Saturday, February 21, 2009

Freedom to question

During my engineering, I had an opportunity of visiting around 30 engineering colleges across Andhra Pradesh for papers at technical symposiums. My first technical paper was on ‘Analysis of Non Linear Schrodinger equations for Optical solitons’ which I presented at a National Level Symposium called Pragnya-2005 for which I received the best paper award. In the coming years, I touched upon different fields such as decoupling capacitors in VLSI, energy complexity in embedded systems, power frameworks in cellular communications, etc. One of the criticisms I always had from my professors was that I never attached myself to one field and I can only make big if I stick to one field. Probably, it was due to my curiosity and ability to question everything that propelled me to work on different fields. Sometimes, it was funny - I used to have long debates in class-rooms with professors on a particular question, disrupting the whole class. Sometimes, I was warned to keep quiet and I believe rest of the times, professors enjoyed debating with me.

While participation in every symposium was a unique experience, I often felt that there is something profoundly missing among the students. For most of them, a technical paper meant understanding something that has not been taught. Rarely, I got to see the ability to challenge a technical idea. Of course, their situation indirectly helped me in winning quite many ‘Best student paper awards’ but somewhere I felt guilty about it. Sometimes, I felt these students are too humble in accepting whatever they have been told than questioning why it is true. To make things worse, the attitude of being too humble has deeply affected their creativity. This problem arises not just at school or college but rather starts at home itself.

As per the values of general Indian family, children are told right from our childhood that it is not correct to question your elders and accept whatever they say. The unfortunate state is that, the child loses his/her ability to question about an issue/problem and over the period of time becomes non-creative. The non-creative child grows up and again preaches the same values to his/her children and this cycle has been continuing since past two thousand years. That’s precisely the reason why over last two thousand years, we have produces such less number of scientists and intellectuals. To make things more clear, let me categorically state certain examples

- Existence of superstition even today in most parts of India is an example of the inability of people to question its validity. “My forefathers believed, so I believe it too” … That’s the answer you find from these people when asked.

- Glorification of works done by ancestors is another habit of Indians. Just because, people merely follow what has been told to them than doing something creative, some primitive work done by ancestors becomes so sacred that it can’t questioned.

- Suppression of creativity in the name of religion, culture and traditions is rampant in most part of the country. People still treat scientific advances as foreign invasion on their religion, culture and traditions.

I can go on and on giving these kinds of examples. Believe me, most people reading this blog post would argue with me that “are you saying listening to elders is wrong?” than understanding that all am I saying is “a child should be given liberty to question the existing logic and come up with his/her own solutions if there exists a flaw”.

Imagine, the state of the same child who was forced never to question and challenge the custom/tradition/religion/culture goes to college/school, do you think he/she will question the teachers about validity of something doubtful in textbooks? How can you expect such child to challenge the scientific ideas when he/she isn’t given liberty to question at home? And all this makes, most of the Indian students become too humble to accept whatever they have been told.

Just another day, I was reading an interesting blog where there was an anonymous comment

“I don't know about ** in India but I work - as an Australian - for an Indian company. We did some 'cultural sensitivity' training when our company was taken over so that we would be aware of the differences. One of the key ones was the importance of hierarchy in the Indian culture. This means that the opinion/attitude/approach of the leaders has much more impact than it would in Western cultures. In general, if a senior staff member says something then people will go along with it even if they know it to be wrong. This would seem to tie in with a lot of what people have been saying here -even to the point that groups controlled from ******* are much more productive.

In terms of innovation; I had one of our Indian colleagues explain that in terms of the Indian education system. His point was that, with so much poverty in India, a large majority of the people are working to get out of their current social position. With few exceptions the most likely way to do this is through education but only the top graduates actually manage to do well. This leads to a great deal of competition in the system: to get into the right college you need to get good marks at the right secondary school and to do that you need good marks at the right primary school etc etc. To get good marks, you have to give the expected answers in all exams/test etc. You do not deviate from the lessons you have been taught or you may fail. Such an environment does not encourage thinking outside the box! I have seen many of the Indian staff grow enormously in their roles while seconded to this country. I cannot say the same for those that I need to deal with that remain off-shore.”

This comment fairly summarizes the point I am trying to convey. Without being too philosophical here, let me state the action items for all of us Indians who agree with me

1. Let us not restrain ourselves and following generations from questioning and challenging the existing ideas

2. In case, there is a flaw in any of our tradition/custom/religion/belief, let us have guts to accept it.

3. Let us try to be as scientific as possible. Science will not harm our culture but rather improves it.

4. We are known by what we are and not by what our ancestors were. Let us create a good identify for ourselves so that 500 years from now, when historians write about us, they write good things.

February 13 2:13 AM


No comments: