Thank God it’s Not Easy to Mathematically Measure a Nation’s Ignorance

Credit: Simple CVR/Flickr CC 2.0

Do we care what they are studying? Credit: Simple CVR/Flickr CC 2.0

As Indians, we can justifiably take pride in being heirs to a fine intellectual tradition. India has been the birthplace of some of the best minds, from philosophers to physicians, ecclesiasts to engineers, and harnesses a vast civilisational pedigree of intellectualism. Despite perennial challenges, our democratic ethos, social and religious tolerance and intellectual eclecticism have, by and large, held sway. Travelling through India and Sri Lanka in 1896, the American writer pen-named Mark Twain said, ‘India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, and the grandmother of legend, and the great-grandmother of tradition. Our most valuable and instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India’.

And yet, today, India appears to be losing its ability for serious intellectual introspection and we appear to be turning into a prickly lot. We take umbrage at the slightest criticism, even when well-intended. Even people in responsible positions lose their balance quite easily and resort to highly objectionable language which should find no place in civilised discourse. This is, of course, not entirely new. For decades after 1947, our socio-economic inadequacy and political fissures were attributed to colonial exploitation. Often, since the Indira Gandhi era, adverse developments are sought to be explained as the work of the ‘foreign hand’. Even today, the devastation in Chennai was thought to be due largely to climate change, without mentioning that climate change itself is largely man-made, as was the entire accompanying infrastructural disaster. Perceptions need not be based on facts and, even when they are not, are capable of causing more damage than hard facts.  If a political party that has governed India for most of the seven decades of its existence as an independent country can accuse the nation’s judiciary of embarking on a vendetta, is it any surprise that our detractors seize upon the fault lines in our democracy?

Problematic survey

The recent claim that India is ‘the second-most ignorant nation in the world’ was fortunately tucked away in a corner of mainstream news reporting, sparing us an avalanche of abuse. British surveying giant Ipsos MORI’s report comparing public ignorance in several countries showed India sinking on most graphs.

Ipsos MORI’s ‘Perils of Perception Index, 2015’ contains several methodological flaws. First, a survey of merely 33 countries is hardly global. Second, for India, the sample size was only 500-odd. Third, most queries expected quantified responses, for instance, what percentage of India is obese? This then allowed the difference between a rough guess and an actual figure to denote a ‘perception gap’. Fourth, as the surveyor admits, the questionnaire sidelined the subjective relevance of each issue for a given nation. India’s respondents were the most imprecise on the extent of obesity in their nation. Perhaps they knew more about malnutrition. In any case, empirically verifiable quantitative information, on any scale, ranks lower than knowledge and wisdom for which we surely have impressive credentials.

Even in nations not as complex as India, the best educated may not be able to present accurate off-the-cuff statistics. To judge their level of ‘ignorance’ based on such a premise, thus, is grossly unfair. If the survey reveals any ‘perils’ at all, it is that of research’s persisting obsession for quick quantification. That, however, leaves the question unanswered: is India ignorant?

In attempting a response to that question, it would be useful to acknowledge reality.

But the reality could be worse

That education requires more than basic proficiency receives little attention in India. Whilst we have succeeded in transforming school education into an ‘entitlement’, conditions in our state run schools encourage parents to seek private schooling for their children and for good reason. The dominant, parentally-driven Indian view of advanced studies continues to unwarrantedly favour natural sciences over social sciences and the liberal arts, causing more than demand-and-supply imbalances. The consequent disdain for history and social sciences renders young minds vulnerable to preconceived world views and blissful ignorance.

Academia, most worryingly, is in shambles largely. Recruitment to the teaching profession is subject to brazen nepotism over merit.  Syllabi remain either unrevised or politicised in the name of revision. Even postgraduate students are encouraged to memorise, parrot-fashion. Plagiarism is overlooked and Indian universities, barring few exceptions, continue to breed batches of copy-pasting hoodwinkers, instead of credible contributors to the nation’s intelligentsia. As long as the trampling of quality behind the veils of our advanced educational institutions prevails, statistics and surveys cannot but paint a sorry picture. And this disease is not confined to the academic world.

Despite enrolling millions in the world’s third-largest higher education system, 82% of India’s graduates are deemed unemployable, as per a survey by the National Association of Software and Services Companies. The 2014 National Employability Report revealed that 60% of our engineers ‘lack domain skills’. Except a handful of IITs, Indian varsities routinely miss the top 400 spots of the QS World University rankings. We have the world’s fifth largest population of think-tanks, but none of them feature in the University of Pennsylvania’s list of the world’s best ones. The nation expectedly loses 450,000 students to foreign institutes annually.

There are a large number of medical professionals that India exports and for a nation that fervently prioritises scientific education, produces a long line of dummy engineers. Equally, barring a few exception, we are not known for electing educated leaders. The representatives of our political class carry their cognitive flaws and interpretive biases to the top of the food-chain. Is it, thus, any surprise that they beat around a problem’s bush instead of solving it, and that they blame clothing for rape, minorities for terrorism, poverty for corruption, and each other for their own shortcomings?

With our educational and leadership apparatuses rusting, we continue to consider priorities wrongly. While there is no mathematical measure for a nation’s ignorance yet, India may not wish for one any time soon.

Hardeep S. Puri is a retired diplomat. Anubhav Roy is a Research Analyst at Hardeep S Puri Associates.