Dr. Shashi Tharoor on A Well Educated Mind Vs a Well Formed Mind at TEDxGateway 2013 – TED Transcript
Dr. Shashi Tharoor
I’m here to talk to you about Indian education, higher education in particular. But I’m actually going to start with demography.
How many of you here are under 35? Okay, that seems pretty representative of the country; 65% of India is under 35.
How many of you are under 25? Okay. Then you are not so representative because we have half of the Indian population pretty much under 25. We are an amazingly young country. In fact, if you just take the age group from 10 to 19, there are 226 million Indians, poised, in other words, to enter higher education, going through school and ready for higher education.
Now this is amazing because it’s happening at the time when the rest of the world is aging. Right? If you look at the average age in India today, it’s 28. Of course, don’t ask about the gap – since we heard about gaps – between the average age of the Indian person and of the Indian cabinet. I think we hold the world record for that.
But, that’s another TED talk, right? But what you’ve got with the average ages at a time when the rest of the world is changing, so by 2020, the average age in Japan is going to be 47, in China it’s going to be heading well past 40, Europe, 46, the United States, youthful US, also 40, and India’s average age is going to be 29.
So we are potentially the people who are the youthful, productive, dynamic, young population, ready to work, and transform the world, the kinds of role that, say, China played in the last generation could be ours in the next. In fact, International Labor Organization has worked out that by 2020, we’ll have 160 million people in the age group of starting work — 20 to 24 is what they calculate — and China will only have 94 million, at the same time. So we really are poised to do that.
But, and by the way, other countries will have a serious deficit that’s estimated that the US will have 17 million short in terms of how many people they need of working age. We, in India, have the people. But do we have the ability to equip the people to take advantage of this, to be the workforce of the work engine for the world? See, if we get it right, we educate and train them, we really transform not just our own economy and our society, but the world.
If we get it wrong, the demographic dividend that I’m talking about becomes a demographic disaster. Because, we’ve already seen in 165 of our 625 districts what happens when unemployed, frustrated, undereducated young men become prey to the blandishments of the Maoists and prey to the gun and the bullet.
So education in our country is not just a social or economic issue, it’s even a national security issue. We’ve got to equip our people to take advantage of what the 21st century offers them.
Now this is the story in a nutshell: 4 E’s, Expansion with our first priority in education. Why? Because the British — and I wouldn’t even ask if any of you are here — left us in 1947, with a 16% literacy rate. There were only 400,000 — four-lakh students in the entire country in higher education. We had 26 universities, fewer than 700 colleges. So obviously, expansion was essential; we’ve gone right from that 16% to 74% literacy today, we’ve gone from 26 universities to 650 universities, we’ve gone from those 400,000 students, four-lakh students, to 20 million students in higher education today, and we have 35,000 colleges as well, instead of the 700 colleges we had then. So expansion has taken place.
We’ve also had to fight for the second E of Equity. That is, including the excluded from the education, trying to reach out to the unreached, the people who didn’t get a fair shake in education for reasons they couldn’t help: gender, an obvious reason. When we had that 16% literacy rate, do you know what the female literacy rate was? 8.9% at the time of the independence. Just one out of 11 Indian women could read and write. Caste, region, religion, all sorts people got left out of system. We had to bring them in. And that became a big challenge and a priority for education.
In getting those two things more or less right, I don’t know how well we did on the third E, which is the E of Excellence. Obviously, you need quality. And we set about setting up institutions of great quality in our country. The IITs are a good example, in fact, it’s part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision that IIT in Kharagpur was established back in 1956, the year I was born, and it was done on the site of a British detention center, the Hijli detention center. So a symbol of political oppression became instead a symbol of hope, of technology, of looking to the future.
But, for the IITs, the IIMs, a few good institutions, I’m sure you could all pick your few around the country, these have tended to be islands of excellence floating on the sea of mediocrity. The average Indian higher education institution is simply not of the quality that you and I, all of us, in this audience would like to see.
