Posts tagged science

What is the purpose of education? A discussion in the context of India

Coming a day before Guru Purnima – an important Hindu and Buddhist occasion to acknowledge the importance of your teacher in your life – this post is quite apt in its timing. Recently, some public figures in India made statements that made me quite uneasy. These comments were to the following effect:

IndianSchoolSome of these statements were taken out of context (see below). However, these statements got me thinking. What IS the purpose of education anyways? and is English really a culprit?

A brief Google search leads me to the following “goals”:

  • To prepare children for citizenship
  • To cultivate a skilled workforce
  • To teach cultural literacy
  • To help students become critical thinkers
  • To help students compete in a global marketplace

Yes, education is supposed to attain these goals. However, I believe the primary function of education is to achieve two objectives:

  • Make a man capable of asking questions
  • Impart him the ability to seek answers

Everything else is secondary and arises from the satisfaction of these two objectives. Is nation-building the most important task of education? It is, in terms of policy. But from the point of view of the student, it definitely is not. The purpose of education is simply to make the student aware of the world around him and give him the ability to go beyond what is already known through his own synthesis. This may include asking questions about how the country is being run and what crop to plant in a given season to finding cures for cancer. In terms of policy, education is supposed to create responsible, patriotic citizens with a love for the country and awareness of its civil structure. Sadly, it is true that the Indian education system has failed even from a policy perspective.

In addition, I believe that India, today and over the past, has also failed miserably in satisfying the primary  objectives of education. Hence, we have hundreds of thousands of students graduating our colleges, but hardly a fifth of them being actually employable. Our failed education system is the reason why only 1 or 2 Indian universities (out of 11,000!!)  end up being recognized among the top 200 in the world, and why Indian high-school students fail to make a mark in any international test of learning performance.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be distilled wisdom of the ages.

Guru Shishya (Teacher-pupil) tradition in India. The words of the teacher are assumed to be the distilled wisdom of the ages.

Why has it failed? In my opinion, one of the culprits, relevant in the context of this post and Guru Purnima, is the belief that Gurus and elders should be respected, never questioned and obeyed faithfully – because they know best! One of the popular shlokas recited by every school student goes like this:

Guru Brahma Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshwara
Guru Sakshat Param Brahma
Tasmai Shri Gurave Namah



— (Skanda Purana, Guru Gita by Sage Vyasa)

which equates the teacher to the all powerful trinity of Gods – Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The Guru is the supreme God. The student should worship and pray to him with all his heart.

Even today, rote learning and marks and grades are given more value than imparting “real education”. The priorities and the purpose of education, sadly, is not clear.

A system based on adherence to Guru’s teachings, on faith in elders and scriptures or that based on rote learning can never foster critical thinking, unless the Guru himself encourages such behavior. Even the first objective of education has not been satisfied by the Indian education system!

But lets assume that that objective is indeed satisfied. You don’t need English to gain the ability to ask questions. Traditionally, we have had great thinkers who have tackled serious questions on philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, physics etc., without the knowledge of English. So, yes, for the first objective, English is not needed.

But what about the second objective? The thinkers and scientists of yore – Patanjali, Kanad, Aryabhatta, Susruta – did remarkable things. But they could only succeed because they knew the prevalent language of their day – Sanskrit. Just like that, if you don’t know English today, you can ask all the questions you want but you will be extremely limited in your ability to seek answers.

That too depends on the field. If you want answers related to philosophical questions, sure, India has more literature on that than any nation on the planet. However, you will never know what Plato said or what Popperian science is or how philosophy is being reinterpreted in the light of neurological discoveries. If you want to get into political science, you might learn the teachings of Chanakya and views of our eminent freedom fighters like Bal Gangadhar Tilak on how the government should be run, but you will not know how Magna Carta came into existence, why democracy is the prevalent political system of today and how United Nations operates. If you want to know about science, forget about it if you don’t know English.

Percentage of people who speak English in each country of the earth (2013)

Thus, I argue that in today’s world English is the most important, if not the ONLY means to achieve progress. Now someone might say, “Hey, China manages to progress without English! South Korea and Japan do it! Why should WE bow before the Western world?” Well, that’s a fallacious argument in the first place. China educates its people in Mandarin, but the people who hack into computers of the NSA or those who build turbines and design massive buildings cannot do it without learning more from books or from the Internet which are English-based systems. They may translate those books into Chinese, but that cannot argue against the fact that English is the absolute medium for information transfer today.

