Indian Education System vs. US Education System – Hype vs. Reality

The Obama Administration has made education a priority issue. President Obama is committed to improving education in America’s schools. In his speeches, he has referred to India as a success story that America should follow. Mr. Obama has made the case that India’s progress is due to India’s success in educating its middle-class. If America wants to follow in India’s footsteps, they’ll have to look at accessibility to all students. It’s vital that all American children receive a similar education. To try and achieve this, teachers should be educated to the same standard. Additionally, this Summer Course Gives Teachers a Head Start in their teaching profession. Perhaps if more teachers participated in courses like that, they would be better prepared to help students to the best of their ability. This is just one way that schools could be bettered. Obama said in a speech “If India can do it, so can America”.

People like Robert Compton of 2 Million Minutes have made the passionate case that the educational systems in China & India are far superior to the American educational system. According to people like Mr. Compton, if America does not revamp its system, it will fall behind China & India.

I cannot speak about China. But, having gone to school and college in India, I can speak about the Indian education system. With respect, both President Obama and Robert Compton are wrong about the Indian educational system. What makes India work is not the educational system but its culture and family values.

Let me speak personally. My high school in Mumbai was a neighborhood school. At one time, it was recognized as a good school but by my time, it had lost its cache. The education was rather pathetic.

  • We began studying English Grammar in the 8th grade. That year, our English teacher taught us chapters 1-8 of the classic text Wren & Martin. In the 9th grade, the same teacher came in to teach us English Grammar. Again, he taught us chapters 1-8 of Wren & Martin. I figured it was his attempt to get our foundation strong. Not exactly. The same teacher taught us English Grammar from the 8th grade to the 11th grade and in every grade he taught us the same chapters 1-8 of Wren & Martin. He did not know Grammar beyond Chapter 8 and he simply kept teaching us what he knew rather than what the curriculum was supposed to. So to this day, I am a bit hazy about adverbs and have no clue about participles.
  • In the 11th grade, they changed our Hindi textbook and the new textbook was a wonder. It opened my eyes to great Hindi literature, a world I did not know existed. But, our Hindi teacher did not know Hindi well. So he taught us in his own unique way. On the first day, he asked a student to read aloud the first chapter to the class. After the student finished reading the chapter, he asked the class whether any body had any questions. The boy who asked a question was then asked to read aloud the entire chapter again to the class, After that second reading, the teacher again asked whether any one had a question. From that point on, for the entire year, no kid asked a question and the teacher did his job without ever “teaching” us Hindi.

As I said, this was not a good school. Time had robbed the school of good teachers. But it was a neighborhood school and we had a diverse class of good kids. Some came from middle class backgrounds and some came from poor communities. But the kids were good kids and we all learned from each other. I remain friends with several classmates from my high school. Most of us did reasonably well in life.

This education was cheap. I recall paying about 60 cents a month as tuition. But it did its job. None of us ever dared to go to our parents and complain about the quality of education we were receiving. The cultural message from parents and society was clear. Education was the priority and the key to financial success. Schools and Teachers were support structures of dubious value. Our education was our responsibility and ours alone. It was up to us to learn in any way we could.

This fostered a sense of togetherness and a drive to learn from the students that were a grade or two before us. This sense of a student community that helps the students that come after them is one of the abiding strengths of the Indian education system.

My undergraduate college was then the highest ranked college in Mumbai. I made great friends in College who remain friends to this day. The education was a different story.

  • After 7 years of an all-boys high school, our co-ed College was a place to have fun. Fortunately, the Mumbai system helped. It featured 6-7 months of classes with no homework or periodic exams. There was one final exam in each subject at the end of the academic year. Before this exam, there was a period of a few weeks to study.
  • So we could enjoy the college life for the bulk of the year and then study hard for the finals for a few weeks. Our professors did a decent job. But we really did not learn much. Our Mathematics professor was always willing to digress and talk about his analysis of classic Bollywood films like “Khamoshi”.
  • The last 2 years of college became more focused as we selected our major and minor subjects. I was very fortunate to get an exceptional professor for Algebra. He is simply the best pure teacher I have ever seen. He instilled a passion in his students about Algebra, a passion that made me come to America to get a Ph.D. in Mathematics.