And that ties into the fourth E that I’ve added to this catechism: Employability. Talk to employers, talk to CEOs, what would they tell you? That they’re simply not satisfied with the quality of the graduates they’re getting. Even in the T of TED, the technological area, engineering graduates, half a million engineering graduates a year, but if you talk, for example, to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, they did a survey, 64% of employers are not satisfied with the quality of graduates they’re getting.
Some companies are running, essentially, re-education places, Infosys’, the gigantic campus in Mysore. And it’s not on the job training which big companies tend to do, it is, in fact, really a full-year’s education for the people they’ve already hired, to make up for the deficiencies of what they’ve learned or not properly learned in the college.
Now, that’s the scale of the challenge that we face. What are we doing about it? A great deal needs to be done. Of course, we are trying to put in kids into the system at an early age, the RTE, the Right to Education Act, if kids were out of school in the old days, it was their parents’ fault; today, if there are out of school it’s a state’s fault. The government is committed to actually getting them an education.
We’ve got more and more money being pumped in by the system at all levels. For example, many of you may have gone to prestigious universities; lots of people in India don’t. They go to state universities which are grossly under-financed. We’ve come up with a scheme to pump central money into the state universities, so they actually have the resources to do something with the students they have there.
Money isn’t the whole answer. There is an entire challenge, in terms of addressing things like the gender gap – that’s a gap, but despite what mister — or what an earlier speaker said, we don’t want to embrace, right? – it’s a gap we must, must overcome. Right now, women’s literacy is 66%, better than the 8.9%, but it still means that, one out of every 3 Indian women still can’t read and write. We have to overcome that.
And we need to catch the ones who’ve been left out of the net: adult literacy; huge challenge. I went off to a village in Tamil Nadu, not far from Kanchipuram, and I’ve met women, who in their 50s and 60s, were learning to read and write. And people think sometimes what’s the point, some of their own family members, their husbands, think what’s the point. The answer is it changes their lives, it empowers them in real ways. I spoke to a woman called Chitra Mani, who proudly wrote her name in Tamil on a piece of paper. And I said: “So, what does being able to read and write mean to you?”
And she said: “Now I can see the destination of a bus, where it’s going; I don’t need to ask somebody where that bus is going. I know where I can go. When I get to the big city of Kanchipuram, I can read the street signs, I can find where I need to go, I don’t feel helpless anymore.”
That kind of empowerment is what literacy gives people in a very fundamental and real way. And we’re trying to do that of course, for those who’ve dropped out early on, in the days before we got to that 74%.
The younger kids, we’ve got them into school now. We’ve something called a gross enrollment ratio, the percentage of children of a certain age, of the age appropriate for a particular level of education. Well at primary school now, our gross enrollment ratio is 116%. We’ve actually enrolled more kids than we thought existed at that age group, because some of the older ones are coming in too. Bad news is, as you go up the level, it starts dropping. So by the 8th grade, I’m afraid it’s down to 69%, by the 10th grade, 39%, and by college, our gross enrollment ratio is about 18%, against the global average of 29%.
So, clearly, we still need to do more. Our expansion hasn’t gone enough. We haven’t managed to get everyone to stay in the system. Some of them actually need vocational training. They’re not all going to become white collar clerks, or officials, or IAS officers, right? So we need to try and catch them, and get them into vocational training.
But how do you do that in a culture where, for 3,000 years, if you wanted to become a cobbler or a carpenter, you’d better have an uncle or father who’s a cobbler or a carpenter, because nobody else is going to teach you. The transmission of knowledge, of trade craft in our country, has always been through the gene pool, the one reason why the sons of politicians tend to be politicians also, you know. And with the Bollywood movies stars, same story.