History is witness to the fact that civilizations have progressed only with the influx and exchange of new ideas. Civilizations that failed to encourage new thoughts and failed to encourage sharing of ideas ended up as closed and insulated, and finally perished. If we end up keeping our children from English, espousing regional languages over English for the sake of nationalism and place a priority on the study of our ancient scriptures over modern scientific knowledge, then we risk cultural stagnation.

I should make it clear that I am not suggesting regional languages should be thrown in the back…it is absolutely important to know your roots and your culture to be a responsible citizen of the country. This is just an argument for why English should not be thrown in the back.

Finally, about the statement that English ends up corrupting our minds…well, as usual, it was twisted by the media. The context of that statement was different (see video below, starting at 6:10), but I still have issues with some statements in that speech, which I will leave for discussion on another day.






What the theory of evolution teaches us about corruption in India

Corruption Index of various Indian states. Darker color indicates more corruption.

The Manmohan Singh government at the centre has been “heralded” as the most corrupt government in the history of independent India. Since 2008, there have been at least 112 reported scams and frauds in India. According to one study, India has lost over $500 billion (INR 25 lakh crore!!!) just due to corruption since independence! Thats 1/3rd of our GDP of ~$1.8 trillion! Forget about bad policies, wars, waste, inefficiencies in the system…this figure is JUST DUE TO CORRUPTION! Sadly, this is not just corruption occurring in politics, but in big businesses, small businesses and government services too. It is all pervasive and ubiquitous.

Now the big question before everyone is how do we fix this? What measures can we implement to curb corruption? There have been some measures proposed and implemented over the past few decades, the notable among which include:

  • The Right to Information Act, 2005
  • Establishment of the Central Vigilance Commission (1964) and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India
  • Digitization of services and records, minimizing human involvement, using the internet more effectively to disburse services
  • Other recent measures like Aadhar
  • Lokpal/Jan Lokpal/Lokayukta (proposed/partially implemented)
  • Citizen Charter in government offices (proposed/partially implemented)
  • Making the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) an independent body from the government (proposed)

It is clear that these measures – especially the RTI Act – have had a very significant impact on corruption. Arvind Kejriwal and Team Anna are pressing for even more stringent measures. The big question to ask at this point is whether these measures will indeed curtail corruption or whether Indians will find a way to “innovate” and bypass the system as always? The answer to this riddle lies in the theory of evolution. 


Increasing population in India causes increasing competition for resources like jobs, money, education, stability. This mad race for resources leads to corruption.

The theory of evolution is a broad-based theory, the most famous part of which – evolution by natural selection – was proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859. What the theory says is that the natural tendency of living organisms is to change. At the molecular level, that happens via mutations in the DNA. However, once there is change, the environment around the living organism decides whether the change is beneficial or not. If the cost incurred by the change is low and the benefits high, then the change will thrive and spread in the population. However, if the costs are high and outweigh the benefits, then the change will be “selected against” and will be removed from the population. This is termed as natural selection.

Now, since we living organisms share our resources with each other, another level of complexity arises in the form of competition for the resources. If the competition is high, the selection pressure will be high…individuals will be forced to change and adapt at a much faster rate than normal. If you don’t change, you will be selected against and weeded out from the population.

Now think about the Indian society for a second. The population of India is 1.2 billion and the country is one of the densest countries on the planet. Thankfully, the land is abundant in natural resources, so some resources are not limiting. But for resources like jobs, money, land, education, food…there is an extreme competition! There is simply NOT ENOUGH of these facilities! We have to fight for it and get it by hook or crook or someone else will get it! There is a mad race for these resources! Thus, it is not very surprising that Transparency International found that the most corruption occurs in need-based services – like Police, Income Tax, Land administration and Municipal services. 

