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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Creating a 'knowledge society'!

Sam Pitroda (successful IT enterepreneur based in Chicago, one-time technology mission adviser to PM Rajiv Gandhi, credited with ushering in the ongoing telecom revolution in India, and currently, at Manmohan’s Singh’s behest, head of India’s National Knowledge Commission), has publicly regretted (as reported in The Statesman, 16th November, first page) that India is doing far too little to become a true-blue ‘knowledge economy’ and a leader of the world. And by way of proof, he has held up the following kind of data: that compared to the US and even China, India has pathetically few young people pursuing doctoral and post-doc research programs. He has also suggested a slew of measures to increase those numbers significantly over the next few years.

While having no quarrel with the facts or with Mr. Pitroda’s suggested reforms, I should like my readers (most of whom, I am sure, regard themselves as highly educated or in the process of so becoming) to think about the following posers:

1. Are doctorates very good indicators of who is knowledgeable and who is not any more? Bertrand Russell joked long ago about how American PhD scholars gaped at the erudition of mere master’s degree holders (such as himself) from Britain who came over to lecture them; many of us know that what passes for ‘research’ these days is mere re-dressing and regurgitation of old hat, with very little in the way of major new discoveries and novel ideas thrown in, or quite insignificant additions to the existing corpus of knowledge, no matter what the subject is, from physics to economics to literature (Sir J.J. Thomson got a doctorate for as momentous a discovery as that of the electron: these days people get PhDs for describing a hitherto overlooked step in the reproductive cycle of the hydra, or some slight tweak in game theory, or suggesting the 164th risk-factor for heart attacks, or that Shakespeare may have had gay leanings). And I hear from my college-going ex-students all the time how unintelligent, boring and utterly uninformed outside the narrow area of her specialisation the average PhD lecturer is these days: so much so that a hotshot math prof cannot help out her own 14 year old daughter with her geography or chemistry or English lessons, and has to look around desperately for tutors to make up for her shortcomings!... and haven’t some of the cleverest men of the 20th century been non-doctorates? (forget about titans like Ramanujan and Bill Gates; even Mr. Pitroda’s doctorate, I think, was given honoris causa!). On the other hand, I know for a fact that a lot of doctorates in my own state are so lacking in energy, enterprise and self-confidence that they eagerly sit for examinations to qualify as bank clerks and middle-school teachers. Is Mr. Pitroda juvenile enough to imagine that a nation can grow great on the shoulders of such pathetic ‘knowledgeable’ people?

2. What exactly does knowledge mean? What did Socrates or the Buddha know in comparison with, say, someone with a BTech in electronics or an MA in English?

3. Is knowledge only that which is saleable? In that case, of course, Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin and the average lawyer or surgeon and fashion model ‘knows’ infinitely more than a great art historian or astronomer can ever think of knowing, right?

4. Doesn’t a sincere and hardworking schoolteacher whose efforts not only made thousands literate and numerate, but got them interested in history and geography and biology and painting and music ‘know’ anything mentionable and valuable?

5. What kind of a ‘knowledge society’ is it that cannot produce ten Nobel Prize winners in 60 years? And where 'educated' people rarely buy books or visit libraries?

6. If we were so keen on creating a ‘knowledge society’, why do we reward our teachers so poorly at all levels, in cash as well as in social regard – so poorly that no modern Indian parent wants his son or daughter to choose to be a teacher?

7. I have always said that there is no better test of who knows how much than asking people to take an impromptu general quiz, and write an essay and speak in an intelligent, informed way for ten minutes on a topic chosen at random, and my entire teaching experience assures me that 95% of all the ‘educated’ adults I know would fail such a test miserably. This, also, bears thinking about.

8. What kind of knowledge is it that becomes obsolete in ten years? If we truly believe that life is precious, and all of Warren Buffett’s wealth will not bring back five minutes of our lives, are we sure we are investing our time well when we pursue such ‘knowledge’ (remember, when Ernest Rutherford was asked in his old age what he would do if he could live his life all over again, he said ‘collect more butterflies’!)

9. Why is this country’s newspapers full of stories about the worst sort of crimes consistently committed by ‘knowledgeable’ people – from peeing by the roadside to fighting in queues to killing female foetuses and abusing child labourers and spreading gossip and superstition?

10. Why did Tagore – not exactly an ignorant man himself – lament that the world needs good men far more than clever and learned ones?

Maybe it is too much to expect the likes of Mr. Pitroda to think so much, and of so many things, but is it the same with all my readers?


Shilpi said...

No, Suvro da (sigh) – the most appropriate response to your first question is a very matter-of-fact “of course not”. But are all of your questions really posers. I’d imagine that anyone with an inch of sense would know that knowledge is not created by degrees and certificates. Nor do certificates and degrees bestow any knowledge on its recipient. And doing a Ph.D certainly does nothing in the way of “increasing” one’s knowledge or proving that one is now knowledgeable. I could write stories – some hilarious and some downright awful regarding people doing their doctorates and those who have gone on to complete their doctorates.

