The recent discussion that followed the post on IIT encouraged me to put down my thoughts on Indian education system, not just IIT.
Growing up we did not have the luxury of attending schools that were considered prestigious, nor did we have the pressure to perform in entrance exam. My mother one day dressed me up in a shirt reserved only for visits from important relatives, and told me we were going to school. I had no idea what a school was: I was too young and the word school was not part of my vocabulary. But I realized it was something important to my mother, otherwise she would not take out that shirt.
Not sure how long it took us to reach the place. I had never been there before. Though I now know it was no more than twenty or so minutes, it felt like eternity. I was not accustomed to go so far on rickshaw, and this was a new road. By the time the rickshaw entered a gate I was disoriented. I did not expect the whole set of buildings to appear behind the dull stretch of walls. But there I was. The rickshaw stopped near another relatively smaller gate inside the complex. My mother picked me up from the seat and put me down on the ground. We walked inside. A bunch of kids of my age were playing. I never saw so many kids of my own age together before. I was curious.
I paid dearly for that curiosity. Next thing I new was my mother walking out of the gate without me. I ran, but she got on the rickshaw and left. I cried my eyes out. I thought that was the end of the universe. How could my mother abandon me like that? How could she leave without me?
That is how I was admitted to my first school. Unfortunately, when my mother returned I did not want to leave the school anymore. I told her I am not done with all the toys. I was yet to find out how to play with them and how they worked. She said, “You can come back tomorrow.”
“But I really want to know?”
“You have rest of your live to do that.”
“Is this what school is about?”
“What you think?” she asked as we got on the rickshaw.
“If it is about the toys, I will come tomorrow.”
“Good boy.” she smiled. “I want you to find out how they work.”
“Then I will surely find out.”
Then and there I decided that I would find out about the toys next day, and would tell her all about it. The rickshaw took a turn and the cool breeze rushed in my hair.
Next few decades I tried to find out how the toys work. I still do. Time has eroded my confidence. Experience has softened my ambition. I wish I have some of his curiosity.
I also wish everyone is fortunate to have a mother who tells them it is all about trying to find out how the toys work. It is about curiosity, it is about passion, it is about doing what makes us happy. I wish someone told every kid not to mistake schooling for learning, training for education. Someone reminded them that learning is not a hard process, but a fun one. Someone warned them never to think that they have reached the end, since there is no end to learning. How boring life would be if it had an end.
Knowledge expands the limits of our ignorance. Ignorance shrinks the limits of knowledge. Wise think they have so much to learn. Ignorant think there is nothing more to know. Both are confident, but they are world apart. Confidence comes in two flavors. One says I am sure I can learn: that is confidence with ambition. The other says I am sure I do not need to learn: that is arrogance in guise of confidence.
When I think of education system in India, I bemoan how little of it is there. The landscape is taken over by schooling and training centers. The better our schools get, the worse education we get. At best, the schools focus on literacy over learning; skill over understanding. They reward conformity, not creativity. They churn out skilled labors not scholars. The best ones do the most damage.
In a struggle to survive we do not strive for excellence. In an effort to be fit for the industry, we become unfit individuals. The whole schooling in India has become a mechanized system of drills and exams. Among all ill effects of the current schooling system, the most insidious of all is this: it instills the wrong kind of confidence to the young minds. I am not sure who to blame: everyone is on it. The parents, the teachers, the society as a whole are pushing for it. The young do not have a chance.
From the day we are born, we are told that we should study, if we want to get a job. We should go to school, if we want to earn a degree. We should work hard to learn – learn skills that would be useful. We told to struggle for mediocrity. In India knowledge is not only categorized, we make hierarchy out of it: science is better than commerce, commerce is better than arts, and it never ends. How deep is our lack of confidence that we are compelled to impose this hierarchy on our young. How strong is our ignorance that we cannot break free of it. How vivid is our fear of starvation that we trade the future of our young for a stable job.
In India learning for the sheer joy is unthinkable. Gaining knowledge is wasteful. Wisdom is just useless. Instead, we get trained, pass exams, hoard degrees, and become skilled labors. If lucky, we get hired by the highest bidder. Indian schooling system produces commodity, not creative minds.
It is not that the mediocrity of the school system irritates me; it is that how hard they work to get there. There is nothing wrong with becoming skilled labors; it is sad when we think that is all there is to it. Literacy and training are surely useful, but not as a substitute for education.
The current system resembles a rat race: everyone is running to get one of the few choice jobs. The problem with rat race is this: even if you run really fast and win the race, you still are a rat. Granted, rat with a better paying job. Once awed by the achievement of a man I knew, I asked him what was his secret. He said, “I was good at nothing, so I never had to compete with anyone. That left only one person to fight against. Me.” I bet that is a different race. In that race best is not enough, rest does not matter.
So do I have hopes for the future. Absolutely. There is no limit to our ability. We are a nation of billions. It does not matter how vast the current schooling system is and how strongly we cling to it, some of those billions are bound to fall through the crack. And those un-schooled, untrained, and untouched minds would change the world.
They always do.
Here is a link to a video on TED where Sir Ken Robinson talks about his view on education. I urge you to watch it.