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?