Monday, March 27, 2006

Education in India 2: Does the obvious obviate the need for progress?

This is a topic close to my heart. It has many ramifications, and obviously no clear-cut solution exists. Hirak has penned a succint post, and that goaded me to pen some more thoughts. There was one question in the previous post which I deliberately left open, because I was hoping it would prompt discussion. The question is obviously that of money. But because something is obvious does not automatically justify it.

Let's go to back to our parents' generation. There were no private engineering and medicine colleges then. Many talented graduates studied science and the humanities. I don't know whether it was out of no choice because of the lack of many engineering colleges, or out of deliberate interest. Although the first reason may have contributed, the second reason was also a strong factor. The justification is simple; many of these men and women were rank holders and 'toppers', the cream of the crop in terms of their academic records. They could have easily chosen to go to COEP. Yet they didn't. Why? Well, first of all, there was definitely a smaller fraction of graduates to share the employment pie. The population time bomb was lying relatively dormant then. People could do BSc., go into industry, get a decent job, make a reasonable amount of money, and become vice-president without ever getting an advanced degree. But it was not just that.

What about the ones who went into academics? They knew that they could have made much more money than they would for the next twenty, thirty years. Yet they eschewed industrial or business careers and entered colleges and universities. Why was that so?
I emphatically believe that those men and women looked upon teaching as a noble profession. I can confidently state this point, being the son of two teachers. There is no doubt about the fact that my parents, when they entered academia, looked at education and teaching as a noble profession. They had a deep belief that inculcating knowledge among young students would produce the leaders of tomorrow. And I can also see their disillusionment that monotonically increased over the years. The reasons are pretty clear.
First of all, reservation forever blurred the border between noble intentions and mediocrity. By introducing reservations, the goverment has not only allowed mediocrity, but encouraged it in a wholesale manner. That has completely changed the tone of the educational profession, and in general, I can say that it is no longer a noble endeavor. Just like law and medicine, which swung from nobility to ignominity by making themselves into businesses and encouraging outrageous doses of mediocrity, so did also education. Secondly, the quality and number of students wanting to professionally study the subjects which they were taught also went down. Last but not the least, the number of students who even respected teaching and teachers has declined. The colleges today promote education as a business. With the kind of teachers they have, they don't even do a professional job with that. And the students aptly, as customers, use the system to their benefit to get degrees, and then cast it aside. A nice vicious cycle, one end of which feeds the other. Again, it should be noted that this trend would not have arisen if the government had insisted on high standards for employing lecturers (which existed when my parents took up their posts) and encouraged an atmosphere of excellence. I have said it many times, and I say it again. Fergusson College, COEP, and other esteemed places are esteemed mainly because of the quality of the students, who flock there for the name tag. In themselves, they are not significantly better than other similar institutions.

It is a sordid state of affairs, that most of India's top scientists are people who are close to retirement age. We tout the virtues of India's missiles and India's atomic bomb. We have to remember that almost every significant figure who orchestrated these developments is above 50 or 60 years of age. It is quite clear that in our parents' generation, there was much more of a drive to make the country excel in a sphere of all-round development.

The question was not one of money then. People believed in noble professions, and believed that they would be serving a noble cause if they went into these professions. Then mediocrity took over, and the profession did not remain noble, so no student or teacher was expected to live upto its standards. Therein declines the standards in the whole system.

So I don't think it is as much a question of money, as it is of standards, and the fact that nobody is interested in teaching in colleges and universities anymore. Things changed after our parents' generation. MBA institutes and private engineering colleges sprouted up like mushrooms in the rain. Graduates who went to these institutes were "guaranteed" a decent job. Money really became a factor because of the shrinkage of values in the educational sector and the simultaneous inflation of monetary opportunities in the business and service sectors. No wonder that parents saw it an effective, relatively cheap (!) and lucrative path to a stable life for their protege. And yet I want to ask; how many engineers truly make a significant amount of money and yet do their job with great interest? Or, in the tunnel vision of getting a quick and supposedly secure job, have the standards of parents for their children also declined? Sometimes, the conversations of people discussing their children and their careers gave me the feeling of a bourgeois vision of a safe family, safe career, and safe future. It is as rigid at it sounds sweet. The scenario eerily reminds me of the movie 'Pleasantville', where everybody is happy, smiling, and looks content. But all at the cost of stifling true aspirations, and by encforcing a curious unspoken code of special social conduct and contentment, no matter how restrictive it may be. There is nothing wrong with that per se, but it cannot lead to breakthroughs. And I say this because India on the international stage does seem to be a country that projects itself as one that is geared towards breakthroughs. Can there be scientific, technological, and business breakthroughs without eventual breakthroughs in social makeup?

