Is India trailing behind in education?

This question may sound absurd to many and a few might even say that I am nuts asking this. But I was recently reading an article in Times of India blogs that probed the idea  “Do nations have a split personality? especially India” something like the famous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story.

While we could clearly identify that the Dr. Jekyll personality of India would be its economic growth, large military, space initiatives, being tech savvy etc… and Mr. Hyde syndrome would be infrastructure, poverty of many segments in the nation etc.. But there was one more item that the author mentioned as the Mr. Hyde personality and that was Education. Education?, yes you heard me right, Education. That made me thinking, can it be true we are bad at education?

Who said India is trailing behind in Education?

The reference was to the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report that surveyed 15-year-old school going children from 73 countries and put India second last in terms of its students’ performance in reading, science and mathematics. As you would imagine China came out on top of the list in all three subjects and seems India came right at the end, being better than only Kyrgyzstan.

We might have to take this information with a slight pinch of salt as India was not a member of OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) I guess till 2009 and they later on added India and conducted the test in the states of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. I have no clue why they add states instead of a country and push a judgment. It seems the Human Resources Development Ministry in India at that time asked NCERT to probe into the poor performance and make a report, but I could not find any result of that report online.

Also I am always unsure about these kind of data as they don’t give the real picture of what is happening and get compromised in political and regulatory red tapes. Nevertheless it is worth to recognize that we came second last in some list on school education whether we accept it or not. But it must be quite shocking for every Indian, Indian Parent to be precise whose main goal is giving the kid a best possible education.

The importance of education in India is so high that over the years we have created a different accent of English (often seeming like a totally different dialect) for every language in India and yet when we talk technology, people across the world sit and listen. Trying hard to get the meat out of our English versions. They even take our silent nods on technology with high regard.

A personal experience

I have personally experienced that even the Indian silence can be considered as dangerously tech by many around the world. I remember years ago when I was on my first trip to UK (my first to a western country) and we had folks from several European countries and I was struggling to put up an accent that sounded western. But it often never worked well. In a restaurant, I was asked what I wanted to drink and I said Vodka (sounding western) and it took several repeats for the bearer to understand what I meant and that too with the help of one of the French guy in the group.

But what was interesting to me was that when I was sitting silent during the tech talks (my tech skills being minimal at that time almost bordering pathetically ignorant) one of the guy remarked pointing me ‘he must be getting bored when he hears us do the silly child talk’. He was seconded by another lady who said ‘you Indians know so much about technology and I am thinking to send my kids to study school in India’.

Second Last in Education?

Now they tell we are second last in reading, science and math. But can that be really true? May be not, but the question will it become true anytime in the future? Should we really worry about it?

Now the PISA results might not be true to the point, and might carry very little value when we look at it. The IITs and NITs are still considered world class, and the Indian techy’s silent nods and roars still fill up the corridors of every major technology company in the world. But will it always remain the same, the question is not how high we are regarded in the world now, the question is will we be regarded same way in the future. History proves that countries have been lost in the glitters of glory and forgotten the basic building blocks that brought the glory. Should we stop and look what made us a technology powerhouse in the first place.

What made our education different?

Many say that language is the main differentiator, the command on English, but that is only when you compare with countries that were never English colonies. We have much more than language that made us the first choice for the largest technical services buyer in the world ‘USA’.

How did education and the urge to learn and grow become a trait that shaped the Indian in the late twentieth century? Apparently three basic things existed in one way or the other

  1. An urge to learn, by the student
  2. A strong desire to educate, by the parent
  3. A true commitment to teach, by the teacher

When all these existed at the same time, we had magnificent successes, but even if one of these existed the Indian turned out to have a better chance in the world job market than others. But beyond all these there was one more element that made India and India’s approach to education different. And that was the Community outlook to education.

The Collaborative Outlook to Education

When we grew up there existed a solid environment within our neighborhoods, communities, villages and small towns that fostered education. It was not just ours but the entire neighborhood’s business to see that you were educated. People when they meet you first ask, ‘how are you doing at school?, Should study well and make us all proud’. People felt an honest pride in the success of a kid’s education other than your own because he belonged to your town. It was a shame to fail or fall behind both for student and the parents. Top performance by a student in a state or national level competition was an achievement not just the student, but the school, the community, village and the city.

Education in India was never an individual effort, but a collective effort. This is what I think gave the biggest opportunity for Indian educated youngsters like us when the technology wave hit our doorsteps. The people around you (other than your parents) also had a definitive role in fostering the need of education in you. They asked about your education, they questioned you, they advised you, they congratulated you, and they stood an inch high when you passed an exam with flying colors. They were the people in your neighborhood, community, village, city, school; they all collectively made you who you are.

India might have nothing to fear with a PISA report, but if the collective feeling of education is lost, then we need to really worry, and in the fast paced world where people are becoming more conditioned to a commitment to themselves, we do have a problem in the horizon.

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