not the case with the different Board systems followed by the different States. For example, in Tamil Nadu, there are virtually no application-oriented questions in the State Board examination, a life-altering event for many students that determines which college they would get into. All questions, barring the multiple-choice questions for just 25 marks out of 200, in the Mathematics paper are from the prescribed text book: with no numbers changed, no names altered. It is actually possible to gain grace marks if a math problem is asked outside of the textbook or if the numbers are changed in the problem: it is conveniently considered as ‘out of syllabus’!
This is an example of how memory power and handwriting skills are the only pre-requisites for gaining good scores and getting into a good college. However, once a student goes through the motions of getting a university degree, which again is only slightly different from the school examinations, in that you have to mug up and throw up twice a year as opposed to once a year, the student is then thrown into the ‘real’ world.
And this is where the Indian system decides to abandon him or her and perform the disappearing act. The new graduate, with consistently high scores in school and university, is unable to find a job. Even if he or she does, the candidate will find it difficult to come up with solutions to real-world problems at work or home, or think out of the box. After all, how do you expect a person to think out of the box after the ‘education’ that he or she has received precisely was about stuffing him or her into a box every day? This explains why India churns out engineers as China churns out plastic souvenirs. Most Indian graduates in the job market are unemployable; whether they really wanted to be what they studied for is a different story. They do not have the requisite communication skills to express their ideas and they have not been trained to think (the upside is that they have an amazing memory).
So, back to the question: will an Indian these days ever receive the Pritzker Prize (or any prize that recognised creativity and innovation, for that matter)? And when I mean ‘Indian’, I mean an Indian who lives and bases his or her work in India, not the countless Indian-origin American, British and Australian citizens whose achievements we are quick to borrow without permission and brand them ‘Indian’ success stories. The Indian diaspora might have affinity toward their motherland, but we Indians have no right to brag about their achievements. It was probably because of a lack of a motivational and nurturing environment, and a society that places one’s caste before one’s capability, that the Indian diaspora became a diaspora, in the first place.
So well, here’s my answer: I really do not think the Indian educational system is going to change much. A possible solution is to abolish all State Boards and put in place an autonomous Indian educational board that provides uniform, inspired education cutting across different regions. Minor changes could be made to accommodate State-specific preferences, for example, in languages. But as long as we follow a system that stifles creative thinking and individuality, the Pritzker Prize, and all other prizes for that matter, will be a distant dream for the desi Indian.
There is a paradox in the way we treat talent in India: on the one hand, parents rarely allow their children to pursue research careers in pure sciences, and the educational system is structured to hone memory, not talent. On the other hand, we are quick to ‘claim’ Indian talent that has shined outside the country as our own achievement.
There have also been a handful of other celebrated global-level achievers over the decades, but except in the case of an innate genius such as Srinivasa Ramanujam, how many of them were shaped and moulded by the educational system prevalent in India?
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