Globalization in some ways has exacerbated the situation. Call center jobs promise yet another quick fix for graduates with an uncertain future. The possibility to aspire to new standards is obviously a godsend to the many millions whose future is hazy, no matter that those standards are not very high standards. That's because these standards are high for them. Everything is relative, isn't it? I am not belittling any job whatsoever. The issue is about limited and conventional standards that erect a picture that is pretty to some, but inherently finite.

Chetan points out that many parents still enthusiastically attend lectures by the likes of Raghunath Mashelkar and Jayant Narlikar. And yet they don't exhort their children to pursue the same path. One reason simply may be that they realise that it is not in their son or daughter to become a Narlikar or Mashelkar. Even if this were true, I believe it reflects an attitude of automatically stooping to low aims for your children. The other reason may be that parents have bargained standards of excellence for quick, secure, monetarily beneficial careers. I agree that it is in the nature of every parent to choose the 'safe' path for their child. But is it apt for them to extol them to choose the safe path because it is easy? Is it apt to deprive them of choosing their own path in the first place? I do hope that these parents are not the same ones who ask their child to read verses from the Gita and the Manache Shlok, which prescribe a life of hard penance, and most importantly, long term gains. This would be a different version of sparing the rod and spoiling the child.

What I think is (one of) the heart(s) of the matter:
This really leads me to the next point, which I believe is at the heart of this discussion. All the above enumeration may look like a bundle of reasons why nobody studies science or the humanities in India, and it may be seem that I am merely justifying the situation in an organised manner. But I am not justifying it, merely describing it. In one sentence, we can invoke the business like nature of education, the swarm of private colleges that suddenly create new opportunities for almost anyone, the globalization that does the same to many millions more, and the reservation that eats calmly into the edifice of our educational structures- all of these being reponsible for what things are. But there's one simple caveat here:

Just because something is true does not make it right

Beneath each one of these scenarios is hidden an insidious foundation of low standards, declining values, and some downright rash conclusions. Globalization may have brought easy alternatives to many, but does it also lead those many to assume that life is easy? It's simple. If you are getting reasonably good bread after making mildly commendable efforts, would you even aspire to danish pastry and the high standards and efforts that accompany its procurement? I am not saying that people should be forced to aspire for things which they perhaps cannot achieve in their whole life. After all, all men are not born equal, and we have to always keep this sobering truth in mind. But making efforts and not achieving is one thing; doing away with the need to achieve is quite another. I believe that the ugly side of globalization is the complacence it can engender in people through quick fixes. I am not saying that these people don't need to work hard to achieve their goals. I am only saying that with cut and dried goals in front of them, they may not aspire to see further.

All said and done, I probably would be wrong about globalization. It may seem like this march towards short term fixes and inferior long term standards is nothing but a manifestation of capitalist, practical, material-benefit driven thinking. But then how come it did not happen in the US, at least largely? Even today, in the world's 'most capitalist' nation, you find historians, theoretical physicists, musicians, psychologists, and economists of the highest calibre. Granted that according to some, standards are decling for long term general ventures even there. Yet you still find many people who have the intellectual calibre to earn much more money than they do, and yet they follow their heart and excel. One may shrug and say that this is possible because in the US, you can be a historian and still enjoy a standard of living that is much higher than that in India. That is definitely true. But somewhere, I am starting to fear that this state of affairs in our country is the result of the informal dogmatic philosophy that we have ingrained in our minds. Mindsets, after all, come from the people themselves. Could the pursuit of unconventional careers in the US have to do with the basic rights of liberty and freedom that have guided people since their nation's conception? After all, only if there is a general atmosphere of free inquiry and unconventional thinking can people set unconventional examples and explore them. The British achieved great success and produced great intellects through this approach for two hundred years, through the agency of inquisitive, rich Lords. The US produced great intellects through this approach for a hundred years. In both nations, there is a spirit of free inquiry, the spontaneity to not defer to dogma. This also involved not automatically defering to authority. But in India, there are so many mindsets and dogmas, so much deference to cut and dried principles that who can dare to think differently? Who can see beyond the obvious? If the aforementioned state of affairs is the result of the inherently conventional and dogmatic thinking that most Indians do, then it is going to take a long, long time indeed to correct itself. This is the flip side of being conventional; the informal inculcation of dogma and unchanging attitudes. So capitalism does not have to do with us having tunnel vision, convention does.

