Friday, March 07, 2008

Saying it as it is

I’m trying to figure out which system is better.

Growing up in India, I realized the "educational" system had a wonderful way of killing any semblance of self-esteem and confidence in most kids. A very large fraction of the teachers out there had an uncanny ability to grind a student’s opinion of oneself into dust (tossing in a whack or two on the head as a bonus). Except for a chosen few in a class, most students were reminded in numerous way of how utterly incompetent they were. Every child was certainly not “gifted”, except in the eyes of their extremely adoring parents. Even there, a number of parents would publicly state how worthless their kid was. In college, you’d routinely be reminded that you were no better than an earthworm lost in the sand, ready to be crushed under some heel. Professors would look at you with an expression that read “you are a state topper and this is the best you can do?” (or would sometimes even actually say that). Most of our grades in college weren’t artificially inflated too much. If you sucked, you flunked the course, simple as that. And then you’d be clearly told that you sucked, and you’d have a better future selling peacock feathers at the railway station. A majority of the students’ grades were what the majority should be, average. In the end, you came out of the system typically underestimating your own abilities. You either were resigned to a life of mediocrity, or would strive insanely hard to be that much more successful. I’m not sure how many people have come out of college in India with such low self esteem that it took years to undo. Unless of course you went to an IIT. In that case you really believed you were special even if you flunked half your courses while you were there.

At least, I think it was mostly like that.

Anyway, when I came to America years ago for grad school, I learnt pretty quickly that things were quite different on this side of the pond. Most kids seem to have gone through school and college generally being told that they were wonderful and unique, or “gifted”. Grades in courses seemed hugely inflated, and students seemed particularly prone to what can only be described as whining. A’s seemed to be handed out like free seminar pizzas, and the rare professor who really spread his/her grades out over a median distribution was labeled a hardass. This extended to how you spoke to students as well. A lousy student could never be told that he/she sucked, and had chosen something he/she had no aptitude for. Extreme PC is the rule here. Early in grad school, we had to spend a couple of quarters being teaching assistants. Half my students did poorly in the quizzes I set (strictly from the material at hand). I didn’t give them any freebies. I got lousy ratings as a TA. That taught me a lesson. The next time I was a TA, I handed out soft quizzes, played “pharmacology jeopardy”, brought Halloween candy to class on Halloween, and told my class that they rocked. That won me rave reviews and an insanely high score of 4.6 out of 5 as a TA. While most undergrads would go away to get a real job, some of them would actually come to grad school. There some would discover that they were utterly incompetent, had no lab skills, couldn’t plan an experiment, and even if they did, couldn’t execute it. This would drive their mentor nuts. In my case, while supervising some particularly incompetent rotation students, I’ve learnt to just walk out of the room, take deep breaths, rip a sheet of paper, and come back and smile. And then a few of them might ask you for your “honest opinion of their abilities” at the end of their stint in the lab. “Honest opinion” means anything but that. You’re supposed to be smiley and polite and say how they really have great potential, and their flaws (if any) are so minute that they were practically perfect. If you say they sucked, they’re guaranteed to go about ensuring your reputation as an unreasonable a****le. After all, they came through college with straight A’s and no one had ever told them they sucked ever before.

The good in all of this is the great amount of self-confidence and ambition most students have. But the flip side is a serious confusion of ambition and ability. They aren’t the same. There aren’t any pretty gold stars for doing something, making a mess of it, not trying hard to get it right (or correcting your mistakes) and then whining about how tough it is.

So, having written down these thoughts, I’m still trying to figure it out. Is it better to go through a system without any mollycoddling, to come out of it diffident, overcautious, sometimes insecure, or entering the world full of ambition, but being sometimes incapable of facing reality?


Anonymous said...

I am inclined to agree with your first set of observations (I don't know much about the second set). However, being an ancient grad student in India, I have also observed too many fresh undergrads who come to grad school show traits from the second set: high self confidence, ambition, glib talking skill; but not enough ability. It takes them a long time in grad school before they realize that self confidence, good communication skills etc. are only addons.

Anonymous said...


I think that the best undergrad schools in the US, like Caltech do not have that tradition. I personally feel that most people, especially in India, tend to think that there is only be one right answer. What one learns while doing science is that the point of it is the opposite-- we make progress usually by questioning what we think is right and also that there are many "right" answers to a question (e.g., Gauss gave 4 proofs of the fundamental theorem of algebra). And that never gets taught directly in any school, whether in India or the US. One just learns it while doing science. So, I personally feel that there is no education that helps people in any particular sense, although going through highly competitive places often helps one develop many skills that become useful later.
I think that the educational system should provide encouragement to think on one's own, which would necessarily mean that we question our own ideas at all times and if we understand that that's the process of progress, we would not suffer either insecurity or misplaced confidence in our abilities.


Anonymous said...