The college was also inexpensive, but not as cheap as my high school. In total, I believe my parents spent about $500 for my tuition for school and college.

Because the school was not demanding, I had the chance to read a lot. I suppose this is a difference between Indian schools and American ones. Some of my American friends were always complaining about the amount of work they were expected to do in school. Apparently, they had that many essays and assignments to write that some of them ended up using to help them meet deadlines. I was obviously lucky. With all of the free time I seemed to have, I read Sanskrut classics including, of course, Ramayan & MahaBharat as well as Greek classics like Iliad & Odyssey. I read biographies and novels about great Indian leaders as well as European & American leaders. Apart from reading about Shivaji Maharaj, Rana Pratap, Bajirao Peshwa, I read about Napolean, Disraeli and George Washington.

Today, I know young men and women who have been educated in the most expensive New York private schools as well as elite public schools like Stuyvesant. Like many, they engage in the private school vs public school debate. Perhaps instead they should be focussing on the America vs India debate. Frankly, I got a much more diverse and cosmopolitan education than these New York students and that too at a fraction of the cost.

My graduate experience in America did not cost me a dime. I was fortunate to get a fellowship and a Teaching Assistantship with full tuition waiver at one of the best programs for Algebra in America.

  • Graduate School in America was a totally different experience. Our Math Department had a couple of great Mathematicians, names that will live for ever for their contribution to Mathematics. The brilliance of the faculty, the excellence of their research and the quality of the graduate courses was from a different planet compared to what I had been accustomed to. It was a thrilling experience but an intense one.
  • But, amazingly I was not at a disadvantage compared to other graduate students who had studied at other terrific American universities. A Ph.D. program is essentially a personal journey. The Department and the Adviser are there to help but it is up to the student to get from it what he or she wants. Now, that is the system I came from – a system that essentially forces you to learn yourself by making use of the meager resources the system provides you. Unlike the Indian system, American Universities provide massive resources of high quality to the Ph.D. student.

This may be why Indian students do very well in American Universities. They are used to a free form system in which they have to make it personally without relying on any one else.

When I came to America, I was a lad of about 20 years who had never lived anywhere but my parents’ home in Mumbai. My first plane trip, actually my first trip anywhere, was from Mumbai to a small University town in the Midwest. I still remember the utter ease with which I was able to assimilate into American University life. There was simply no cultural adjustment necessary, none at all. It was seamless. Having lived in Mumbai and having gone to school there, America was no stranger. The culture was very similar, the systems were very similar and the way to get ahead was the same. Even the language and the slang was not that different. Unlike my fellow student from Dublin, Ireland, I knew that “fag” did not mean a cigarette in America (This student created total stunned silence at our raucous dorm party when he asked loudly “what is the price of fags in this country?”).

Earlier, I spoke of the togetherness of the Indian Student community and the culture of helping younger students from your school (one’s “juniors” as they are called). This is an amazing and abiding strength of the Indian educational system. I know students who have recently come to America from Mumbai. While living in Mumbai, these students know the merits of the various Universities in America and the chances of getting a job from these schools. They get this knowhow from their seniors who have come to America a couple of years ahead of them. When they arrive in America, they already have a support structure of sorts in place.

What makes Indian education work is not the quality of the schools, not the level of resources and not the amount of money thrown at education by the state. The strengths of the Indian education system are:

  • a culture that makes education a top priority,
  • a lesson instilled from early years that education is a personal responsibility and not of the state,
  • a student network that fosters a sense of togetherness & common purpose while helping one’s juniors with the help they need.

In other words, these are cultural and family values, not governmental programs. They apply whether students focus on science as we did or on science, sports, media and fashion as today’s students do.

We encourage President Obama and American educational leaders to focus on the cultural aspects of education rather than throwing more money at infrastructure or teacher unions. The reform of education has to begin at home with parents.

Editor’s Note:

If you want to see how similar America and India are, watch the two clips below. The first clip discusses a “crisis” in American education and the second clip discusses a “crisis” in Indian education. Ironically, both are CNBC clips, the first on CNBC USA and the second on CNBC India.

Education Systems – US vs. India

Primary Education in India – Part 1

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