ROTE AIN'T THAT BAD: PARANJAPE VS HARDY
Sunil has a post in which he muses over the merits and demerits of the American and Indian systems of education. With all the flaws we have in the Indian system, it's still hard to compare the two. I have usually come to the conclusion, even if not wholly satisfactory, that at least for motivated students our system is better till the end of junior college (high school in the US) while the American system can sustain a creative mind much better during the college and university years, with its opportunities for collaboration and research.
This comparison inevitably makes me think of one of the most common criticisms leveled at our system- the great emphasis on mostly mindless rote memorization, usually essential for getting good grades. Interestingly, this system is not just deeply embedded in our way of educating people. It used to be endemic in many European and American schools before progressives took over. I remember many biographies of scientists- Einstein being one- where they had to go through the humdrum of rote and usually ended up getting disgusted. Sadly, the European and American systems have largely outgrown this tradition while we still are steeped in it.
But rote memorization can sometimes serve a useful purpose, and there is one absolutely remarkable story that I always remember as an example of this.
My father's school mathematics teacher and close mentor- a man of great learning and wisdom- once wrote a letter to Wrangler R. P. Paranjape asking for advice on how best to do mathematics. But a brief digression here. Most of you probably know that the title "Wrangler", and especially "Senior Wrangler" was and to some extent still is an esteemed honorific that one can acquire in the famous and highly regarded mathematics Tripos examinations at Cambridge University. The Tripos, successful negotiation of which secured the title of Wrangler for those who dared, was the benchmark for marking geniuses, and some of the greatest scientists in the world, including Lord Kelvin and James Clerk Maxwell, have secured their position as Wranglers through this examination. The passing rate was notoriously low. Scholars at Cambridge in the nineteenth century could be divided among those who had cleared the Tripos and those who had not. The Tripos guaranteed one a place among the Cambridge elite and brought great intellectual and strategic benefits.
India can boast of two such personalities, Wrangler Paranjape and Wrangler Mahajani, who distinguished themselves through this difficult examination. Paranjape, who was a Professor and Principal at Fergusson College in Pune long ago (yes, that time standards were slightly different from now), enjoyed great prestige among Indian intellectuals and in fact was the first Indian to become a Wrangler. Incidentally he lived very close to our place, along the road that runs next to our house. His house today is marked as an important historic structure.
In any case, as a student, my father's mathematics teacher Prof. Godbole was curious about how best to go about studying mathematics and decided to write a letter to the great man asking for his advice. Paranjape wrote back and suggested some tricks, habits and techniques. But one thing in the letter stood out for Prof. Godbole, Paranjape's emphasis on rote memorization, the same rote memorization that we look down upon. Why did Paranjape hold this depressing habit in such high esteem?
In the twilight years of the nineteenth century, Paranjape had gone to Cambridge to appear for the infamous Tripos. He took the Tripos, and to his delight, scored the highest grade. But it was when he found out who scored below him that his pulse began to race and he indisputably trembled. It was none other than G H Hardy, best known as Ramanujan's mentor, and undoubtedly one of the greatest pure mathematicians who ever lived! Paranjape, gifted as he was, knew that he was no match for Hardy's formidable intellect. What on earth could have made him do better than Hardy in the Tripos?
Believe it or not, but it was rote, as Paranjape himself said in his letter. The Tripos examination is designed something like the IIT entrance test. One needs to tackle and solve a certain number of problems in a given amount of time. While creative solutions are applauded, efficiency is more important than genius. Hardy, that doyen among mathematicians, decided to apply his mind and come up with novel solutions to the problems. When he could not remember certain equations or formulae, he derived them in a stroke of brilliance. But all this took time. Paranjape who was steeped in the Indian system on the other hand, instantly remembered equations and formulae. He had memorized them and in fact entire problems beforehand through practice. Whenever he saw problems similar to ones which he had seen before, he recalled the necessary technique and solved the problem in a flash. Through sheer memory and the benefit of rote, Paranjape managed to solve many more problems than Hardy could, even if Hardy had shown creative brilliance in solving them.
Prof. Godbole passed this story on to my father, and my father passed it on to me. And I have always remembered it. Sometimes rote can make one triumph even over more gifted individuals. While learning certainly does not end with rote, for all its drawbacks, rote ain't that bad.