As for specialization: if I consider just the field of sociology - it’s not even that an average sociology doctorate can talk sensibly for ten minutes on different fields within sociology (leave alone teach a school kid geography, history or English – I’ll leave out math and science). I know of professors who within their specific field of sociology of religion know nothing about the barebones of any religion but Christianity…

No, in order to create a “true” knowledge society, a country must be aware that the teachers who impart education must first be knowledgeable. And having teachers who are knowledgeable is something that is relevant for teachers teaching in kindergarten to teachers teaching in colleges and universities. Teachers must be allowed to be teachers because they see the occupation as their “calling” not because as many with their crippled senses imagine that teaching is something ‘anyone” can do. Only the most qualified (and I’ll get into “qualifications” some other day: suffice to say I’m not talking about degrees and certificates here) individuals should be allowed to teach - and only sensitive, keen, intelligent, and informed people should be allowed to teach: that of course immediately puts millions of “current” teachers all over the world out of the reckoning, and possibly more than most human beings. Without creating genuine teachers how can we ever hope to create a “knowledge” society?

I do agree that we need people who are educated in the best sense possible – that is we need to “create” not just some semi-literates but individuals who are aware of the real relevance of education: including, but not limited to, understanding the interconnections between and amongst what one learns and how one lives, the choices one makes and why one makes them, and to understand and appreciate the true meaning of “being free” and living responsibly, at least to the best of one’s abilities. Needless to say, we need to have teachers of high calibre who can impart the same to the students then. And it follows that teachers would indeed then have to be guaranteed a better place in society….
But then again – how can any of the above be. Society itself would have to change considerably for any of the above to happen.

For some reason, and not in a completely unrelated context, I’m reminded about the girl in your story – "Sorcery" – who says what she does about classes, chemistry and cockroaches! She could have been speaking out what I so strongly felt even when I was in Class - VIII. The problem is that the way we’re taught in school doesn’t help make anything very relevant or interesting in its own right….ah well.

As for your other questions – they all relate back to your second question “what is knowledge? What do we mean by knowledge?” – to which I can say a loud “Aha” with a glint – for that question deserves a post of its own.
Thank you, most kindly Suvro da, for this post of yours.
Regards, Shilpi

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

The article Suvro is referring to is Play it again, says Sam. The Statesman probably deletes articles but a Google cache is available here.

The point Suvro is making is probably best made in his own area of knowledge and expertise- Economics. The current once in a century Financial meltdown and Economic crisis started in the land of world renowned knowledge centers in Economics, Business and Finance like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT to name a few. If that amount of knowledge and research of the most superior quality couldn't predict and prevent this- then we have to agree that this is probably not the high calibre knowledge and expertise that it's hyped to be.

Taking the case of India and specifically Bengal- we all know that some of the most qualified and knowledgeable economists have been from this region- including arguably the topmost. Unfortunately, other than research, publications and scholarly work- not many would be able to cite a whole lot of real achievement, though some of them have been given positions of highest power and solidly supported and backed during their tenures.

On the other hand, someone like Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose rural background, attire, speech, accent have been the butt of many a joke and ridicule, and who I think neither has a doctoral degree or any high flying qualification for that matter- has done an outstanding job of turning around a 800 pound gorilla like Indian Railways. The times in an article has noted India's railway, the world's largest, has progressed from being - for want of a better phrase - a train wreck of an organisation, to a business school case study that makes more money than Tesco (the article). He has been invited as guest lecturer in top institutions like IIM-A (Lalu at IIM-A ), universities in Singapore as well as Harvard and Wheaton students have travelled to Rail Bhavan to hear him speak and teach on the turnaround of Indian Railways (Lalu Prasad Yadav to teach Harvard undergraduates). That I guess is called knowledge.

On the topic of some of the types and quality of research that goes on to bring earth shattering progress and development- check out this seriously serious paper on the buttered toast falling butter side down.

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

sorry, missed this in the last post. For those interested, here's a copy of the original letter sent by Sam Pitroda to PM Dr. Singh. (letter in pdf format)

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

Once a very senior IAS officer told me that the Indian federal Government sets up such committee’s in order to please planning commission. Planning commission as a body does not posses any legislative tooth, but like many institutions in India they need to be respected, retained. Accordingly, every year before budget the centre and commission fight, then centre allocates funds and research; knowing very well that without monitoring the funds and research papers would be wasted.

With due respect, I think Mr. Pitroda’s report is a result of one such study that shall gather dust.

I totally agree that doctoral degree is no indication of how knowledgeable a person is. Even if you would not have pointed out still I could have said the same thing because in JNU, I have seen many “uneducated” knowledge persons.

The most apparent flaw in the research I feel is using education / literacy statistics and calling them “knowledge indicators”. I mean how many times we have heard that Bardhaman is a 100 percent literate state just because a larger proportion of people know how to sign there names.

I was about to write a post on whatever I could learn about education system here but at times I feel so demoralised that why isn’t that true back home, that I held back such thoughts. To be very honest, we as a country have wasted tremendous amount time in getting things in place and now when problems for the globe are mounting in terms of financial crisis, climate changes etc then I wonder how we can even hope to sort out our backlogs.

To start with primary education and higher secondary education in most developed countries are for free in public schools? The private schools do exists and they are tremendously expensive so few people go there. However, the standard of government sponsored public schools is so high that it takes care of the entire population. Can we suddenly have in our country that government schools (where free education is provided) well equipped? We would never have that and if the base of education is so weak, how can we hope to be considered a knowledgeable country?

Isn’t mass knowledge (or access to knowledge) more important than having a certain proportion of people as highly educated (as far as the acquired degree goes!).

To my mind, India cannot even hope to be a knowledge society unless and until we sort out our issues with primary education. It is easy to say - that we cannot stop our “development” because we already have so many problems to tackle (as someone recently rebuked me on my blog and I did not get any defenders) BUT to my mind prioritising our needs is of utmost importance. Even in homes, people prioritise then why not in government. I am actually tired to see that we always fall back on the excuse that ours is a big country etc but then India is NOT the only country with a variety of problems. Every country had its share of issues but somewhere we seemed to somewhere get confused as a nation. To add to our woes the complicated “signing-off” process, huge number of institutions (like Planning Commissions and etc), the officers with limited powers have made the problems much more magnified.

I am sure people are working (Department of Education etc.) but I don’t know for how long one needs to wait to see results? I am sure there are some results to show in the government website and all, but I suppose the reality is not so bright.

The definition of knowledge which you have rightly addressed in your post is never understood by the world, I feel. Having said that, most countries aim to not only to correct schooling system but to provide ample mental development opportunities to a child. I feel having hungry and deprived children in a country is a crime and if a country cannot address these issues in 60 years then all its head of state should apologise profusely. Most countries of the world which hope to grow have addressed such issues but we have fallen back.

Reports such as these seriously look shallow when they ignore the work of sincere school teachers, when they cannot enforce greater respect and monetary benefits to the profession of teaching, development of libraries, encouraging people to visit libraries by making them attractive with various discussions and programs and many such measures.

For me thus those reports look meaningless.
We may be the only country to have a dedicated teacher’s day but it is so ironical that that we as a policy could never make teaching an attractive profession.

In all developed countries, teaching is a highly rewarded as respected profession unlike it is in India and that is the biggest shame for our country.

Unless and until, we do something about ensuring the basics being done the right way, we should ideally stop taking about knowledge society (in terms of PhD). I wonder how can even one look up when the foundation is so weak? And having PhD’s as an indicator of knowledge is perhaps the most immature thing to do in this regard.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks for the inputs, Subhashis.

As for my supposed 'expertise' in economics, I would like to say without any false modesty that I know nothing of any real value about it. Oh, lots of fancy jargon and math squiggles and statistical data and pretty theories, of course - enough to impress the average undergraduate (99% of the population!), but nothing of any worth. I certainly wouldn't presume to advise ministers and CEOs. I admire those who dare.

Admitting this doesn't make me sad at this age any more. Rather, I am reminded of two wisecracks. One, by the great Cambridge economist Joan Robinson - 'one advantage of having read economics is that you can never be fooled by economists again!', and another, more general, that I think I read in Reader's Digest: 'When you start thinking you know everything they give you a B.A. When you begin to have doubts about whether you really know all that much they give you an M.A. When you realise you know nothing, but neither does anyone else, they give you a PhD and ask you to teach!'

Alka said...

You say
"Bertrand Russell joked long ago about how American PhD scholars gaped at the erudition of mere master’s degree holders (such as himself) from Britain who came over to lecture them; many of us know that what passes for ‘research’ these days is mere re-dressing and regurgitation of old hat, with very little in the way of major new discoveries and novel ideas thrown in, or quite insignificant additions to the existing corpus of knowledge, no matter what the subject is, from physics to economics to literature (Sir J.J. Thomson got a doctorate for as momentous a discovery as that of the electron: these days people get PhDs for describing a hitherto overlooked step in the reproductive cycle of the hydra, or some slight tweak in game theory, or suggesting the 164th risk-factor for heart attacks, or that Shakespeare may have had gay leanings)."
But in Indian context it is true not about Ph.D. students but most of the students studying in any stream. When I was teaching my students didn't know about the terms dowry and irrigation! One was in eighth and another was in seventh standard. One bright one from IIT-Kanpur was asking me "Didi, what is Mexican Ambassador?" And people claim that the best brains of India study there!

Subhanjan Sengupta said...

Dear Sir,

Pursuit of knowledge is that exercise of the mind that generates not only individual advancement, but also contributes to the advancement of all those that are given a share of that knowledge by the concerned individual. From Socrates to Vivekananda, pursuit of knowledge had been the primary medium of exploring the world and its people for many philosophical and political thinkers. But none of the above mentioned stalwarts had PhDs. Therefore the concern of building a ‘knowledgeable’ population has nothing to do with PhDs; or any other degree for that matter.

This brings us to a very important point: the meaning and use of the word ‘knowledge’.

