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Rethinking education in India

Last updated on: May 16, 2012 21:21 IST

'Indian education has, after Independence, produced nothing whatsoever -- yes, absolutely nothing -- of global calibre. Not one earth-shaking discovery or invention, not one outstanding theoretical insight!'

Rajeev Srinivasan on how Indian education is unable to anticipate what the future holds.

The controversial Right to Education (RTE) legislation has been in the news lately, for all the wrong reasons. Far from being the panacea its proponents claim it is, it is deeply flawed, for at least two reasons: One, it attempts to transfer public funds to private hands, especially of certain privileged communities; two, it does not address the proximate causes for the rot in the entire edifice of education, which is due to the antics of interfering busybodies with cockamamie Soviet-era ideas.

In fact, the rot goes deeper, because of structural reasons. The first is that the current system of education -- allegedly 'modern' -- is inherently perverse: It was imposed upon India by the British imperialists, with the single-minded purpose of creating coolies and clerks to help them run the country. That their system was meant to perpetuate colonialism is demonstrated in the book Masks of Conquest by Columbia's Gauri Viswanathan: indeed, English itself was a mask of conquest -- an inferior language thrust upon conquered nations: First India, then Ireland.

The system has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of Thomas Babington Macaulay's infamous Minute on Indian Education, which wanted to produce little brown sepoys to be the cannon-fodder of Empire, metaphorically speaking. Such Brown Sahibs -- deracinated, laughable imitations of their white masters -- still rule the roost. You merely have to turn on Indian television to see these people strut about flaunting awful 'convent accents' and an utter lack of comprehension about what the world is all about, other than pre-digested nonsense about ye olde Englande or America.

These 'beautiful people' have internalised utterly moronic ideas about distribution without ever worrying about production, quality, or excellence. Which is precisely the reason why Indian education has, after Independence, produced nothing whatsoever -- yes, absolutely nothing -- of global calibre. Not one earth-shaking discovery or invention, not one outstanding theoretical insight!

That this is much worse than under the imperialists -- in their days, there were world-class discoveries and inventions coming out of India, by C V Raman, J C Bose and Srinivasa Ramanujan to name just three -- should be reason for the education establishment to hang its head in shame.

The second structural problem is that the middle classes have successfully hijacked the State's spending on education. All of East Asia has invested the majority of its funds in primary education, thus driving up the level not only of basic literacy, but functional literacy, viz. the ability to read a manual and perform tasks according to instructions therein. This has been key in the rise of manufacturing in East Asia, as they have successfully created factory labour.

In India, the comparable achievement is only a drop in the bucket -- merely the creation of a cohort of services employees in the IT and ITES sectors, which together do not constitute more than a few percent of the workforce. To be honest, these services, which consist of low-creativity, repetitive work, are mind-numbing, which is one of the reasons for very high attrition in these fields.

There is simply no room for creativity or high-quality research. Anybody who dares to do path-breaking work will soon learn of the Great Man syndrome: All ideas must ipso facto come only from the director or department head; anybody who deviates from groupthink -- or refuses to toe the line peddled by their thesis advisor -- will soon find himself out on the street, without a dissertation, blackballed and unemployable.

There are no doubt islands of excellence in this sea of mediocrity; but having been associated with some of the alleged islands I can with confidence assert that they too do not necessarily produce much that is earth-shaking. With exceptions, the work done there is also mediocre and risk-averse, because that is what Soviet-style system rewards.

In general, the IITs and IIMs are good mostly because of a single factor: The entrance exams, the JEE and the CAT, are good filters, and manage to find a lot of the very best student. And a large number of the best students do attempt these examinations.

That is part of the problem: There aren't sufficient numbers of seats in quality institutions, so that the acceptance rate for the IITs and IIMs is a paltry 0.1 to 0.2 per cent, compared to some of the toughest schools in the world to get into, such as Stanford, which may take 7 to 10 per cent of the applicants.

Quite naturally, of course, the powers-that-be are merrily gutting the JEE (and probably soon the CAT) so that even these oases can be destroyed.

The low number of available seats has led to a pathological situation: There are cramming academies that specialise in pushing students into these institutions. There are entrance exams into these academies, so that students as young as those in their 8th and 9th grade are in this rat-race of cramming to get into the cramming academies, and then cramming to get into the institutions themselves. There are clearly too few seats in the brick-and-mortar institutions of excellence.

A huge premium is placed, therefore, on memorising facts so that students can 'crack' the entrance exams. This has in fact become the entire objective of the school education system: Stuffing children's heads with useless facts, and killing every spark of creativity, innovation and thinking outside the box.

An intriguing recent book by Columbia's Stuart Firestein (a neurologist, but he has been teaching a broader course on this subject) titled Ignorance: How it Drives Science posits that it is not the acquisition of facts, but the ability to know what one does not know that drives the spirit of inquiry, and thus makes any progress possible. Naturally, by this measure there will be absolutely no innovation coming out of India. And that in fact is the case by and large.

This was not always true: In an earlier time, before the imperialists damaged the system, Indian education was far more balanced; and no wonder ancient India was the most creative and innovative civilisation in the world. There was an efflorescence of creative activity, unmatched even by the Western gold standard: Their Renaissance. Out of this came things as diverse as Panini's grammar, the infinite series of Madhava; the Aryabhatiya, the Hortus Malabaricus, and the Yogasutras.

In his landmark work, The Beautiful Tree, Dharampal has quoted the imperialists themselves about the quality and quantity of indigenous education. There was a school in every village, and all groups enjoyed the benefits of gurukula-style education that created citizens, not drones. That high-quality, individualised system has been abandoned for today's education factories churning out ill-prepared, ill-equipped, second-rate graduates.

But going back to the issue of quantity, it has been known for a very long time that India does not have enough quality institutions. At long last, the powers-that-be have recognised this. Their solution: Create a large number of entities! Quality? Who cares about quality?

Thus the move to wave a magic wand and produce a large number of IITs and IIMs. I got a mail from someone that listed new IIMs at Trichy, Udaipur, Rohtak, Raipur, Ranchi, and US Nagar (Uttarkhand). With all due respect, the only thing this is going to achieve -- especially given the abysmal quality of PhD dissertations and thus of newly minted faculty in India -- is that the IIT and IIM brands will get diluted.

Par for the course. As is normal in India, the allegedly omniscient economists, lawyers and other interfering busybodies who rule the country always try to solve today's problems with yesterday's solutions, whereas the world has moved on. The answer is not to clone large numbers of IITs and IIMs -- their business models, after 50 years, are no longer appropriate -- but to rethink higher education altogether.

That is precisely what a group of entrepreneurs and educators are doing in the US: They are disrupting education wholesale. More about that in the next part of this essay.

Part II: Is the future of education leaving India in the dust?

You can read more columns by Rajeev Srinivasan here.

Rajeev Srinivasan