Guru Parulkar on US Education Curriculum

From Dave Farber’s [IP] List (Farber is Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon): Guru Parulkar writes:

I read this posting with a lot of interest because I also grew up in India and have been following changes in US and in India (as an ordinary interested citizen) for the past 20 years since I came to this country. I was a bit surprised with the generalizations about both India and US suggested in the email from Slashdot.
India is a big country with a lot of diversity. The type of value system as well as exposure to science/engineering implied in the Slashdot posting (children writing essays about getting Nobel prize, children growing up aspiring to be pioneers in science and technology) apply to a small cross-section of the society. I don’t think it applies to India in general or even to the majority in India. It is definitely true that the large middle class in India puts tremendous emphasis on education. However, the reason for this emphasis has been that careers in engineering and medicine have been the only way to make descent living. Right or wrong (like it or not) at a very early age kids recognize (because parents and society drill it down) that unless they do well in academics, they wouldn’t be able to get into engineering or medicine and thus not have a descent life. And so kids get serious about education and they start to respect other kids who do well in the school. It is not the “love of science or innovation” that has been making people serious about education. It is simply the financial rewards down the road. A lot of us Indians here in US wonder if this academic pressure on kids in India is appropriate because this means kids study and study and don’t have time to learn, enjoy, and experience other stuff that matter too in life.

Interestingly enough India has been importing the culture and value system from US, good and bad, at a phenomenal rate (thanks to globalization, Internet and all those 200+ TV channels and Hollywood movies that are easily accessible in India). The changes are amazing. On the positive side: entrepreneurship is encouraged and getting rewarded; kids have other careers besides engineering and medicine that would pay descent money; quality of production of TV programs, movies, and performing arts in general has gotten much much better, and more (btw, it is a pleasure to see (good) Indian movies these days). But at the same time, there is many fold increase on the screen of violence, nudity, sex, and everything that we don’t want to see here in US. Similarly kids’ and people’s obsession with the TV, movie, and sports super stars has been going up and up. Needless to say a cricket star or a TV star gets more respect than a reputed scientist even in India. And so not that much different from here in US.
It is possible that US is losing its dominance in science. I cannot be sure. However I believe the changes in US over the past 20 years in terms of the value system or culture haven’t been as dramatic as they have been in India. For more than 20 years that I have been here in US, I believe that kids/people are encouraged to excel and excel in something: sports, academics, performing arts, business, social service, or whatever. And there isn’t a strong bias in favor of or against academics. Excellence is rewarded in terms of attention as well as financial returns. Kids understand the system and are well informed about the odds of making it big (e.g. in a sports vs business major) and associated financial rewards. Most importantly, kids do respond to that. For example, when high tech was booming during 90s, computer science enrollments grew at a record pace and when the bubble burst and outsourcing moved the jobs away, the enrollments dropped. Now enrollments are on the rise in bio majors because that is considered hot. So I am ok with the encouraging excellence in all aspects of our lives and rewarding it rather than putting too much emphasis just on academics.
Of course there are a lot of things that we can do better here in US and that list is long …
In summary

  • The contrast between US and India in terms of the value system suggested in the email from Slashdot is highly overstated
  • India is a large and diverse country and emphasis on education for the love of science and innovation may apply to a very small cross-section of population. For rest it is mostly driven by financial well being.
  • US emphasis on “excellence in something” appeals to me as opposed to too much emphasis on just academics.