Am I supposed to say that a Cardiac Surgeon is ‘knowledgeable’ in the field of Cardiac Sciences? Or should I be using the expression ‘extremely well-informed’ in place of ‘knowledgeable’ in this regard? In an effort to find answer to these questions, I have failed miserably. It is also not apparent to me whether it is really necessary for him to have ‘knowledge’ (or ‘information’ – whatever you say) in any other field. As for instance, is it really necessary for him to know about scholasticism or labour theory of value? There are thousands of things in the world of economics, philosophy, sociology, science or arts. It is obvious that one will not possess an encyclopaedic knowledge in all the fields. Exceptions must be ruled out in this discussion. We are discussing the general public here. Buddha and Socrates are a very important part of our history because they were unique and so will they be, I believe, for a few thousand more years, and even longer than that if not the mighty Lord decides to dawn another miracle in the world of men. To expect every common man to understand their philosophies and follow their footsteps may not help much. So is it not pretty obvious that one will be ‘knowledgeable’ only in the field he has chosen to be? Of course being knowledgeable in religious studies means the concerned person needs to have knowledge on different religions and not on Christianity alone. But is it also not true that the journey on a quest of understanding any particular religion is NOT a journey that can be finished in this life time as every single religion is too vast in itself to be fully excavated. In such a situation, is it really possible to afford time and energy to know in detail about other religions? My question is not a rhetoric one and therefore asks for answers from all the thoughtful and educated people visiting this blog.

What I have observed all around, and so have all of you, is that an over-whelming majority of the candidates of most educational institutions that opt for the profession of a teacher are those who are the least scorers in the examinations. In case a candidate sees that he has not performed well enough to qualify for working in a corporate or a reputed public institution, the final option in his list of choices for a career is an attempt to somehow get through the SSC’s (School Service Commission) examinations. Quite obviously, that explains the degrading standards of primary education of our country.

As Tanmoyda says, the blemish lies in the grass root level of the entire education system. Increasing the number of PhDs is not going to have any impact on a large scale. And it is a large scale impact that is the call of the day in our country.

But I strongly believe that the governing body of a state is also an important factor in determining the progress of the state. I simply can not compromise with the fact that where there are still millions living in hunger and ignorance, the government spends five hundred crore Rupees on a moon-mission. With thousands of crores of Rupees inside its wallet, the government might not find five hundred crores to be a big deal. But I am unwilling to take back my words when I say that with that money two hundred rural schools could have been given aid for a decade. No wonder Plato came to believe that “mankind’s troubles will never cease until either true and genuine philosophers achieve political power or, by some dispensation of providence, rulers of states become genuine philosophers.” But I do not find the governing body to be the only one to be blamed. After all who are those who bring them to power but us? To almost every one of us, the notion of a ‘good life’ means a ‘life’ consisting in disregarding all restrictions and enjoying boundless gratification. We are happy to believe that we are not to be concerned about anyone else’s interest but our own. Now how on earth can it be expected of a population to be ‘knowledgeable’ when the very character structure and mental configuration is in need of a revolution? ‘Knowledge’, I am afraid, is a very sensitive thing and does not care the least about PhDs and Nobel Prizes. It will come only to him who has the ability to carry it. PhDs and Nobel Prizes are human inventions that that man will encounter on his way to realise the ultimate truth that he was in a quest for. And that makes me believe that ‘knowledge’ will come only to a selected few. All the rest of us will be merely ‘informed’; and some of us fancying ourselves as a geisha entertaining the public with fanciful ‘degrees’. All that will vary is the amount of ‘information’ assimilated in our Cerebrums and the number of ‘degrees’ that are following our names.



Arka said...

Dear Sir,

I wish I could be one of the knowledgeble men in the society. I don't think that would be possible in this life, considering what a bloke I am. But you tried your level best to make me knowledgeble. Thank you for that.

With best regards

sutirtha said...

This is indeed a very candid description of the so called knowledgeable society. I believe that the first step towards true knowledge is awareness about our own ignorance.In this respect this article was an eye opener!Although I am not very advanced level researcher but still I would like to raise a few points…
1) The first and most fundamental thing in research is honesty!Most lack this. Researchers as well as their great GUIDES encourage dishonesty.False sample,no proper methodology, manipulated statistics(Its really very easy these days with statistical softwares!) the list is endless. Teachers encourage this more than students.
2) There is lack of proper training in research,atleast in this country.Reaserch is a very serious thing,and definitely not a part time job!
3) ME TOO culture is very prominent in the Indian research scenario.We copy from a few published papers and mention the same finding in a different way! We never try to do a new thing essentially because its difficult and takes a lot of hard work.Me too is easy!
4) How much does a research scholar get per month.A quarter that his batchmate working in the IT industry gets!
5)It is very difficult to get a job after completing PhD.There are many drop outs during PhD course.Most students leave after getting a job.
6)Only young people should be encouraged in PhD programmes.PhD has become a easy way out for some old fools just to get dapartmental promotions.

These are some of reasons why we dont produce quality researchers in India.But I strongly believe with efforts of people like Mr Pitroda things will change.

Dr Sutirtha Chakraborty

Suvro Chatterjee said...

My loving thanks to Arka. It's the likes of him that keep me going!... and I know for a fact that he is capable of far better things than he himself imagines.

