Monday, November 03, 2008

The spirit of debate

There was an excellent article in the Times of India today, on how children are actively discouraged from asking questions by educational institutions. First, check it out here. We pride ourselves on our intelligence; we wax eloquent about how good we are in the sciences, how we excel in everything we do, and on how India is the destination for tomorrow's world. But, we cannot answer one single unexpected question. Most Indians cannot think outside the box. What else can explain the appalling lack of innovation in Indian industry?

Take for example the question of patents. Statistics show that India is approximately ten years behind India as far as patent-filing and innovation go. The WIPO Patent Statistics Report 2008 (PDF) presents an even more depressing picture. Consider this, The United States is the world's largest seeker of international patents. India does not even figure prominently. It is relegated to the dungeons of statistical tools under the catch-all phrase "other". Given below is the graph illustrating this statistic.


What this statistic illustrates is more important than the statistic itself. India is the world's second most-populous country. We have a population that equals one-sixth of humanity. We have the world's largest number of English-speaking people. We pat ourselves on the back for being a fully-functional and vibrant democracy. But, we cannot manage to obtain even a minuscule fraction of the world's intellectual property. To me, this is a damning evidence of the gross failure of the country's educational system. I have written about this before. But, nothing seems to change. In the mad race for marks and grades, we seem to be losing focus of the very objective of education: to educate. We are so obsessed with being the best that we forget that all this to actually learn something.

A student in India's schools and universities are banned from asking questions. We fear that questioning will lead to indiscipline. We look upon contradiction as a lack of respect. Personally, I have never felt any respect or sympathy towards teachers who stop students from asking questions. Only a teacher who lacks confidence and self-esteem will fear a student's questions. As the TOI article so aptly points out, it is Indian tradition to question, critique and argue. Why then, are we suppressing this basic instinct in the name of discipline and respect?

I am a debater. I do not participate in debates any more, but I deliberately use the present tense because I still debate in everyday life. I debate the crashing economy with my father, the reasons behind the fall of the stock market with Anand, the necessity to translate every word from French to English with my students, the price of a kilo of tomatoes with the local vendor. It is in my nature. Why then should I, or anyone else for that matter, not be allowed to question a rule, demand an explanation, argue a point or even prove a teacher wrong in our schools and colleges? I fail to see the logic. Dissent is healthy. In fact, it is life. Tell me if I am wrong.


kaushik said...

I totally agree with you...but some time ago, when I was discussing lack of research/ good PhD, Masters students in IIT, my friend said that :" For a poor country like ours, if not asking the questions, and if following the herd to do a MA, 50 years ago or a Bsc 30 years ago or a BE now, leads you to a job with steady income, then why complain.

Maybe with the 'upwards mobility', things should change from our generation onwards...

and it is not that Indians are not innovative, the IP industry in the US, is driven a lot by Indians thinking out of the box!

nimis540 said...

No,you are not at all worng..I was and is more of a questioning type attitude..Why shouldn't we question?But questioning chnages the whole 'peaceful',I am learnign to keep my motuh shut even if i feel like questioning bcoz not many perceive it in the right sense..

Discouraging questioning in schools is again a part of the whole culture..Its recently I felt bad for not questioning during our evolution has to chnage..It should come from teachers and parents side..The student will be timid in almost all cases..So it the other parties' responsibility to promote or motivate..

I hope my rant made some sense :)

Amrutha said...

Kaushik: True, Indians can be innovative, but when that happens only outside India, there is a problem here, right? That's what worries me.

Cris said...

Mmm I dont remember the lower classes all that well but by the time I reached college many students turned into zombies when it came to asking questions. There were in fact teachers who prompted to ask questions and when no one did, shook head and said this was a problem in India, especially in Kerala where people were scared to ask questions cause they were afraid if their questions would make them look dumb.

But if you ask why they became that way I dont know. I dont honestly remember ever being discouraged to ask questions, I have always blamed myself for growing up to be that way. Cause there were kids who grew up with me and still confident enough to ask anything at any place.