I can tell you that IIT's are not much different. Much as they may appear confident and assured, there are many graduates of IIT's who also have the same problem with self confidence that you point out (I am an IIT alum BTW). You see, when kids enter IIT, most of them truly believe that they are geniuses and that the world should be thankful to them. This attitude is pretty systematically deconstructed, starting from their very first semester, and with a few exceptions, most of them do lose a fair bit of their confidence.

This is quite in contrast to my experience with undergrads that I came across as a grad student at an Ivy league place. There, the students came in with pretty much similar attitudes, and these were reinforced over their stay. In this sense, my experience is pretty similar to yours, although I am agnostic about both situations (actually I think both extremes are bad, although I think the latter is easier to recover from than low self esteem). I think there is no real necessity to either praise them and tell them that they are "future leaders", nor to deconstruct and undermine their opinions of their abilities. They are not high school students after all.

Wavefunction said...

I think none of the two systems is actually better, but ironically I think that both of them can borrow elements from each other.

Wavefunction said...

In fact this reminded me of a remarkable story that inspired a post:

Sunil said...

4colors.....yes indeed, much is changing in india.

Anon.....yes, you might be right about some small, elite schools like Caltech or MIT. But in most of the other ones (including the larger Ivys), that tradition continues. And yes, a lot of Indian students think there is only one correct answer. That goes back to the educational system that is "closed" and rigid. Thinking on ones own is, like a mastercard, priceless. do you see such a balance being struck any where? You certainly need to encourage talent without telling them they are born to rule the world.

Ashutosh...there certainly is quite a lot for both systems to borrow. But how much of the good in the system here is likely to permeate into the Indian system is anyones guess. Your post is most interesting. There is much to comment there about, but it first needs a more critical reading.

Anonymous said...

hi sunil,

when i went through this blog i have no words to express my hapiness...

i agree with u 100%no doubt about it..even in my sister's home her son used to get scoldings for not doing well in academics but i found he was very much interested in music...

when i joined him in the music class he is doing great....

parents should know there kids interests and then find out ways to nurture it if not try to make him understand thats not viable...

let the coming generation ie we atleast practice that ....


pilot, IAF

Anonymous said...

I am sure there is, but I don't know how simple it is to find it. How we are educated and the attitudes that we are conditioned by are strongly influenced by tradition and culture.

I do think though that education in India emphasized a mastery over *information* over analysis. This was the case in IIT at least, where we were taught a lot of stuff, much of it advanced, but were never really allowed to analyse and truly understand it. As you said earlier, the answers were always of paramount importance, rather than the process of arriving at a certain conclusion. However, to truly understand something, the process of deduction or arriving at a conclusion is at least as or even more important than the conclusion itself. I had some good professors who did understand this distinction, but the system of education and the general attitude towards what constitutes true education did not help them very much.

CuriousCat said...

Hey Sunil, still getting caught up with my feed reader so just read this post. I came over to say that I think that system 1 namely ours, leaves us better prepared for careers in science...but from your comment thread, I appear to be a majority of one...

Anonymous said...

I dont think the answer is either/or.. the system should have a mix of both. A kid can go only so far with endless mollycoddling and on the other hand, the strait-jacket ways of Indian education also is hard on kids who need help.

Parents ought to be friends with their kids but also ensure discipline.

Indian Vedic traditions of education - in my view - were pretty straight-forward with honesty from the Guru but also with respect. A simple example would be the lesson of Gita. Arjuna kept on asking question after question, while Krishna was fairly authoritative, he did not beat around the bush or push Arjuna away. He answered him.

That, I believe, is the right way.


Destination Infinity said...

There are advantages of being brought up in a developing nation like India, where the competition is scorching. More than the reaction, it is the attitude in people of a particular nation, that reflects in the education system. In India, people believe that you need education and only education to succeed in life. In the west, they have crossed this period a long time ago. They are already in the 'business' of education. So, if you tell them that they are bad, you lose the Fees. (India is fast catching up, in its own way)

Simple Economics.

Destination Infinity.

Anonymous said...

A way to measure "betterness" is to use the old adage- the proof is in the pudding.

At the end of grad school, is there any qualitative difference between students with an undergraduate education in the us and those from other locations?

The answer is pretty clear, Indians or Chinese folks have no particular advantage left at the end of graduate school whether it is in terms of mathematical ability , or to design experiments.

Abhishek Dadhich said...

Dear Sunil, I stumbled upon your blog and it's a pleasure to read your thoughts.

I have studied & lived in India all my life. It seems "I was born intelligent, education ruined me" is an apt statement for our education system. Originality or creativity is never honoured/rewarded and it kills the thought process. The pupil becomes fit for a clerical job where he is not supposed to ask why... He just has to do his job, 9 to 5.
But, I feel, things are improving for the coming generations, with new schools and institutes and new and unexplored ways of teaching. Hope, the dilemma an Indian student has about himself would soon become history.

Thanks for the post and this blog!