Both Shilpi and Sutirtha are currently into research, though in fields as diverse as sociology and pharmacology. They both speak from close personal experience. I would like other readers to share their experiences in the same fashion.

Sudipto Basu said...

1. It is quite obvious that more doctorates do not necessarily imply a better knowledge economy. Not in a direct way, at least. A slightly different way to look at the situation would be this: if more people interested in genuine areas of research (say, solutions/ideas about increasing food production or developing highly energy-efficient machinery, as opposed to, say, the probability of a buttered toast falling with the buttered-side down!) divert their attentions to jobs far less necessary and far too boring. Now, since you mentioned the average doctorate who passes off under the moniker of a professor, I consider myself lucky if the concerned person at least knows his own area of expertise. So much so, that I tag a professor at college "good" if he meets the basic requirement of someone who does not horribly bore us, and can explain topics sufficiently well when needed. The comparison to heavyweights like Russell is asking too much, I guess. By the way, "good" professors are generally young.

2. It is quite difficult to exactly define or even determine the confines and levels of knowledge. The kind of knowledge that Buddha or Socrates accumulated after years of soul-searching, experimenting and thinking is far too great than what we generally mean by "knowledge", namely an amalgamation of facts, ideas, thoughts etc. The former is deep and infinitely more useful for understanding the true meaning and nature of our existence, the latter is of significantly less importance as such. Which does not mean that it is completely without use, though. Since it is a fairly sane notion that becoming Buddhas by the hundreds is an impossibility, we shall of course consider the latter as the primary basis of our discussion.

3. Saleability should not determine what we want to know, or should know. Why? Because it leads to over-concentration of students in a particular field (hence rendering it stagnant beyond a certain point of time, exceptions aside), and eventually decreases it's overall saleability (professions come in and out of vogue for this simple reason). An interesting note here: when Sachin decided to choose cricket as a career, he quite probably did not have saleability on his mind. All he knew was that he could play exceptionally well and that he loved what he did. That he became an universally respected global name in his game and subsequently became a multi-millionaire is an different story altogether. The crux is this: realise what you love and choose to do that, but choose without looking at whether some particular career or area of study sells or not. If something that you love turns out to be saleable, easy and good for you in a way, but certainly not bad otherwise. In fact, I tend to believe that really talented people do far better in fields less saleable, certainly with more than an bit of hard-work and luck. (who would have thought thirty years back that a television anchor would make it this big some day!?)

4. The role of schoolteachers demands a different essay altogether. However, in summary, I think it is best if some "good" students gave up considerations of income beyond what is necessary for a comfortable (and not a pampered luxurious) life and took up academics/teaching as their profession of first priority. If drop-offs from fields more prosperous choose to disgrace a role so noble, it is quite obvious that education as a whole will suffer. Especially, we need better teachers at a primary level because it is there when you decide the next step you want to take. (I teach a boy of class IX myself, and the only reason he twitches his eyebrows when I talk of students choosing teaching as a profession is that he has never been taught by someone who has fascinated him till this day! It is implied that I have not quite succeeded in fascinating him, but I do try hard. Hope I discover that spark that will ignite his fancy someday.) That is the only way I see things in the profession of teaching can get better. Also, with due regards to Mr. Pitroda's suggestion that technology will help us achieve better education, I consider it a sign of hollowness when teachers have to take the aid of audio-visual media to convey what can be done with the help of a piece of chalk and a board. More often than not, taking refuge under the umbrella of technology is a glitzy cover-up of inefficiency. I am not against use of technology, I am against the unnecessary use of it.

5. This point states one thing I lament over quite often, to anyone who wants to lend an ear. A general disinclination to learn, see and know. Not just reading and writing, we have closed and perverted all our senses beyond limit. Pity that few people I know have a keen a sense of judgement and beauty is any of the fields I have more than a passing interest in: music, movies, literature, human emotional psychology, anything! Most of us have closed our eyes and ears, and drawn ourselves inside a cocoon of comfortable folly-- believing we have everything, when in reality desensitization has rendered us empty.

6. I have touched on this topic before, but anyway... Incentives in the form of better remuneration is a step forward, but there can surely be no catalyst greater than the genuine love for something. Also, let's simply accept the fact that a corporate executive of high-rank will always earn more than the best-paid of teachers. (The other side of the coin is that he does not get the real and tangible satisfaction of having enlightened someone.) The remuneration should be as much as that of the average employee in the corporate sector, not more and certainly not less.

7. Fully concur with you on this. There is no better test of knowledge than an improptu quiz and essay-- the former tastes general awareness and grasp of facts, the latter expression and subjective analysis.

8. This is where knowledge actually crosses over from the day-to-day supposedly-practical realm and steps into the arena of the one ultimate purpose: soul-searching. A search for knowledge is an attempt to know oneself better. That is all, and that is certainly no small thing! In a strictly mathematical way of expressing, how much you know is directly proportional to how happy and contented you are.

9. I cannot help but steal a good guffaw at this. Of course, there is no license as universal as that of basic education! A license that allows you to do everything wrong, and then justifies/legitimizes your wrongdoings. Funny how petty thieves caught red-handed often resort to a very anglicized "Are you blaming a gentleman of stealing, mister?".