Let us say for one moment that the practical point of view is the only one that matters. Even from this restricted perspective, the constant trend towards short terms goals and instant gratification (which seems to have become a mantra of the contemporary world itself) can be disastrous. There is plenty of evidence from history. I pointed out in an earlier post that there are scores of examples of research, in science, engineering, and medicine, of ideas that were ahead of their time, that nonetheless were pursued because they were interesting. Many of these ideas gave spectacular returns. Of course, the risk was there, but what truly promising venture does not have risk as an essential component?
So Hirak is right. Mammon rules. But if the citizens even of a country where his sway influences millions more than anywhere else can turn to alternative 'gods', why can't attitudes change in a country which has a glorious and much earlier history of worshipping knowledge. Of course, as is the fashion, we will probably cite our glorious history and use it as a broom to push our present and future under the carpet.
Just because Mammon rules does not mean his word should be law. After all, all the things we aspire to, faith, hope, compassion; all of these have defined our human existence precisely because we managed to stave off Mammon's pernicious intent. Even in the US, the era of instant gratification has sown the seeds of skepticism and doubt in the minds of many, and people are stepping back and taking a second look at industrial as well as academic research.

In the end, hope always survives. Hirak cites the exploratory, an honorable institute that aims at inculcating scientific attitude in school and college students through self-learning, and most importantly, through unabashed questioning and inquiry. More such exploratories will surely nourish the scientific jugular of our nation. But frankly, based on first hand experience, I can say that such enterprises are quite fragile in today's India. The reasons are simple. More often than not, they are begun in the first place by some retired administrator who wants to savor his heyday by engaging in yet one more public venture. The number of actually dedicated personnel at such places is still few. They are the ones who actually bring substance and purpose to the place. But like will o wisps, they have a brief existence in which they make the institute respectable. During this time, they are still fighting against bereaucratic controls. Once they retire (or are forced to leave), the institute reverts back to the original symbolic, poster-boy image which the original administrator wanted to paint. Without consistency, excellence provides a mere moment of ecstasy, which one only hopes will inspire sombody to engage in a more consistent venture.
I agree that there are some signs that are more positive than ones five years ago. Private industry has started providing enough lucrative incentives for Indians abroad to come home. Maybe these compatriots can then provide some nurturing environment for academic science. In fact, it would be quite an achievement if they even raise the status of science as a respectable (and well-paying!) career. Scientists in multinational companies in India at top posts are the only researchers who earn as much as the best paid Indian software engineers. But this is not directly impinging upon academic development right now. I can envisage a breakthrough, if academicians regularly start consulting at companies in the manner of their American counterparts, thus opening up a substantial source of income for them. That should raise the monetary status of science. As of yet, this trend seems neither distinct nor guaranteed.
All this raises hopes. But empirical data, coupled with future plans and promising trends, can be no guarantee for assured progress in the future. In my opinion, India as a scientific nation is poised on the verge of possible advances. But where it is in my opinion right now, is on top of the proverbial transition state, which can go to the products but can very well revert back to the reactants. In the long term, social undercurrents do influence scientific and technological advances. One again only needs to peruse the stories of English aristocrats of the 18th century, who, in their preoccupation with science as a spare, gentelmanly hobby, made spectacular advances in our understanding of nature, both practical and theoretical. History has recurringly demonstrated that two things are necessary for science and knowledge to progress. An allowance by society for free and spirited inquiry, and an emotional social structure that actually encourages this attitude. It would not be remiss to say that constitutional freedom and general freedom of expression does serve as a wellspring for such developments. Sometimes, the simple right to say what one wants, without any fear of persecution, let alone legal action, can influence the guaranteed progress of intellectual thought. We need to put the culture of the so-called 'Argumentative Indian' into actual practice.

