Friday, May 22, 2009

My thoughts on the oft-raised 'India does not invent because we are taught to memorise, not think' argument

It is a topic that has come up a few times now in my interactions with various people. Since I made an effort at documenting my thoughts for a blog comment this time, I decided to modify it quickly and put it as a post here so that I may get valuable feedback and so that I may store it for posterity, when I'm sure I'll hear this argument several times more.

First let us look at India as an inventor nation without temporal constraint. Let us also not narrow down to the special case of scientific and technological inventions. Without these two contraints, India has invented much. Every outfit of every culture in India is an invention that is uniquely Indian. The zillion varieties of clothes, the shoes, the bangles, the nose ring, the toe ring, the numerous other jewelry, the 'lota' (a type of tumbler), the 'shoulder pai' (shoulder bag), the earthern pot and many such inventions. What more do you expect to be invented from a land of farmers ruled by kings?

But the issue most desire to have addressed is the lack of scientific inventions. The answer to this problem lies in education. However, it is not so much in our system of education as when we started having a formalised system of education. The most significant progress in science, discovery and inventions have happened in the West after the era of systematic and formal education began. Whatever may be the flaws of such a schooling system as was existent, it was precisely the Christian emphasis on schooling that ultimately led to the flowering of indepdendent and rational thought that eventually not only led to great scientific and engineering progress but also to questioning to a great extent the very dogma of the Christian system that led to this tradition. It is indeed that foundation of formal schooling, initiated by the Christians of the West, that has spread to the east, including to nations such as India, and ultimately led to a glut of scientific minds in the late 20th and 21st centuries even in our country! There has been much contribution by India to technological progress (If you observe, the recent past is not an era of grand individual scientific inventions. The inventions are mostly by communities of people for which the head of the group might be popular, that's all.). However, I concede that there is more contributed by Indians brought up and/or spending time outside our country than those within it(on a per capita basis). This I attribute to the fact that inventions and discoveries(discoveries more so than inventions) require a certain amount of aristocracy. Serious pursuit of scientific and technological progress cannot happen in an atmosphere of daily strife and the struggle for survival. It requires the creation of an environment that leaves the thinkers free of other daily worries and able to contemplate ideas. Hence, this progress is deeply intertwined with economic progress and you'll see our research and technological progress advance as we grow economically.

Another case in point that the education with its emphasis on rote learning isn't really the fundamental cause of anything catastrophic is that it is this very rigid schooling structure that existed in Britain for nearly 500 years and still led to a spawning of scientific minds by that tiny island nation. Whether you concede it or not, although the evaluation of merit is rote based, the process of rational thought is still inculcated during the process of teaching and imbibing. That doesn't go to say that the education system in our country needn't be reformed. There is much that needs to be changed. But the root to our changing into an inventor nation lies in economic progress that leads to aristocracy for intellectuals, not a poverty stricken nation with a reformed system of education.


silverine said...

I had blogged about this some time back! I still feel that the Lotta is no comparison with the PC!

Karthik Sivaramakrishnan said...

Really? You can always pour a hot cup of coffee from the lotta on to the PC and destroy it! But you can never destroy a lotta using a PC! You should reconsider! :)

Dot said...

I'm not from India but this is what I observed during my visit to schools in India. I agree with you that Indian education is such that there is no scope for thinking outside the box. Extra-curricular activities should be included part of the education.