India’s tradition of education needs to be sustained – Pantagraph, Bloomington, IL – 03/19/2006


Like most children in India, I grew up hearing a single refrain “There is a time for study, a time for play and a time to earn money.” Even today, in America, for Indians, that fundamental rule has not changed. School and college are for studying, play is incidental and the time to earn comes if, and only after, you are done with studying.


There are two distinct parallel forces at work during your school years - you are preparing for college, for graduation, for post-graduation and indeed, for your entire future in medicine, engineering or finance and your parents are working and saving to be able to put you through all that. Loans, if necessary, will be taken and repaid by the parents, not by the student. If the children complete their studies during the term of the loan, then they will pitch in, if they can. They are not expected to. Of course, there are obligations on the other side of this arrangement - that of supporting the parents in their old age. While not wanting to paint an idyllic picture - things are changing fast - I have to say that even today most Indian families, unless they are really poor, function that way.


There are reasons for this, cultural and economical. For Indians, the path to social respect, financial security and professional success is perceived to lie in formal education. The scholar, the teacher, the professor are highly respected. The word ‘guru’ does not mean expert; it means ‘guide’ or ‘learned person’ and has more spiritual connotations than its current usage would suggest. Education is considered a virtue in itself and hence, educating one’s children adequately is a duty automatically accepted at their birth.


The importance given to education also makes it a barometer of your suitability for employment, which, in a developing country like India, is the precious first key to survival. Fortunately, education has been relatively affordable for most people, often subsidized by the government, albeit decreasingly. Wealth that does not have education somewhere in its origin may be envied, but it is considered somewhat incomplete and not entirely satisfactory to either the admirer or the admired.


A major part of India’s resurgence after centuries of foreign occupation can be attributed to the emphasis given to education. India’s scientists, economists, engineers and doctors - not to mention ubiquitous software professionals - occupy challenging and prestigious positions, while Indians students perform extraordinarily in schools and colleges the world over. That is quite simply because of the culture of education that is inculcated and nurtured since birth.


But India today is a place of upheaval. Increasing prosperity, exposure to other cultures and values, and the availability of alternate avenues to wealth are galvanizing Indian society and in a few years, age-old traditions and customs will be washed away in the aftermath as much as old roads and buildings.


My fear is that the first victim will be the importance given to education.


On my visit to India last year, I was shocked and distressed to see college kids at work in restaurants, malls and stores. It was our future at work, not just our children, folding clothes, making burgers, delivering pizza. There is nothing wrong with hard work, but shouldn’t these children have been hard at work at their books instead, at this time of their lives?


There are other signs too. Higher education is becoming more expensive. Almost on cue, student loan schemes, an uncommon feature in the past, have surfaced. Suddenly, the needs of modern youth have increased exponentially and demand instant gratification. Myriad distractions, which if unfulfilled by unable or unwilling parents, drive rebellious children to the workplace. The feel of one’s own money is an addiction that requires constant fixing. With fifty percent of its population below 25 years of age, the prospects are terrifying. This has filial implications too. If every member of the family has to fend for himself, then why live together at all?


Culture is a cloth woven with the delicate and often inseparable fibers of economics, religion and philosophy. Western practices are dictated by the framework of their own economics and values. Let us also remember that Western countries hove already achieved great prosperity and grant to their citizens a very high standard of life, regardless of education. India, by comparison, is still aspiring to those levels of achievement and wealth. To jettison a culture that has been the mainstay of our growth would be akin to cutting off oxygen to the heart of the very engine that drives it.


In our mad rush to ape the West, we must not end up imbibing values that are not suitable for us while letting our own erode. In fact, it might be wise for the West, at least in this one particular case, to ape the East.