10. Again, this point demands a whole post altogether. Knowledge, in it's shallow sense, does not warrant good character (as an example, I think Professor Moriarty would be a pretty good one). In it's real sense, of course does.

All for now.

P.S.-- Sorry for the extremely late reply. :)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

In response to Sudipto's comment, especially in connection with his point number 5:

Two very old, very important criteria for being knowledgeable are having a 'well stocked mind', and being a good conversationalist. The two don't always go together, alas, so the world is full of learned men who are either taciturn or crashing bores, as well as hordes of people who chatter all the time and have nothing interesting or useful or intelligent to say on any serious subject on earth. I see hundreds of both parents and pupils every year who are all like that: no 'generation gap' at all!

Sudipto is himself a very good young example of the kind of people I like to know: people who think, read, remember a lot, have diverse genuine interests and a willingness to talk sensibly and articulately about what goes on inside their heads. And he, being a second-year student in engineering college, is living testimony to the fact that one does NOT have to be a dud if he reads engineering: it is true that our engineering colleges are full of uncouth duds today, but many others assure me that it is the same in the English and Economics and Zoology and Psychology departments of our most 'elite' colleges.

And as Sudipto has rightly pointed out, it all stems from a deep antipathy towards knowledge of any kind; something that has spread like a virus through our society lately. India might have been poor and insecure and under foreign heels for ages, but we always used to value learning: in the last quarter century this disgust for learning of any kind seems to have taken over. Hence the pervasive cheating in examinations, hence the near-universal dependence on tutors who offer shortcuts to marks without merit and effort, hence the total agreement between 90% of parents and their children that there is no value of learning beyond getting a job and making a living (and living for malls and pubs and parties alone!), it is perfectly okay to forget everything one has learnt the moment examinations are over, and it is stupid and worthless studying beyond a bachelor's degree.

I have only two problems with that mindset: a) in my old age, I may not have anyone to talk to (so I pray that Sudipto's tribe may increase!), b) how can a country full of lazy, dishonest duds hope to become a world-leader someday? In all ages, some countries have led the world by dint of three virtues only - courage, enterprise and learning. Which one can today's India boast of having in plenty?

Navin said...

Hi everyone, I had written a very long criticism of Suvro sir's post but mumbai attacks numbed all the requirement for posting it that time. Here I would only answer point number 1 of Suvro sirs' post.
The other points are not in the final shape to be put up here. Also I only speak of the disciplines of math and CS.
1) I think India needs more Phd's just like Mr Sam pitroda says and the government is doing something about it off late. Firstly out of personal experience I do not know anyone who has not benefited from the experience of doing a PHD. Some however are not interested and do not make good choices and that is the only reason they do not fare well in the profession. Saying that the process of getting a Phd is not useful because you have some bad apples is simply an argument analogous to the argument that whats the point of religion, when so many wars have been fought over religion. You cannot blame the process/idea for bad followers. Also the latest innovations in the fields of Computer Science have been brought about by Phd or at least Phd environments(Google, Yahoo, Intel) are prominent examples.
2) Gone are the days that a rich enthusiast could experiment with core scientific principles and come up something truly novel and unique. A host of number theory results come to mind which were brought up by people who were simply playing with sequences and came with with important observations. It is well accepted that the sciences have become difficult in the last 50 years. So it is not appropriate to compare the impact of the research done in the 1900's to what is done now. Please note that I am not saying that Thomson was less talented than any of the scientists now. The gradient of difficulty and hardwork remains the same for all the generations but I guess the research done now is not at a level where it can be taught at a high school level. The sciences have got a culture where people are pretty open to new ideas and due respect is given to truly novel and simple research. It is universally accepted that the result by Manindra Agrawal and his students ( Primes is in P) is the best result in Theoretical computer Science to have come in the last 10 years, and for all I know it may be a result which will be mentioned for a long time to come. Also the only reason why the results are not explainable to the common man is not because there is no progress but there is no known way to do so. The scientific community welcomes anyone who has the ability to do so. The proofs and techniques are much more complex these days(with computers used for almost everything). However quite like what Suvro sirs says in his post " how my world has not changed" I agree to the fact that we do not really have anything so very basic that everyone in the world ought to know about it, quite unlike the flurry of fundamental results which came out in the 1930's. But the reason is not the incompetence of scientists but that we are handling things which are much more complex(Quantum computers).
3) There is a kind of a judgement on this blog and those who visit it on people who seem to be specialized in one discipline but know nothing about anything in other disciplines which I think is totally unwarranted. I completely "disagree" with suvro sir and others on the fact that a scientist has to know basic facts about literature and geography to be respected for what he does. I think reading literature and being informed about the world is necessary for personal happiness and just makes you a better person, but if someone else finds happiness in supposedly "geeky" and "esoteric formulas" I think it is totally justified. Mostly almost all scientists in my experience have been very well read but there are prominent counter examples of people who have done great research but have known little about the world otherwise. That is simply because to do anything great in sciences, one has to have a passion which dictates almost everything in your life. you have to sleep, eat, drink research and essentially these scientists end up thinking only about their research. I think such passionate people are a gift of god and that seperates the very best from the good. Many of such people have broken lives and probably very unhappy people, but their utility to the world far exceeds the utility of almost everyone else. On any given day I did rather be those people than a person who knows about a host of stuff but doesn't produce enough research because he/she lacks time as he/she has been doing a lot of extra reading. I know a lot of people who come from environments where they did not have any avenue to explore the more difficult and esoteric avenues like economics, literature, social sciences( as suvro sir says in the latest blogpost). They are obviously quite challenged in these disciplines but have worked a lot to come to a level where they can work in the sciences. I think the only quality which truly seperates the men from the boys is passion, honesty and longetivity. It doesn't really matter who knows how much about the history and literature and geography, so far as he/she does his/her job honestly and with passion and ethics. However I think that people who do not know about other disciplines probably are misfits in society and live very sad lives.
however being balanced people and happy people no way ensures that you will have some utility to the world.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