So we need to get master craftsmen. Why is it with a country of 1.2 billion people that we should have a nationwide shortage of masons, of plumbers, of certified electricians? We need to get more vocational training into the system, we’re doing that, we’re now rolling out the whole concept of community colleges so that kids can go in, have some academic learning, lots of vocational training, and at the end of 2 years, if they show tremendous academic promise they can go back to a university, if not, they leave with a 2-year certificate, and they go off and do a useful trade in a society that is clamoring for these skills. So these are the kinds of changes that we’re trying to bring about, and move along.
But there’s a change that the government alone can’t do. You know, if you look at the need for research and innovation, you’ve heard a lot of that, I’m sure in the course of the TED talks. Research is something which — the government wants to double the amount of money spending on research from 1% of GDP to 2%; we haven’t had the money to pump into it yet, but, innovation requires new ways of thinking. I heard you had a talk about hyper-thinking; I’ve missed it. But new ways of thinking means learning to think out of the box, learning to create, I know we’re famous for ”jugaad”, right? If you Google the word ‘frugal innovation, ‘ and top 20 hits will all relate to Indian inventions. We invented the world’s cheapest electrocardiogram, the simplest and cheapest EKG, the cheapest insulin injection, the world’s cheapest small car, the TATA Nano, but all these have been things invented elsewhere that we have stripped down, made more affordable, more replicable, more relevant to our conditions.
We need to do things that others haven’t done before, which we used to do in our culture, we’re the land that invented the zero. Remember how the Romans used to write their numerals in long strings of letters, until an Indian thought of the idea of zero emerging from the notion of “śūnyatā” in Hindu and Buddhist thinking? And that came into the zero “śūnya” which transformed global mathematics.
We need to think like that again; we need to come up with ideas. With 17% of the world’s brains, why do we only have 2.8% of the world’s research output coming out of our country? Well, perhaps we need to start in the classroom. Get our kids, not just to have their heads filled full of facts, and textbook materials, and teachers’ lectures. Because frankly, that gives you a well-filled mind, but in the era of the Internet, you don’t need a well-filled mind, you’ve got Google, right? Find out everything you want with 2 clicks of the mouse.
What you need is a well-formed mind. A mind that reacts to unfamiliar facts and details that can actually synthesize information that it hasn’t studied before. A mind, in other words, that can react to the bigger examination called ‘life, ‘ which doesn’t actually only give you the things you’re prepared for. And for that you need a mind that’s shaped by original thinking, a mind that doesn’t just ask the teacher, “Why?”, but “Why not?”
I’ve actually had a little experience of out of the box thinking myself. I wear glasses, I don’t need them to read, I don’t need them to see you folks on the front, but if I want to catch somebody in the back row, there I have to look though glasses. But because I hardly ever wear them, I keep losing or breaking them. I shove them in the pocket, bang them against the wall or something, they crack, I put them on the lap, when I get up, they fall down, somebody steps on them, they break. In the first 3 months of this year, I lost or broke 6 pairs of glasses.
So I was telling a friend about this, and he said: “A simple solution, why can’t you think of one?”
I said: “Look, there is no easy solution because for 150 years, glasses have been made in one way, right? They join together at the center, they hang over your ears. That’s what I’ve found an inconvenience, so I take them off.”
And he said, “No, no, no, no, no, you will find a different way. You can re-imagine glasses in a way they’re not going to hang over your ears, or be joined at the middle,” and this is what he did.
I’m wearing them right now; and if I want to see anybody at the back, I just pull them together, it has two magnets in the middle that click together, and I can see you all at the back.
Now, it’s just a silly example perhaps, but it’s an example of how one can think out of the box. Things, familiar objects can be thought of in ways they haven’t been thought of before. And that way, we can move forward in the world.
I have no doubt that the challenges are enormous, there is simply no question that here, in our country, we have to become literate. But there’s one piece of good news. 95% of our 12 year-olds across India can read and write. So the future looks good.
And as far as the workforce is concerned, if we can get all these other pieces in place, we can say to the rest of the world, “We are coming.”
Thank you very much.