The Former President of the USA, Barack Obama, was not lying or playing out highly strategic deceit when he praises Bangalore and Beijing children for outsmarting American children. However, his reference population is the highly successful, India-born or educated (or some first-generation US-born Indian Americans) diaspora. In the process, he is talking about the Indian education system and children of the yesteryears!
Let us not overlook that there are other nations such as the UK, Australia, Canada, Kenya, South Africa with considerable Indian diaspora but they do not sing paeans for their Indian-origin residents. Indians in these countries are not as revered for quality of their education as in the USA. This is because the USA did receive the best of Indians in terms of educational background.
This discussion is best addressed by revisiting the education system of the 1970s – 1990s, the school years of the ‘successful immigrant’ Indian referred to above. Here is how we see the whole debate:
- A large number of the immigrant Indians pursued good education in India – an overwhelming majority of them studied at the IITs, RECs, and other prestigious colleges -before going to the USA for higher education and stayed on in the USA.
- The lion’s share of the immigrant Indians to the USA were technically educated (maths, science or engineering) and that made for better success ratio of the immigrant Indian population as a whole.
- Their value system, work ethics, and life skills were very different – focused on goals, hard work, integrity; good values eventually trump over everything else. They were also fairly passionate about what they wanted to study and do.
- Mostly, born to hard-working, ‘lower-middle class’ Indian parents, the immigrant Indians received better conditions for creative nurturance; they could take risks and innovate and few of them succeeded big (the direct relationship between creativity and lower-middle class status is discussed elsewhere).
- Born in the pre-TV era in India, this generation of immigrant Indians spent good time reading and conversing with others. As a result, their language competence was well developed and logical thinking was sharp.
Compare the aforementioned success factors with the hallmarks of school education as of date:
- Reading skills have almost gone out of the lives of our children and academics is low on the agenda of conversation among friends – offering a deadly blow to academic passion and excellence.
- The best of the academically successful children are at good communicative English level; academic English is rather poor across the board. A miniscule fraction of students are really self-learners because of poor language skills and the ill-effects of widespread supplementary education.
- Economic reasons (future career prospects) have become the prime drivers of higher education choices; there is little passion in children opting to be engineer, lawyer, MBAs, economists, bio-technologists etc. Expectedly, the ability to professionally excel is compromised.
- There is a visible sense of crisis in value education and life skills. Our children may not be as driven and exemplary as we wish to see.
- The unprecedented expansion of higher education in the past decade has significantly lowered the quality of teaching and learning across the higher education system in the country. Undergraduate education years are the last impressionable years of personal and academic development of children but it has been particularly paralysed due to the missing role-model, passionate and mentor educators.
There is a world of difference between Obama’s benchmarks and the current reality of Indian students, in general!
‘One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.’ — Albert Einstein
— Albert Einstein