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?