Learning to learn, and to understand

Intelligence is proved not by the ease of learning but by understanding what we learn (John Whitney)

Learning like growing up is a continuing and ever evolving process. Ideally, one doesn’t cease to learn after having attained a degree, a job or even a high level of expertise or scholarship in a certain endeavor. In fact, the learning process in the intellectual development of an individual necessitates learning new ways of learning or revisiting certain familiar ways of thinking that one may need to unlearn. It is a pity that, as opposed to learning and understanding, it is the capacity to ‘perform’ that routinely gets evaluated in the contemporary examination system as it prevails across educational institutions in India. And without exception, performance is equated with the capacity to memorise, to cram and to vomit it out during the examination.

The result has been a bottomless pit of mediocrity that gets churned out, year after year, from our educational institutions. In all this, the best case scenario has been the overblown skill development programs as these are offered in our educational institutions, never mind the short shrift being shown towards the development of the intellectual capacity of students who pass out from these institutions.

The development of these capacities is surely as crucial in humanities and social sciences as they are in basic sciences. It is rarely the case that those who may be perceived to have excelled as experts in their respective disciplines come across as thinking individuals who evince a concern for the world outside of their domain of expertise.

Which is why it is not a common occurrence to come across an academician who is willing to spare a thought for the ills that have come to plague the society, the environment or the world at large and a concern to address these issues. A healthy and robust society is not necessarily shaped by a motley crowd of those who have achieved certain skills or who have merely specialized themselves in a particular academic discipline, but by the presence of a critical pool of those academicians and scholars who can summon the courage to stand up and speak the truth.

That is surely an altogether different proposition that belongs in a higher order of excellence which our education system is sadly not designed to foster as part of intellectual development of the individual.

The problem is to be located, not merely at the level of school, college or university education but at different stages of the intellectual development of an individual.

The mechanism involving the recruitment and promotion to a higher cadre in the academic ladder of a college/university teacher as it has been devised and adopted in our educational institutions has been the last nail in the coffin.

The utterly absurd and lopsided emphasis on API of a teacher for promotion to a higher cadre may perhaps be viewed as an easy tool to assess the credentials of the stakeholder.

But the damage it can cause to his originality, creativity and his passion for learning and sharing the excitement of learning to his students can be colossal.

I know of a whole lot of those who have had these latter faculties to boast of at the time of their entry into the university system, but who soon lost that élan and over time morphed into the crowd of self-seeking individuals who are being passed for academicians, scholars and scientists! That is perhaps one of the many reasons why most of those who go through the grill of working and getting a Ph.D. degree from a center of excellence, whether in India or abroad prefer to stay away from joining the university system in India, and instead settle for institutions with better working conditions elsewhere.

By bringing in the ethos and the work culture that they are supposed to have acquired and assimilated during their stay in those centers of excellence, their willingness and aided in good measure by that of the university administration to engage them in reasonably large numbers would go a long way in reversing the state of ennui and stupor that the current Indian university system is in the throes of, right now.

Such an arrangement which would be enormously beneficial for the host university would surely be no less helpful to the potential entrant having opted for that university as his future place of work.

That is on account of a whole lot of reasons which have to do with his creativity and potential to deliver.

One of the more important and far less recognized of these reasons has to do with the individual temperament of a researcher who may or may not deliver to his potential at a place where he has to contend and compete with those who are ‘smarter’ and far brighter than him.

I have come across a whole lot of instances of those who have done reasonably well in their researches while working at less privileged places.

On the contrary, there also are instances of those who were promising enough to do extremely well before they chose to move to certain well known research institutions in India and abroad, but somehow couldn’t live up to their potential and promise in the middle of the fiercely competitive atmosphere as it prevails in those institutions.

Put differently, a doctoral position at Princeton or Oxford may not necessarily end up as a big boon inasmuch as a doctoral/teaching stint at a (good) Indian university or an IIT may not be such a bad idea for an aspiring – but an otherwise promising – researcher/teacher! This was also voiced in a recent interview by Akshay Venkatesh, the Indian born mathematician who was recently awarded the Fields Medal at the 2018 ICM in Brazil. Says he: “Australia has produced a lot of good mathematicians, and I have wondered why that is.

I am sure there are many factors, but it seems to me that it’s a less aggressively competitive place than the US. If I look at the undergraduates at many of the top US schools, I think they are discouraged to see all these brilliant people around them. I don’t think that results in the best outcome in the long term”.

Further he adds “I could easily have imagined being in that atmosphere and not finding it a net positive. In Australia, there aren’t very many students who are interested in pure mathematics. So you don’t have a sense of competition, and you have time to develop at your own pace.

Some people develop at different rates to other people. You don’t necessarily want the ones who develop fastest at the start to have an advantage. Maybe I was such a person, but in the grand scheme of things, this is not the ideal scenario”.

The above remarks by the Fields Medalist are not without merit. Coming these words as they do from someone who represents the apotheosis of achievement in his area of research, the point is that despite the moribund state of our university education system, it still has a lot to offer to the society.

Such a possibility would surely come about, provided men and women of vision and caliber were involved in it in various capacities, but only in the form of a critical mass of such people, who need to be cajoled, persuaded and incentivized to be part of the university system in return for excellent working conditions and opportunities.

Needless to say, it is only men of caliber and vision in the universities providing leadership at the top who can persuade good people to be part of the university system.

But the identification and appointment of such visionaries to provide leadership in the university system has to be left to the wisdom of those who are supposed to know better, without the need for the state to interfere in their appointment, in pursuit of an agenda that is typically political/ideological in nature and far from being based on considerations of merit and credentials.

Prof. M. A. Sofi teaches at Department of Mathematics, Kashmir University, Srinagar