Obesity in countries where food is abundant is an evolutionary response to overabundance of food

Interestingly, we Indians are also demonstrating the classic response of living organisms to limiting resources. One of the things that unicellular organisms like algae do when subjected to limited carbon/nitrogen is gobble up everything that is available and store it within the cell as fat. Who knows when the resources will run out? Once they do, then the cells start using this fat for growing. We humans also show the same behavior physiologically. The reason why obesity is on the rise in the western world is because our bodies never got to eat so much food since the beginning of mankind! We were always plagued with famines. So, when our bodies started getting abundant food, we started storing much of it as fat. We don’t know when the feast would end…so store everything up for future use!! (Read: The Thrifty Gene hypothesis)


This is the evolutionary basis of corruption in India. A lot of us have suddenly gotten really rich. Given our huge population, we don’t know when this period of boom would end and the competition for resources will intensify. So what’s the safe alternative? Gobble up as much resources (money) as possible and store the black wealth away safely for future use. Given the costs associated with doing so are so low (corrupt officials are rarely caught), the cost-to-benefit ratio is atrociously low and is enormously encouraging for practicing corruption! This is probably the major difference between corruption levels in India and China despite having similar population sizes – In China, the cost of corruption is high and there isn’t as much competition for resources (update added: check at the end of the article).

So what’s the take home message? You can only curb corruption by increasing the cost to benefit ratio. Evolutionary theory suggests the following three measures:

  • Significantly increase the cost for corrupt practices. Lokpal/Citizen’s Charter/Independent CBI/RTI are the right steps in this regard. The conviction rate for corruption-related cases should also go up drastically. As the Chief Justice of India suggested, there should be fast-track courts specifically for corruption cases.
  • Significantly decrease the competition for resources so people don’t feel existentially threatened. This means increasing social mobility, bettering the delivery of services and creating more educational and infrastructural facilities.
  • Manage resources wisely. This means drastically increasing the use of technology, internet, increasing R&D spending and conducting periodic scientific surveys of where the resources stand and are they being distributed properly.

This unique insight offered by evolutionary theory significantly reduces the complexity of the task. Don’t be mistaken though – these are not easy things to be accomplished politically and logistically. However, the faster we implement this three-pronged approach, the faster we’ll be able to reduce the tendency and the mindset for corruption in the country.

Edit (27th October): Just saw this news report in New York Times talking about how the relatives of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, have accumulated a $2.7 billion fortune since he became the head of the nation. The extended family of the next-in-line, current Vice President Xi Jinping, has also accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade. So China isn’t that different from India at the higher levels after all…in India, the free press (or whatever is left of it) may be vigilant in getting these murky dealings out into the public. You simply can’t do that in China and so they remain buried. The question here is – how widely/deeply has corruption percolated in the Chinese society?

Scientific awareness in India

A fellow Redditor recently posted this video which made me laugh a little and weep a lot

This by no means is a scientific survey but it does follow expectations. There have been very few assessments of science literacy in India, but a notable one in 2004 found that India lagged behind the US in almost all basic scientific questions asked. The survey also found that 65% of the respondents get their science-related information from television and only ~10% read about it in newspaper/books/magazines (Internet was not ubiquitously available back in 2004). This trend is different from that in the US – where people get their science dose from magazines and books. Not surprisingly, most people prefer entertainment, sports, politics and news while only 2% of the people preferred/actively sought out science-related information. Very few people know about existence of science fairs, scientific research institutes, planetariums etc. in their communities.

People like Arvind Gupta ( who make scientific and educational toys and help increase children’s interest in science are direly needed (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly, the study points out that at middle-school level, just 22% of the students preferred going into science-related fields. This proportion dropped down to 13% at 11th and 12th standard. This drop corresponds to an equivalent increase in students wanting to pursue commerce and arts. The 11th and 12th standard students say that the primary reason for them not pursuing science is that “they are just not interested”. When asked why they were not interested, they said it was because “they didnt feel motivated enough” or “they didn’t understand the matter being taught”

Not surprisingly, in an international test of assessment of school children’s reading, math and science skills, India ranked 73rd out of 74 countries (74th was Kyrgyzstan). On an average, 8th standard students in India (TN and HP participated, but results can be generalized I think) were comparable to 3rd standard students in Korea in terms of their math skills. Even the best of our students (top 5% of all tested students) were 100 points behind an average child in Singapore and 250 points behind the best of all students tested. On an average, 40 points correspond to one grade (one standard of school years). This means our best students are almost eight standards behind the best students in the world!!! (More about PISA here: Arvind’s World)

All of these indicators suggest that we need to go a long, long way to increase scientific awareness in India. Most people are not interested in science. If this is the attitude, our country can have little innovation.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. Almost 80% of Indians feel that science is really important, it is critical for human progress and that we need to invest more in science. More educated a person, the more likely is he to say that science is important. We need to take advantage of this fact and make sure that our young citizens are being inculcated with scientific values and principles right from their early school years!


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