A well educated mind vs a well formed mind: Dr. Shashi Tharoor at TEDxGateway 2013

Translator: Riaki Poništ
Reviewer: Denise RQ 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? OK, that seems pretty
representative of the country; 65% of India is under 35. How many of you are under 25? Then you are not representing because half of the Indian population
is 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. This is amazing because it’s happening at the time
when the rest of the world is aging. 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, is that 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,
beautiful US, also 40, and India’s average age
is going to be 29. So we are potentially the people who are 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 man 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 equip our people to take advantage
of what the 21st century offers them. 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 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 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 in 1956, the year I was born, and it was done on the site
of a British detention center, the Hijili 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 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 to the Federation of
Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, they did a survey and 64%
of employers are not satisfied with the quality of graduates
they’re getting. Some companies are running,
essentially, re-education places, like the gigantic campus in Mysore. And it’s not on the job training
which big companies tend to do, it is, in fact, 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? – that we must, must overcome. Right now, women’s literacy is 66%,
better than the 8.9, but it still means that, you know, 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 Khan Jibran, but 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. 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 Gandhi Puram, 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%. 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 appropriate one
for a particular level of education. But at our 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? We need to try and catch them,
and get them into vocational training. But how do you do that in the 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 reason why the sons of politicians
tend to be politicians also, you know. And with the Bollywood movies stars,
same story. (Laughter) So we need to get master craftsmen. Why is it with a country of 1.2 billion
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 they are spending on research
for 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’ve 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
where Nalanda invented the zero. Remember how the Romans used to write
their numerals in long strings of letters, till an Indian thought of the idea of zero
emerging from the notion of “śūnyatā” in Hindu and Buddhist thinking? 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 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
or 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,
then 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 join 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.
(Applause) 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. (Applause)

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