Adhitya Iyer: The Interesting Story of Our Educational System at TEDxCRCE (Transcript)

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Adhitya Iyer – Author, The Great Indian Obsession

Organizers last year got like the CEO of JPMorgan and the police commissioner and this year they got a massive goofball in me. However, now that I’m here, I’m going to tell you about the world’s most interesting educational story. Cool?

Before I start, I want to play a game. All right. What I’m going to do is I’m going to take you through a bunch of seemingly random Indian celebrities and I want you to tell me what all of them have in common. Can we do this? Ma’am, can we? Superb, let’s do it.

This young and — I must admit — extremely charming Bollywood actor, this veteran politician, this acclaimed economist, and this emerging young cricketer. Anyone? OH lovely. He’s right. They are all engineers by education. Cool, right?

In fact, let me share with you some fascinating insights. Ever since our Independence in 1947, we produced zero Nobel Laureates in science. The US has a hundred plus; 26 Olympic medals – that’s it. Just 26 Olympic medals, and China produced 100 in the 2008 Games alone. However there is something we produce more than the US and China combined. Anyone’s guess, right? Number of engineers.

Now, who am I and why and how do I know – look, he’s laughing, he is an engineer himself – so who am I and why and how do I know so much about this story? So I spent my initial years of growing in Saudi Arabia, and then my parents packed me back to Bombay in lieu of better education.

And in school, I made two big mistakes. You want to know what those mistakes are? OK, so the first mistake of my life was that I was good at studies. OK, the second mistake of my life was I was particularly good at math. Now, in India when you commit these two mistakes you end up committing a third mistake which is: you get into engineering. This is exactly what I did.

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In engineering life I kind of realized early on it wasn’t quite my thing, right? So I founded this T-shirt startup. In case you can’t recognize me, that’s me without all the beard. So I founded this T-shirt start-up to vent my frustration and for which I was listed as one of India’s top student entrepreneurs.

Later on, I moved to the city of Bangalore where I spent a solid two years essentially selling chai. Now here is the thing about Bangalore, all right. Bangalore is full of engineers, OK, and they are not just engineers, they are engineers frustrated with their lives. No, it’s not funny. So one in every 20 IT employees in Bangalore contemplate suicide at some point of his life. Crazy, right?

What happened next is I quit my job, because I was curious, like how did such a diverse country like ours get so obsessed with one thing: producing engineers, and looked like nobody before we tried answering. So I quit my job and then something magical happened. Some 300 people across the globe contributed 14,000 Australian dollars in a record-setting crowdfunding campaign to help me, the goofball, compile a book, OK.

So over the next two years I found out about a lot of interesting people, places, and events that helped shape what I call one of Indian’s Greatest Obsessions. Now it’s going to be difficult for me to take you through like two years of research in a couple of minutes, right? So what I’m going to do is going to take you through some of these people, some of these places and some of these events. OK, are you ready? Can we start?

OK, so the first person I’m going to tell you about is this very very interesting character who goes by the name Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay was a born genius. He had an estimated IQ of like 180 to 190. He had the tremendous ability to learn any language within a fortnight. OK, so the Brits told him, ‘Dude, like you know India is one of our newer colonies and one of our more important colonies. Why don’t you go there and you know help figure a few things for us. So he said, ‘India, there is no way I’m going to India’. So then the Brits said, ‘Dude, can you please do this for us’.

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So Macaulay didn’t have a lot of friends, OK and he was dearly attached to his sisters. So he pleaded with a certain Hannah, saying, ‘Hannah, these guys want me to go to India. Can you please come? I don’t want to go alone. So Hannah said, and I quote, ‘I see India only as a country of filth and disease’. So this is what the Brits did next. They said, ‘OK, fine. We’ll give you 10,000 pounds’ which in today’s time translate to half a million pound. Now, face it, if somebody gave me half a million pound right now, I’d be willing to go to North Korea.

So this guy forcibly got his sister to India and he roughly spent four years in India, did not bother learning a single Indian language, went back to the Britain Parliament, OK. And on February 2, 1835 made a very momentous speech which I’m not going to quote entirely but I’m just going to pick up one line which kind of summarizes the spirit of the entire speech. Macaulay said, and I quote, “We need to teach Indians English. If we do not teach them English they are going to waste their youth touching a cow’s ass”. This is what he said. And that’s how English education came to India.

Now what does English education have to do with the life of India’s engineers, right? Couple of things. One, a vast majority of India’s engineers are actually unemployable. Do you know why? Anyone from the industry they probably know why, what’s lacking the most. Anyone? Lovely. Yeah, close enough. They don’t call it that. They call poor communication skills, right? Poor communication skills innuendo for poor English and, come on, English is international language, right? It’s an acquired language. So English became a class in India, it didn’t just become a language.

Secondly, this very important IT revolution to which so many of Indian engineers owe our lives to, and also our first foreign trip to, happened in India and not in China. You know why? Because of our familiarity with English. Just because we were acquainted with English, could we able to quote easily and also talk to our clients in Europe and America. Cool, right?

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Now that I mentioned America, let’s discuss the Indian engineers’ tremendous success story in the US tech industry. So beat this, right? Two of the biggest tech giants in the world are today run by India engineers. And, you know, they actually owe their life to a very specific moment in history. That moment is actually as specific as this: October 4, 1957, 7:28 p.m.

OK, so what happened on October 4, 1957, 7:28 pm is the Soviets launched the first human satellite in space: the Sputnik. And the US lost its mind. You know, the US and Russia always have had this Indian student type — have been like two Indian students, right? Always want to better than each other. So the Americans lost their mind and they said, ‘Dude, we need to do something, man’. So they changed their entire immigration policy, and they invited the best of scientists, the best of doctors and the best of engineers from across the globe.

Now, engineers back in India were pretty brainy, are rather still pretty brainy, I’d say. And they were frustrated with India’s socialist regime back then, because it didn’t allow them to do much. The government controlled practically everything. So they had two options: OK, one was to go with our best friend forever, BFF as they say these days – BFF, Russia or to go to America with whom we didn’t have the best of relations at least back then.

But what happened was something curious. Most engineers ditched their best friends Russia and all went to — most of them went to America instead. Can anyone tell me why? Anyone? Macaulay. English. Because we were comfortable speaking English like the Americans did, all of them moved to America and rest is history, right?