As Navin's comment should go to prove one more time, I am glad to receive critical opinions, strongly disagreeing with things I said. All I ask for is that the commentator write politely, and have something worthwhile to say.

That said, I must say, Navin, that you haven't done full justice to my blogpost! I hope you will read it closely once more when you have the time, and own up that you really do agree with several things that I have said, and you didn't notice some others, or portrayed some partial truths as general truths. THINK: that's all I ask of my interlocutors, just think, and think hard! And find out the relevant facts, and respect facts, however unpalatable the facts may be. 'When the theory does not fit the facts', Sherlock Holmes used to say, 'throw away the theory'! To mention just one fact I have mind right now, Navin, my age gives me an advantage over you in that I happen to know a lot of people who have candidly and sadly admitted that they gained nothing significant, intellectual, spiritual or financial, nor contributed anything significant to mankind, by finishing their PhDs. I certainly wish you much better luck.

Navin said...

For a lack of a proper internet connection, I will make it short.

Sir, most certainly, I agree with most of your post. I do not have answers to point 2 and point 3. They are probably handled by people who are more well read than me and have seen the world a little more than me, like suvro sir. I just disagree with point 1, something which I have thought about carefully for the last 4 years. The process of research is a probabilistic system. There is no rule for success, there are just guidelines. Some are successful, some are not, some are not interested in being successful, but at the end almost everyone comes to know something unique about themselves and certainly a more mature person. It is more of a personal discovery than anything else. This I say being a very average PhD student. Sometimes you have a bad advisor and sometimes the environment is not conducive. But
you know there are many places in India which began with an environment which is not conducive but eventually they ended up doing very good work. To gain momentum is very important. It takes upto 50 years to build up a momentum of a place which can no longer be ignored and till those 50 years I guess there are many martyrs to those causes.

I very strongly agree with point number 10,4,6. I do agree with point number 5. Also I do not rate a scientist any higher than any sincere man who does his job honestly and with passion(like suvro sir). Therefore I think that you have a lot to offer to this world in terms of "knowledge".
However my critique was meant only from the viewpoint of math and CS. I honestly do not know about other disciplines to comment much about them. However what I should strongly emphasize is the fact the many scientists/reseachers of repute haven't known much about anything else at all and I defend them, as I appreciate their worth to this world. Therefore I disagree with point number 7.
I have not thought about point number 8 and 9.

My previous comment should not really be taken as an opposing view of Suvro sir's post, I have just opposed point number 1 and 7.

As always I will always welcome any criticism of my ignorance, lack of coherence and stupidity in my post gleefully with an open mind and heart.


Sayan Datta said...

I will keep my comment short.
1. The primary purpose of basic education is to help people make informed choices. If prejudgment (one of the severe problems afflicting our generation) is avoided and all the pros and cons weighed out in the process of forming an opinion, one can be more or less sure of avoiding illusions and pitfalls. It will not be out of place to mention that Swami Vivekananda, who had unyielding faith in the goodness of man used to say that people choose the bad for want of knowledge of the good.

2. I personally prefer people who are eclectic in their tastes to specialists for I deem the former to be richer both in intellect and experience (life is to be experienced, and the more varied the experiences the better. Isn’t it?). It is neither necessary to be ignorant nor to have a broken personal life to be able to make a significant enough contribution to the world. Tagore and Oppenheimer stand testimony to this. Even Sherlock Holmes apart from being a private investigator was also a brilliant chemist and beekeeper.
Anyone who has read even a little bit of philosophy knows that spine tingling feeling of the myriad and deep interconnectedness of various disciplines. We are all ultimately searching for answers to the same questions. Who knows, even a physicist might stumble upon a formula while reading a literary text! Even if we leave philosophy aside (as many people have often assured me it’s too difficult for mortals to understand), isn’t it true that eclecticism helps in the development of the most vital mental resources – that of imagination?

3. Of course a PhD (especially in today’s milieu) before the name doesn’t by a long shot tell anything either about how much or how well the person knows. Only morons who have learned to judge things by their tags think otherwise. Sir, when you spoke of J.J Thompson I think you meant that earlier people earned PhD’s by making discoveries of the most fundamental nature and of course I have no reason to disagree.