The reactive complex that is India is doing a balancing act right now on the top of the hill of destiny. Where it goes will depend on how the equation is balanced...

The points in this post perhaps have been a little haphazard. There are many thoughts, and all of them being important, no tested method exists to organize them according to priority. Maybe I can do that a little better in the next post.


Blogger Saket said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Saket said...

Very well-thought out argument and ofcourse extremely lucid as always.

I think I need more space to write this one. I'll post something on my own blog and post a link too.

9:29 PM  
Anonymous anya said...

I suspect you are taking a wrong premise to justify your conclusions - In the first half of the post where you say that in our parents generation many toppers and in general the cream went into academic careers and that was because there was a respect for those positions. It is probably true - but again - not wholly. Because I suspect the difference in remuneration for those who went to COEP and those who chose science was not as stark as it is now. This is a big reason and cause you havent taken into consideration.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Hirak said...

I agree with your points -

a)Standards have fallen
b)That has led to poor quality of teachers
c)Other professional courses have mushroomed due to a desire for 'cash' and more 'useful' degree and partly due to a) and b)

Much as I would like to believe, I know that mere idealism will be hopeless in trying to convince people to get into science or humanities. You well know that exhortations from parents are least listened to. Changing the Indian mindset is a Sisyphean task.
Sad, but true that an immediate monetary benefit is extremely necessary. Some solutions that you give totally makes sense and are quite implementable - eg: using academics as consultants. Here, in the US academia is quite professional and it runs quite like a business enterprise, not as cut-throat as the real world but very close. The smartest guys in the block are not punished monetarily even if they decide to do what they like the most - teach or do research. This more than anything will bring the bright kids to science.
I am 100% with you on the fact that India is at a very critical stage and we are at a point where we forge ahead like never before or forever fall behind and rue the missed opportunities. This is my chief point - the government has to act as the catalyst and make bold and imaginative decisions like China (eg: see Science link on my blog).
What I really upset about is the current mindset that foreign investment, outsourcing and globalization are going to 'somehow automatically' provide the impetus for India's growth in all fields. Such things have a mind of their own and are anything but dependable.

7:00 PM  
Blogger Mridula said...

No, it is not mere idealism that makes one take Humanities. I took it because I had the luxury of doing so, not too much preassure to earn money and very liberal parents. But boy was my stream looked down at IIT Kanpur, where I did my Ph.D! You bet it was and only by silently smiling and not so silently sometimes, that I got out with my self esteem intact. Maybe, I too will do a post on this one.

3:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are majhya sonya, kevdhi mothi entry lihilyes! Marutichya shepti sarkhi!!

3:52 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Hirak: Yes, China does set a good example, and I think they are going to go ahead of us very rapidly.
I guess the bottom line is that capitalist philosophy extends to incentives of any kind. So if not money, at least respect or honor, or at least an allowance to do what you like, should be an incentive for good people to go into teaching. In our parents' time, these were there. In our time, because of reservation, there is really incentive for us to teach. Sad state.
As for the monetary benefits, I think that industrial consulting seems to be the only option at least in the short term, with more and more people everywhere vying for the govt. funding pie. Although the govt. can make significant differences by taking initiatives, I have almost lost hope in it doing so, again at least in the near future. But some hope is there in the form of these new national institutes that are being erected. The problem is not just the initiation; unless we have consistently good, scrupulous, and intelligent administrators, every scheme that began as a good scheme will decline in standards. I can in fact see, that even for many of these new institutes, some old guys who simply want to be figureheads and want to command power without actually doing anything, are aching to hold the reins in their hands. So hope makes sense only if it sustained, not just if it is initiation. In fact, I believe this where we have always lacked. We have had the ability, but because of corruption, reservation etc., never the staying power. Even good, well-meaning enterprises have gone down the drain once they have been started.

Mridula: You are right. It is not just idealism. But idealism could be a driving force earlier. Now it no longer is.

Anya: I agree that monetary disparity has increased dramatically. But I still think that the percentage of people who pursued teaching etc. has gone down because of declines in other incentives. In fact, monetary incentives could actually keep these people in the absence of other ones!

9:59 AM  

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