Where the mind is without fear

The brain gain versus brain drain binary misses the far more important issue of India’s brain trap where young minds are stifled by archaic educational and social systems

October 16, 2015 01:44 am | Updated March 28, 2016 08:04 pm IST

In 2013, Kartik Sawhney, a brilliant and visually impaired student, was not allowed to take the Joint Entrance Exam for the IITs, as the system expected rigid adherence to outdated test-taking norms. Luckily, he got admission into Stanford University with a scholarship. Some call this brain drain.

On the other hand, >Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing Indian-origin professionals in Silicon Valley , argued that this is brain gain, as millions of successful Indians in the U.S. bring back knowledge to India. There is truth to this assertion. India should then cherish the dramatic increase in the number of Indian students in the U.S., from 31,743 in 1995 to more than 1,02,000 today.

The discussion of brain gain versus brain drain misses something potentially far more important, however: the issue of a domestic brain trap. Brain trap is a result of the archaic educational, social, and economic systems that stifle most young minds from blossoming into creative thinkers and highly productive citizens. One could argue that the millions of successful Indians in the U.S. would not have achieved much success if they had remained in India. This includes me.

Unlocking the enormous domestic brainpower will trump any brain gain.

Queries stifled There are many plausible reasons for brain trap. One important reason is the process by which an individual’s inquisitiveness is repeatedly snubbed from childhood. Often this is a result of strict adherence to social norms at home and is carried over to schools and workplaces.

Case in point: In a gathering that I attended, a spiritual leader said, “Indian culture is the greatest in the world.” In response, a 6-year-old child innocently asked, “Why?” Obviously stumped by the question, the leader said, “Children in Indian culture respect elders and do not disagree or talk back.” The child nodded her head in acceptance.

Unfortunately, the damage begins there. Obedience is valued more than the child’s inquisitiveness. We assume disagreeing is disrespectful and obedience is a greater trait than inquisitiveness. Deeply held beliefs are blindly transferred to children. This obedience gets amplified in schools. Many teachers practice stifling discipline and expect obedience, and discourage creative thinking. In fact, I distinctly remember a teacher once yelling at a student, “You think you know more than me?” The student was made to stand outside the class thereafter as punishment.

Fear is embedded in the psyche of the student both at home and school and the ability to think beyond the norms is curtailed from childhood. Fear manifests itself in many forms and one is that of academic stress due to hyper-competition. Imagine what students have to go through when the cut-off for admission to St. Stephens College is almost a perfect score! Inquisitiveness and creativity are the last things to pursue since very rarely exams test you on these dimensions.

In fact, young minds are systematically trained to recall a lot of material without actually learning what to do with it. During my recent visit to India, I asked a relative pursuing a computer science degree and studying for her Graph Theory exam, how she would use the principles of graph theory in real life problems?

She gave me a blank look.

I said, “Well, if you are studying something you should know why you are learning it, right?” Her innocent response was, “The exam will ask questions only from the text book.” The book itself had no applications to understand the relevance. However, she could recall theorems and proofs from the book.

The system of education — how children are taught, what books are used, and how students are tested and challenged — does not encourage inquisitiveness, but rather snubs it.

Teachers play an extraordinary role in shaping students. If India wants to unlock the brain trap, then it must invest massively in teachers and teacher training. That begins by acknowledging the importance of creativity, introducing teaching and testing methods that encourage inquisitiveness, and rewarding teaching innovations. In India, professors are expected and incentivised to get PhDs. But, it is unclear if there is any greater focus on creativity or academic research in most places. Professors who emphasise research and publish papers with students should be recognised and rewarded.

Beyond the sciences A colleague of mine once said, “To get the first high-paying job you need a degree in engineering, business, law, medicine, or computer science, but if you want to succeed in life, you need a liberal arts education.” I have come to strongly believe in this and recognise my own shortcomings.

The business leaders and industry associations like NASSCOM lament the lack of soft skills or critical thinking among graduating students. Often critical thinking skills are equated with math or science-related fields, while placing very little emphasis on critical thinking skills rooted in economics or the liberal arts education. Both are essential.

Despite recommendations, there has been little meaningful progress. It is well understood that students develop leadership skills when they are exposed to societal and economic problems. There are numerous assumptions, biases, inconsistencies, incomplete information, and counter arguments that can cloud judgment. Therefore, to make informed decisions, students need to learn to make logical arguments, provide evidence and identify limitations, recognise different viewpoints, develop skills to disagree respectfully, and to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, engineering and science do not always promote this kind of critical thinking.

Even if students develop creativity and inquisitiveness, there is no guarantee that these will be fostered in the workplace. Supervisors expect obedience, and disagreement is considered an insult. Implicit in this is the fear of reprisal, or of being perceived as rude, a carry over from childhood. Of course, these are changing in many companies, but speaking to many professionals, the story unfortunately remains valid in most places.

I often say, send a horse to the U.S. and it will grow into a racehorse, since its mind will be free to take advantage of opportunities in a culture that nurtures ideas. Unfortunately we do not know what happens to millions of potential racehorses in India. That is why I believe there is tremendous potential if we finally unlock and unleash our minds.

(Prabhudev Konana is William H. Seay Centennial Professor and Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Email: pkonana@mail.utexas.edu.)

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