This is a guest post by SAATTVIC
I recently read your piece for Kafila, which was subsequently reproduced in part in the Hindu. I studied economics there as well, batch of 2006. I subsequently went on to read for an MPhil in Economics at Oxford.
Good on you for writing that piece. It raised lots of questions about our education system, and I agree with a lot of what you wrote (and share the same dismay at the dictation sessions from one particular professor you referred to).
There’s just a few things that I’d like to say, but before I say them let me say that none of this comes from being ‘nationalist’ or ‘patriotic’ in the slightest – just as you spent three years studying, working and paying taxes in India, I spent five studying, working and paying taxes in the UK, and I would like to believe that doing so has given me a bit of a world view of these things. Moreover, my area of interest is education economics, which is what my research focused on.
1. ‘Useless’ Indian Liberal Arts Degrees
The presumption that students in India do ‘useless’ liberal arts degrees only to go and do ‘proper’ ones abroad is only partially true, in my view. The DU Economics programme is actually quite rigorous, when compared to undergraduate programmes across the world (and I’ve had the benefit of looking at a few of them). Case in point, I went straight on to do an MPhil, Anisha Sharma (batch of 2007) and Gaurav Khanna (2008) went on to do an MSc in Development and Karan Nagpal (2009) went on to do the MPhil, all at Oxford. In my experience, a lot of foreign universities think that all Indian courses are the same, when in fact they are not. The DU course is WAY better than other economics courses, and those of us that went through it (especially the ones that got the revamped course – the batch after you and beyond) are quite well equipped to handle the most challenging Master’s programmes the world has to offer. There is a perception that needs to change in foreign universities – most people who end up doing the second BAs end up topping their programmes, because a lot of it is way to easy for them.Another problem is that US universities just will not admit you to a Masters of PhD programme unless you have 16 years of education. At the end of an Indian BA, we have only 15. So, for a lot many people, the second BA was just a time filler to cross the 16 year threshold to get into an Ivy league PhD programme. If you conduct some research into the people who went on to do the (two year) Cambridge BA, you’ll see that a very large proportion of them end up in the US. In fact, I’d be willing to wager just about anything that once the new 4 year system takes root in DU, the number of graduates going opting to do a second BA will fall drastically. You will see a lot more direct admissions to Masters and PhD programmes abroad.
2. Teaching Quality
I can tell you, honest to God, hand on heart, that I wished and prayed that I had the St Stephen’s faculty with me at Oxford teaching me the MPhil material. I once had a professor spend half an hour deriving the rules for integration by parts each time he had to use it – he couldn’t bring himself to remember the absurdly simple formula. I’m all for stoking intellectual curiosity, but I found that the aversion to memorising anything was a bit silly, especially since some things make your life a lot easier if you can remember them. It’s like saying I don’t remember that two times two is four, but I will derive it each and every time I need to use it. It is great to know how to derive things, but then it is much more efficient sometimes to just remember things with the knowledge that you can derive it if you feel like.The teaching at Oxford was terrible, to put it mildly, and that made me realise that the faculty at St Stephen’s actually made quite a fist of teaching stuff that was, in essence, unteachable. In fact, the long, discursive, essay type papers were always the most drab at College, and the third year was full of them. I’m sure you heard while you were at college about KRC’s microeconomics lectures, Grewal’s Macro lectures, and so on. They were some of the best teachers I’ve had the fortune of being taught by – and the faculty at Oxford has some pretty big names.
The problem, as I see it, is more that the material is extremely dry for some papers. Moreover, you might have seen how much marks matter – there are enough career options in the UK or US for someone who attains an upper-second division, but not in India. It is imperative that you score as well as you possibly can. So everything you do in College is geared towards scoring well – that is why Mr. Dictation chose to dictate, because he knew what gets you marks. And even a restructuring of the material will not solve this problem. It’s a well known problem in economics, isn’t it? Signalling. When it is impossible for prospective employers to gain an adequate estimate of a candidate’s ability (like they do in the US through interviews) due to a massive pool of applicants, grades become a convenient sifting mechanism. Which means as a student you HAVE to play the system. As an aside, the same Mr. Dictation transformed into an amazing teacher when he was teaching the technical section of another paper in the second year.
3. Lack of intellectual curiosity
A lot of research has been done on the subject of learning cultures in the east and the west. If you’re interested, I’ll find you some articles. Eastern cultures value rote learning and reverence for the word of the teacher a lot more, while western cultures value intellectual curiosity and questioning above all else. Both systems have their merits and their drawbacks. The drawbacks of sitting in class and being dictated to are wholly evident to you. But when I went to Oxford, there were several times where the whole questioning thing became a bit much. There were students who would not let classes proceed unless they were satisfied with one particular point – where their misunderstanding was due to not remembering a concept or step along the way. Sometimes they would ask questions based on the material in class, and answering those questions would require reference to more advanced material that we had not been exposed to. Yet they would not accept a ‘you don’t know enough to be able to understand this yet’ as an answer, but would keep questioning.While I am in no way advocating rote learning (in fact, I was one of its staunchest opponents in my time at College), I think there is a need to understand the historical context that gave rise to that culture. And let me tell you, if you study the history of education in India, a lot of it derives also from the system that the British imposed when they were here. Change is welcome and badly needed, but I think change may be destructive unless moulded to historical and cultural contexts.
On another note, I’m quite jealous that you managed to go on one of those college trips – I somehow never managed to do so.
(Saattvic studied Economics at St. Stephen’s College and at Oxford University. He is currently a professional economist, actor and musician based out of Mumbai.)
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