4. As Sudipto and Sir have both rightly pointed out the root of it all is a deep seated distaste for anything that can only be earned through faith, patience and hard work. As for the remedy, if there is one, I don’t have the first damn clue.
Sayan Datta.

Navin said...

I agree with sayan, and many other on this blog that a PHD no way ensures that you have knowledge and are well trained to handle stuff. There are many non PhD's which have continued to influence the world in terms of Ideas and will continue to do so for all times to come. A stamp on a paper saying that you are a Phd doesn't mean anything, however having said that, if one concentrates on the process of doing a PhD it certainly aids critical and deep thinking. Sometimes this process is not followed properly. If some one chooses to get it done without getting a stamp(like many do), then there is no force in the world stopping him/her and there are many who do it.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Oh, don't take these comments too personally, Navin. If you are sure you are in a good place, under a good guide, and doing a good thing, you needn't bother about criticism! In any case, my blogpost was certainly not written with the purpose of giving hurt or offence to people like you (notice that two current research scholars - Shilpi and Sutirtha - have not found reason to be resentful of anything I have said).

At the same time, many points I have raised in the blogpost have not been adequately touched upon yet by commentators. I shall therefore look forward to more comments coming in. In a country where the vast majority of 'educated' young folks 'dream' of becoming cybercoolies with only bachelor's degrees, I am certainly not saying that nobody should want to go in for higher academic qualifications! My basic question was, given the circumstances, whether increasing the number of PhD scholars in India would contribute significantly to turning India into a 'knowledge society'.

In this context, it would not be out of place to put on record that my ideal of a modern 'knowledgeable' man was Isaac Asimov. He had a PhD in biochemistry from a renowned American university, but if you read just a dozen of his 200-odd books, you will realise how vast and deep one man's learning can be: his knowledge of biochemistry (which was enough to make him a university professor) was just a drop in that ocean - he wrote some of the best-researched books I have read on Shakespeare and the Bible. I cannot give my heart's devotion to lesser mortals. This is not meant to hurt or belittle anybody, but just to remind them that they ought to have high ideals!... and Navin, since you are a mathematician yourself, you should read some of Bertrand Russell's books to find out just how widely learned a mathematician of the first rank can be.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Was my last comment frightening enough to be a conversation-stopper?!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

One whole year and more gone, and nobody has anything to say on this blogpost?

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I am writing here three and a half years after the original post. Everything that I have seen, heard and read about during this time has convinced me that it is both a farce and barefaced lie to claim that India is becoming a 'knowledge society', or even that it at all wants to be anything like that (and that too, assuming anyone from the PM downwards has any clear idea about what the term really means). Unless knowledge is equated with saleable skills - and that too, mostly skills of a fairly low order, which means everything from writing software code to pulling teeth to looking after F&B in hotels to writing in the magazines about fashion shows - there is a much stronger case for claiming that we are determined to become an anti-knowledge society: no one is so feared, hated, reviled, avoided and regarded as dispensable as the knowledgeable man, in the sense that the term was understood from the time of Aristotle through da Vinci to Vivekananda, Tagore, Russell, Asimov and the likes of Bibhuti Banerjee, Premendra Mitra and Satyajit Ray. At most we have millions of 'specialists' around these days, each blind as a mole outside his tiny sphere and perfectly content about it, most specialists lacking the basic knowledge needed even to be a competent parent, leave alone anything higher... I wonder if this is what the poet had in mind when he lamented three generations ago that 'things fall apart, the centre cannot hold'!

Abhishek Anand said...

Respected Sir,

It is very true and painful that 'knowledge' in India is something saleable. The worse part is that despite the fact that our sole attention in school is given to 'studies', our knowledge is very very limited. It is absolutely right that most Indians want to gain knowledge only and only for getting jobs and don't consider it necessary to know anything beyond their respective fields. Many say, "What will you do by knowing this, when you are going to pursue that?" They fear that they might risk their 'careers' if they do so whereas Swami Vivekananda had said, "Fear is death, fear is sin, fear is hell, fear is unrighteousness, fear is wrong life. All the negative thoughts and ideas that are in the world have proceeded from this evil spirit of fear."

The most painful part of this post is number six. During India's glorious past, the teachers were the most respected people in society, even though most of them earned very little. And now, even teachers believe that they are ill-paid(I remember one of my teacher in class seven had once said,"If I had made it to the DSP, I would have got a 'thick' salary, which I don't get now.").Ours is probably the fastest growing anti-knowledge society in the world. Oscar Wilde's utterance is more suitable for this period, "Everbody who is incapable of learning has taken to teaching."

Finally, the worst, simply the worst part is that many people(including some very experienced teachers ) believe that in today's 'practical' world, full of competition, a good job(which essentially means where you are 'well' paid) is what everyone should be after. Some people even say, "3 idiots is reel life and not real life. Therefore, Virus' saying(Life is a race. If you don't run fast, you will be like a broken egg), is what one should apply in one's life.

Yours faithfully,
Abhishek Anand