It probably holds good for the whole world, but it’s demonstrably true that in India there isn’t a parent who does not think his or her child is the cutest, smartest prodigy anywhere. In the timeless and torturous Indian ritual, children are introduced to memory feats in this manner: ” Beta, uncle aur aunty ko twinkle twinkle little star sunaa do ,” the parents will flute. If you are lucky to be a parent yourself, you will smile indulgently at the infant’s schtick; if not, you will grin and bear it.
Indian education typically involves teaching by repetition. Learning by heart, cramming, mugging are some of the terms we use for memorisation. To this day I can recite reams of Shakespeare, sundry shlokas and mantras, several laws of physics, and multiplication tables deep into double digits, some of them inspired by caning from the teachers Varghese and Joseph. Little of it has come to any use. Last month, I surpassed my grasp of trivia by recalling the playing 11 in the first Test of the 1969 Australian team that toured India, my first exposure to international cricket.
Such demonic passion for mnemonics was recently displayed on YouTube by a proud Indian father who got his three-year-old son to recite the capitals of all 50 American states. Doubtless, he will not go on to be Einstein, about whom one of his teachers said “would never be able to do anything that would make any sense in this life,” and another essayed that his “available grade reports present a picture of, at worst, a moderately successful student.”
In contrast, American kids are less into learning by rote or trivia, although one does come across the oddball who can reel off the 1969 Mets V Orioles World Series scores. My friend Adam cares diddly squat about Boyle’s Law or the Bible, but he gutted his entire bathroom down to pot and plumbing, tub and tiling, and rebuilt it himself for less than $5,000 (half of what a contractor would have charged). Meantime, I blew a gasket paying $80 to get my lawnmower fixed ($56 labour, $24 parts), thanks to an education system that didn’t allow me to get my hands dirty.
But, it turns out that there is something to be said for our desi system of bending our brains rather than our backs, beyond paraphrasing a successful Indian who insisted he wouldn’t bother about paying $56 an hour if he could bill $500 an hour.
Recent reports say there is now a growing craze in Japan for Indian style education. The few Indian schools in Japan are reporting a surge of application from locals. Bookstores are filled with titles like Extreme Indian Arithmetic Drills and The Unknown Secrets of the Indians . And newspaper reports speak with awe about how Indian children memorise multiplication tables far beyond nine times nine, the standard for young elementary students in Japan.
In the US, a documentary called Two Million Minutes (the estimated time that students spend in high school) which compares American students unfavourably with their Indian and Chinese counterparts, has become part of the national discourse on education. Some commentators are talking up India as an education superpower. And Tom Friedman goes around the country warning young Americans that hungry Indian kids burning the midnight oil are out to take their jobs.
So, there is something we are doing right, even if it isn’t teaching our kids to fix things. It’s a thought though that had we tweaked our system to teach our generation to tweak things around, we might also have been a great manufacturing power by now.
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