Sunday, July 3, 2011

Misha Gromov was born during the peak of the Second World War. A difficult time indeed and "Misha decided not to speak until he was two and a half years old. By then the war was over, and Misha uttered his first words as whole sentences. At the age of six he annoyed his first grade teacher to by solving a mathematical problem given to him by mistake and intended for third graders.

"The teacher refused to believe that Misha had solved the problem without his parents' help. This especially hurt his feelings as his parents had indeed tried to solve the problem but failed. When Misha was ten his teacher told his mother that he would become a professor of mathematics. But at that time the future professors found more delight in playing with noxious chemicals than with theorems."

Does this mean you must be born a genius like Misha to turn into a world-class mathematician? May be but if someone genuinely wishes to be good at Mathematics, it is next to impossible in India to turn out into a fairly talented mathematician at least, if not a genius.

Pesi Rustom Masani, an Indian mathematician settled in America, gave a talk back in 1963 aptly titled "The Basis for Mathematical Miseducation in Indian Universities". Nearly half a century later, it still is valid today. Strange regulations of having half of the questions in an exam to be optional, no weekly assignments (meaningful and truly challenging ones) and no periodic tests "makes for a good deal of learning by rote."

"In this educational set-up the intellectually and creatively inclined students get a raw deal. The system allows no short-cut or other amelioration to the gifted...They are made to go through a grinding mill in which the cramming of barren technicalities and trivialities is emphasized, clear and imaginative thought is discounted, and intellectual initiative stifled."

Masani goes on to say that even if Srinivasa Ramanujan was reborn in Independent India, he would have suffered the same fate of failing his exam, go begging for a research stipend, become a clerk and then rescued by a British (or maybe an American) mathematician.

Masani also points at what could be the greatest lie promoted by many: that the British brought modern education and economy to India. The British education was "geared more to the production of an officialdom loyal the the rulers than to the creation of an elite of practical-critical thinkers and men of action, or to the dissemination of knowledge among the masses. [it was more to do with the] consolidation of an authoritarian bureaucracy with a disdain for manual work...". Masani also comments on what's hindering education: "rapid vitiation of youthful idealism in India".

A great physicist, Werner Heisenberg has this to say of the English-bred economy in India:

"Hotels for Europeans, railroads, everything is very poor and very expensive. Obviously, all profits are pocketed by the English, do not stay in the country, and can therefore not be used for infrastructure improvements. For instance, even in the sleeping compartments of the first class one is not provided pillows and sheets, you have to bring those yourself, and any fourth class compartment in Germany is better than first class here."

What Masani says next has a direct bearing on the mess a university, not far from where I live, can wind up into.

"There is a good deal of student unrest, but it is unintellectual and manifests itself in ploy agitation over trifling issues. There is...a small minority of intellectually motivated students, but theirs is a voice in the wilderness".

Whatever are the merits of having a separate state, university students have far more important issues to agitate for: poor labs, uneducated professors, etc. I have never heard of a protest in India about the poor teaching of professor -- if I'm wrong, then India should attract American or Jewish students, rather than the other way round.

Atle Selberg, a great Norwegian Mathematician, writes:

"One sometimes hears it said that true genius will always make its way and be recognized in the end. I do not think that is true... The most important lesson that one could draw from Ramanujan’s story about the educational system is that allowances should be made for the unusual and perhaps lopsidedly gifted child with very strong interests in one direction, at all stages of the educational system."

As my dear friend said all this can be written down in our obituary. of course, he was being too generous in including me. But I know for sure his would be the case where this nation would not even know what it has lost.

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