Destroying education in a rainforest

Dear Prakashji,

Pardon me, as I am slowly developing a habit of bombarding you with open letters! But, just as you are keen to build a new India, a better India that corrects its past mistakes, so am I; so I plan to torment you for a while, though a bit less sarcastically this time, as the issue is a bit painful.

I see that IIT JEE results are out today, and strange it may sound, I felt as if someone is about to rip some wonderful plants out of their home soil to sell them.

With faces of some really bright young Indian pasted on front pages by coaching classes claiming mostly false glory, the feeling is of horror. The same that one gets looking at fattened young pigs chosen for the slaughterhouse. while they are made to feel victorious about being the chosen ones.

While the issue of education getting destroyed by commerce driven coaching classes is often discussed, I want you to take you down a different trek, to the Amazonian rainforest and take a walk under the canopy of giant trees, to understand something far more diabolical, as it is a phenomenon that is destroying our nation.

An Amazonian forest is driven by its trees competing for sunlight. Life of each tree is a struggle to rise higher than its companions and capture sunlight. This competition has done something very special to rainforest trees. The growth potential of one individual ends up forcing all its companions to grow taller than they would, in isolation.

This competitive response is very common in nature. Gazelles of a herd have to run faster than not just the cheetah, but than other members of the herd, so they don’t end up at the tail-end of the group.

But, nature is not all about competition, as there is another very powerful natural force at play here, and I want you to understand it carefully, as it may have done greater damage to our nation.

Though nature drives each individual to compete, it is also a firm believer in optimization. Nature would force a creature to spend the last ounce of its energy to compete, but would not allow a creature to waste its energy when it is not required. So, sans competition driving growth, nature is perfectly fine with the survival of the mediocre.

So, a rainforest tree, if not competing for sunlight with its neighbors, would stop growing to its full potential, as such growth would be wasteful. Evolution ensures that growth potential is switched on only if needed, and not all the time.

If you think this is restricted to other creatures, you can observe the same phenomenon in sports. A great sportsman emerging from a region would be accompanied by others who have grown up playing with him/her.

A Federer causes the rise of a Wawrinka from the region, because Wawrinka, who may not have as much talent is pushed to compete and realize his full growth potential by tough local competition.

I feel that that is enough of an excursion, and let us return to IITs and other institutions of excellence that we are proud of and put them to the test of the above theory.

It is easy to see that IITs are a great idea, as they plant the finest brains of the nation behind closed walls of these great institutions, where they compete with the best and get better.

These institutes nurture excellence, and the world is a witness to their success. IITians of India are honed by insane competition. They are individuals whose growth potential is fully realized by competing with the finest of a 1.3 billion strong nation.

We have been cherishing success of out IITs since a long time, and for all the good reasons, as they have proved that Indians are second to none in the world if the opportunity is provided.

But, while we bask in the glory of the global success of IITians, we could be missing something closer to home that really matters to us as a nation.

It is great to see what IITs did to couple thousand Indian students, but we are failing to notice that they were uprooted out of classes across India, leaving behind millions of mediocre students.

With every JEE conducted, we are reducing competition from lakhs of classes across India. The students left behind are not without growth potential, but without suitable tough competition, they are now highly unlikely to get pushed towards excellence.

An IIT student will not find any injustice in this, as she is bound to feel that it is her vs. them. If she is left in the company of mediocre, she is unlikely to excel.

There is also a justification at the system level for institutions of excellence in India where resources are not enough for all. So, it is wiser to invest where they can yield best returns.

But, now comes another factor, a human factor at play, that I am really keen for you to understand for the sake of India.

The idea of an institute of excellence is not a problem, but the way we have done it is, and to understand it better, I need to take you to a nursery.

A nursery is a place to nurture trees, but with a specific purpose. Its sole objective is to breed trees to sell them, and not be part of the local ecosystem. Here, finest of the stock is given special treatment, best fertilizers, and the best care, but under one specific condition.

A nursery ensures that trees are not grown in the natural soil, instead, they are placed in plastic bags.

The plastic bags ensure that the tree doesn’t belong to any ecology. It ensures that a tree is not rooted to the ground. The tree in a nursery is carefully prepared so that it doesn’t belong.

If I visit a city with an institute of excellence, I know how to find one. It will be a large campus hidden behind a tall wall that no one can see across. It will be an island, unaffected by thriving city around it, and all efforts will be made to ensure that no Indian can walk inside one without justifying it to a security apparatus trained to believe the dictum of a good British club under the Raj, i.e. Indians and dogs (well, not dogs) must keep out.

If you walk inside an IIT flocking with kids from distant places of this vast nation and ask its students if they know five top engineering problems of their hometown, or ask its faculty to list five top poets of the city, you are going to draw a naught.

Sorry to say, Sir, but institutions of excellence are designed carefully to be nurseries. They are designed to ensure that they identify the best stock of Indian intellect, and ensure that it is placed in plastic bags to sell.

We are producing finest brains, but sans a fundamental human quality of social belonging. The system of isolation is uprooting kids from social context. It is making them ready-to-export but at an enormous cost to the nation.

The way our institutions of excellence are structured, they are damaging India on two fronts.

They are making rest of Indian academies devoid of quality competition that can help others to realise growth potential. So, what is left behind for us to use to make new India is a mass that is not pushed to excel?

IITs may have compensated that loss, provided its students had social roots to return to their bases and serve their community. But, the way IITs are built, physically and systemically, its students have no real connection with Indian society.

So, the net result is, the nation is bleeding from two cuts and getting weaker by each year.

As you are at the helm, I plead you to consider the following:

We need IITs and NITs, but we need to spread them thinly across the ground, encouraging kids to opt to stay closer their communities.

The idea of residential schooling is good for colonial powers that needed to produce officers to send them to distant lands to rule. But, it is no harm if an Indian stays linked with her family during studies.

In addition to encouraging the physical connection, we need a reorientation of the academic curriculum by adding components that encourage students to develop social roots.

A young Indian must be sent back home for an internship in her own hometown to solve a specific problem of her own people.

I request you to consider this as soon as possible because we simply can’t afford to continue with the existing model of IITs without causing serious damage to the nation.

Till now, our IITs have helped other nations to grow, but let us realised that no amount of foreign exchange remittance can be worth having these extremely bright kids in our own nation.

It may lead to less rich IITians, but possibly happier IITians enjoying first-class citizenship of their own motherland. A life lived in one’s own culture and people is surely worth a million dollars, if not more.

In anticipation,

A citizen hoping to see a new India made by our IITians

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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