Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Where does India get its Knowledge From?

This post is inspired by Rahul’s post here. This is not a response, really. More of an aside. What it got me thinking on was where do we get our knowledge from, as a country?


As Indian children, we start getting our knowledge in schools. And what does school education comprise of? It comprises of reading a lot of books and assimilating them (often even verbatim). As children, we are never really taught to do anything on our own. Even in the case of science education where so much emphasis is laid on doing things, most students end up merely learning the three laws on Newton by rote and parroting them blindly in the exams.


As children we are never really taught to question. Things stated in books are stated as ‘facts’. There is no mention of evidence, proof, argument or ongoing debate. Books thus become authorities. Books become things that are to be respected and not questioned at all. And all knowledge is something that has already been created and codified and not much modification is possible with it.


Then we grow a little older and we are introduced to laboratories – the places where knowledge is supposed to be generated. But do we get to generate knowledge here? No, not at all. First of all, the syllabus is prescribed so that there really is no scope for children to ‘play’ with the instruments. An ‘experiment’ needs to be learnt and reproduced in the exam, the same way that books are learn and reproduced in elementary classes. Second, since the results of an experiment are ‘deterministic’ they have to turn out the way the books tell you. We do not care about the fact that there is always experimental error involved or that your equipment may be faulty leading to results that are not quite expected. Neither do we care about the fact that learning about such details are as much part of the experimental process as the experiment itself. So as students we learn to fudge our experimental readings to fit to the known ‘laws’. We also learn that it is more important to get the ‘right’ results than report what happened. There goes academic honestly out the window.


Then we start preparing for JEE. When we go out to the market to buy books, we find that all Indian books are merely copies of each other and two books don’t really offer anything different from each other. Moreover, to our utter horror, they tell us things like ‘body in circular motion is not accelerating’ which are refuted by our teachers using simple logic. Therefore our teachers tell us to turn to books that are foreign and mostly American. Not only do these books tell you how to look at things in a variety of ways, they are also a lot of fun to read. But the knowledge, unfortunately, remains utterly American.


But somehow we manage to learn a few things and get into IITs. And then we are introduced to this whole new system of doing ‘research’ and publishing papers and working in labs. But are we ever taught what these things mean and involve? Hardly. We just carry over what we learnt in school and modify and adapt it to our changing needs. And once again, we must look to the west for getting our papers published, and for recognition for our work. Most of our own work is built up on the shoulders of western giants. While the American scientists busy themselves with American Society of this and that, we sit in our labs and twiddle our thumbs.


And we twiddle our thumbs a little more.

6 comments:

  1. Yes, that's the truth..we hardly get any recognition here...creativity is useless without an environment that fosters innovation..and sadly we don't have that environment..and then there is no reason to object if a creative mind goes to America....brain drain is better than brain in drain..

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  2. I think this looking towards the west for recognition attitude afflicts all walks of Indian life. Why is it that we vie for the Oscars every year. Are we, as a people, any less capable of judging our own films? Why can't we set up an award system that will recognize our own talent? The population of India is almost four times that of the US. Any recognition that we get from them for our works is almost meaningless.

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  3. It's just not about recognition...it's about nurturing your talent..d thing is abt support...u might have heard d story of Dr. Subhas Mukhopadhay("Ek Doctor Ki Maut" is inspired from his life)...it was tragic...it has been years since we are asking questions like why can't we recognize our talent?or why can't we support them?..but how far we have done something to answer those questions....our system made my life hell just bcos i was looking for those answers...and i would still look for those answers...but if americans took me out of that hell then i will surely appreciate them...(will mail u some day)

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  4. And finally, its about quality rather than quantity!

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  5. As far as gaining knowledge in IIT is concerned, I have some things to add to what Vinod said. Adit used the word "inovation" and I was reminded of our current Chemical Engg Lab in this sem. Previously, we used to have standard ways of conducting the lab- read the experiment manual about the procedure & calculations involved, come and conduct the experiment with the help of TAs, write a report and give viva based on the report. Only in this sem, the course instructors decided to make the lab more interesting & useful. They reduced the no. of experiments to be done and instead brought in simulation of the experiments in simulators like FLUENT/ASPEN/SIMULINK etc. This was followed by an "innovation" turn in which we are supposed to think up something new related to the experiment and do it as an expt or as simulation. Not only this, we are supposed to write muchh better reports in this lab (unlike the previous labs, these reports wud be corrected by the Profs instead of the TAs). All this meant that we had to put in more efforts, different sort of efforts and wud learn a lot during the process. But the response of the students has been pretty poor. I'm not even talking abt the guys who are not interested in Chem Engg & just want to get a degree, get a job and go away. Even the guys wanting to do study further
    in Chem Engg (including me) thought this arrangement was a nuisance as we have gotten used to having the same old lab pattern.

    The point is that even when somebody does dare to bring in something new, the inertia in the system kills the idea.

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  6. @ Preshit - Thanks, Preshit for that wonderful comment. It would be interesting for you to know that even in IITK a similar thing was done in CHE. I have a friend in CHE and he told me all about it. In places like IITs where considerable freedom is given to instructors to design their courses, innovation in teaching is commonplace. But as you've pointed out there are two problems afflicting the system -

    1. The teachers themselves don't know how to handle such new kinds of teaching methodologies.

    2. The students are not interested. They're too used to the old system and it takes too much of their effort to shift to the new one.

    The system, I believe needs to get changed from very early on. If that is done, that will automatically carry over to college level.

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