Today is Teacher’s Day, and this column will try to apply the principles of basic economics to help understand a problem that my elder daughter faces and one that the younger one will also face when she moves into a higher grade at school. To the extent that this predicament is common to most children in India, what follows will also hopefully be of some help to other harried parents.
Saawani usually does extremely well in her school exams, and so it has also been this year—but with one significant exception. Till now, her school put her through an art exam, but the marks she got were never counted in the final tally. The rule has now been changed. And her poor drawing abilities are pulling down her overall tally. But what has really worried her is a remark by her art teacher that the school will not promote students who have failed the art exam.
The problem we have is this: Should we ask her to stop focusing on the subjects that she very transparently loves and is good at, and ask her to take outside tuition in art, or should we tell her to keep concentrating on what she is good at? Should education build on a child’s strengths or should it try to minimize her weaknesses?
This, to my mind, is where the principles of economics come in. Like countries and companies, should schoolchildren focus on their comparative advantage or not? Or is there, in a very literal sense, a valid infant industry argument that should make us force our children to do everything in the hope that they will eventually be good at something?
My own inclination is to let children do what they enjoy. This is partly because of what the 19th century economist David Ricardo taught us about countries and what some modern management gurus tell companies: You should do what you are good at.
Those who have ignored this effective piece of advice—be it countries such as India that embraced import substitution or sprawling conglomerates that lost focus—have almost inevitably suffered.
The tragedy is that countries and companies have a choice; schoolchildren don’t. To get back to the problem at home, Saawani is not some geek without any artistic interests. She loves to sing, and my wife and I believe that she is quite good at it. But it is unfortunate that her school wants to judge her on the basis of her drawing, rather than her singing. It is akin to a government asking a company to produce something that it doesn’t want to or stopping it from doing something it wants to. The lack of choice in our schools is truly depressing.
Now comes the other reason why I think children should be allowed to settle into subjects and activities that they are good at. We often ask each other why there is such a weak correlation between those who top the board exams and those who actually succeed in life. Most of us have also gone through the almost mandatory shock of being told at a school reunion that the class duffer is now a famous doctor or a CEO. My friend Avinash was a known troublemaker in school. Later, he struggled through junior college before dropping out. He is today one of the most successful photographers in the Hindi film industry.
Forget the examples of Gandhi, Einstein and J. Krishnamurthi—if we think hard enough, each of us is likely to remember at least one person who did not do well in school, but later shone in life.
The essential paradox is that we expect children to be good at everything in school, while they will need to be good in just one thing to do well in life. Schools are basically out of sync with the outside world, where division of labour and specialization rule. In the world of adults, we are not expected to be good at everything.
So, does this mean that our children should be allowed to do just as they please? That would be another extreme. Clearly, we send them to school to develop certain basic language and numeric skills. That (to draw yet another analogy from economics) is the basic infrastructure that the school system must provide so that students can make the most of life’s opportunities, just as public provision of good roads or legal protection is a building block of economic success.
And that’s where something that philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his autobiography comes to mind: “I shall be forever grateful to my first teacher, Emma Goldberger, who taught me the three Rs. They are, I think, the only essentials a child has to be taught; and some children do not even need to be taught in order to learn these. Everything else is atmosphere, and learning through reading and thinking.”
Given the basic intellectual infrastructure of the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—our children should be allowed to seek their comparative advantage. I think it is unfair to condemn them to a state that the Indian economy has suffered through four decades of statist planning.
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