Steve Jobs, Apple Computer’s co-founder and CEO, is a college dropout but, at a net worth of around $10 billion, he hasn’t done too badly with his less-than-par CV.
He explained the advantages of leaving the confines of the ivory tower’s red-tape to a Stanford University commencement audience in June 2005. “I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me and begin dropping in on the ones that (did).” One such course focused on calligraphy, and the beautiful typography enamoured him—a rather non-standard subject for a typical computer science student.
Ten years later, this skill laid the seeds for the modern typeface in his first Macintosh computer.
“If I had never dropped out,” Jobs said, “I would have never dropped in on that calligraphy class and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do.”
I recount this not so parents pull their kids from school to pursue esoteric interests On the off-chance these prove useful some day. Rather, because it’s tough to imagine such a situation in India. Pure memorization, over-regimentation and factual regurgitation are the norm in its current education system. Perhaps this hinders creativity in students and makes Indian professional classes less competitive in an interconnected global market.
Interacting with students at St Stephen’s College in New Delhi—considered one of India’s finest institutions—I am amazed by how unchallenged they seem to be. Though students lament a growing emphasis on “internal marks,” the graded effort boils down to showing up in class—regardless of whether a student is awake or not. Even at Stephen’s, courses are geared for standardized, term-end exams. This often makes class time pointless as many students just cram before the exams anyway.
It is not only the assessment process that is flawed. Students are expected to focus on a single field, say engineering, early in their academic careers at the cost of developing interdisciplinary skills. In particular, the facets of memorization hinder such innovative exploration.
In North America and Europe, China and India are often perceived as competing Asian economic powerhouses—whose hard-working professionals are destined to one-up their western counterparts in time. We all know that story isn’t so simple. There has been much debate in the media on whether India can cope with the demand for IT-sector work for multinationals.
Now, let’s look further east. A 2005 report by McKinsey & Co., “China’s Looming Talent Shortage,” argues that less than 10% of hard-science Chinese university graduates are suitable to work for international companies. It contends China may mint more than 10 times as many doctors as the UK annually, but more British doctors can work at an international level than Chinese.
India is no China, but this example may not be too off-mark.
Last October, a Google director, Ram Shriram, told a conference in San Francisco that Indian students are inherently smart, but haven’t learned the skill sets their peers in other countries have. “We’ve had a bit more of a challenge trying to hire engineers for Google in Bangalore compared to other parts of the world,” he said.
With all the talk of India’s increasing global dominance, it’s a shame that Indian engineers may not make the cut. There’s no simple solution, but reforming the fundamentals of the education system, to foster analytical thinking, would be a step forward.
If not, we can always look to another college drop-out: The world’s richest man, Bill Gates.
Jonathan Sidhu is a student at Brown University, USA, and a freelance writer. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org