Back when I was in school, which would be around 3 years back, I remember this line being repeated in almost every class: ‘Write the “Given”‘. No, it wasn’t spoken to me by a mentor-figure, nor does it have any philosophical implications. The case is that, whenever we were solving any numerical problems in physics (I think “numerical problems” is the local colloquial language, it simply means the problems in which you were supposed to do calculations, use the various formulae in a more practical scenario), or chemistry or any other subject, we used to (or were supposed to) follow a particular format in which we used to first write the data that was a part of the question. This was labelled in a coloumn called ‘Given’. So, I’d write something like, ‘Given: velocity (v = 10 m/s, acceleration (a) = 4 m/s2, distance (s) = 12 m, time (t) = ?’. And then I go ahead with the calculation and the quest of finding out whatever it is I’m trying to find out.
The thing here is that, every step of the answer has a certain amount of marks allotted to it. Get that step right and you’ll get marks for it. So, even the ‘Given’ section had marks allotted to it. So if you would just write the variables directly from the question alongwith their values, you get marks for it. Even if you don’t write anything else, no calculations, not even a hint so as to how to proceed with the problem, you would get whatever few marks were there for the ‘Given’ section. And I must tell you, it was easily atleast 10-20% of the marks that should be given for a complete solution (In a 5 mark question, you would get 1/2 or even 1 mark for writing the ‘Given’). So our teachers always used to tell us, even if you don’t know how to solve the problem, or how to proceed with it, just ‘Write the “Given”‘, so that you don’t end up getting a complete zero for the problem. Sometimes, which was actually quite a lot of times, there were students who really used to struggle with some weird formulae, end up with an equation no one had seen before and eventually get the problem wrong. If you would glance at their ‘struggle’ though, what you would see is sheer ingenuity. The things I’ve seen my friends do, the way they have twisted the entire equation, the way they have played with the variables, is quite often amazing. Sometimes, students even try “hacks”. Sometimes, you know the answer you have to arrive at. For example, if the question is “Prove that f(x) simplifies to g(x)”. So when you start distilling f(x), you know where you have to get to. These hacks are again a fun thing to study and look at. From silly things like, changing the equation in between hoping the corrector wouldn’t notice, to completely modifying the entire equation (mathematically legally) and arriving at something altogether different. I wouldn’t go as far to say that “every time” I saw something like this I was completely filled with awe. But yeah, an occasional masterpiece always used to come up after every exam. Sometimes students used to get it right also, but whenever they were wrong, it was rarely a fault in the concept. It was usually a small mistake, like writing the wrong co-effecient in between lines or a calculation error or something, which was an actually acceptable consequence of high brain activity in a pretty tense situation. When trying the same approach in a much more relaxed environment, the answers were arrived at with little or no trouble. However, in the end, the student didn’t get full marks because not only was his/her answer “wrong”, but he/she was, apparently, ‘heading in the wrong direction’. Almost every time I’ve seen something that is a result of such pure ingenuity, I have seen them getting just 1 mark out of the 5. And that too only for ‘writing the “Given”‘. Do the problem right, get everything right, even do some amazing symbol flipping, but if you forget to ‘Write the “Given”‘, you get only 4 out of 5.
The issue here is clearly that no-brainer activities are being awarded and some real talent is being overlooked, but I am not really interested in talking about it. A lot of newspapers, magazines and talks have already covered that. The point here is that, we, as students all throughout have been taught to game the system. The system says, give marks for “Given”, so there you go. Just write something an grab that one mark you can get. Although there have been teachers you have not only appreciated the ingenuity I mentioned before, but even awarded it reasonably, and even they were against the idea of ‘giving marks for “Given”‘, they had to. If I write “Given”, I am entitled to those marks, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Now, that’s the system, that’s in place. Don’t protest, don’t make an issue, just game the system for now, and we will do wonders later.
This article actually popped up in my mind after reading Thomas Friedman’s articles, Do believe the hype and It’s morning in India in the NY post. In ‘Do believe the hype’, he talks about EKO finance, a company which creates a secure money transfer system for one of the poorest section of India. Again an idea that is a result of ingenuity, one could also ponder that this scheme monetizes on a very poor section of the society, who can’t even provide for themselves the very basic needs of livelihood. The thing in India is (I am from India, so I would know), monetization does not relate directly to ‘exploitation’. And by that, I don’t mean to say that, we’re all good people who take care of each other. Trust me, we are mostly far from that. But the mindset here is that no one accuses them of monetizing, or ‘exploiting’ the poor people. There is no social impedement when it comes to making a livelihood as long as it is legal and moral. The point here is that EKO ‘made it work’ and that is what drives this nation. “Making things work”. We don’t really need a lot of infrstructure to handle things on an everyday basis, a lot of work in India is still done on an ad-hoc basis. A lot of transactions happen just by one’s word.
Allow me to quote an incident that happened with my sister. She and her husband were stationed out of the nation (while still having Indian citizenship) in a developed country (pardon me for not naming the country, because I absolutely do not want the reader to have any bias or reason to believe that I’m comparing my nation against theirs). While there, my sister gave birth to my adorable neice and they were planned a visit to India to meet family and friends and mostly for the birth ceremony of the newborn. While at the airport, they were told that the cradle would not be allowed as hand baggage and neither could they put it in the cargo (I don’t remember for what reason), so they must allow the airport staff to send it to their home. After generating a receipt for the ‘package’ and taking their signatures, and all other credentials, the package was on its way. Or was it? Months passed and they never received it. They had to go through a lot of people and telephone calls to finally track back the cradle and get it back.
While flying back from Mumbai, they were greeted with same situation. A man, in a typical khadi dress, took out a piece of paper from his front pocket and scribbled their name and address on it and told them that the package would reach their homes. The piece of paper was not from a clip board, or a notepad. There was no proper receipt, no guarantee, no tracking numbers. Just one piece of paper with a complete stranger. And three days later, the cradle was delivered to their home.
The point here is not the failure in the former case. I would say they were just unlucky and it happens occasionally. My point here is that without any of the technology or infrastructure as in the former case, the man at the Mumbai airport managed to get the cradle to their home. Now such a system ain’t bullet proof and it is obviously prone to failures. But my only point is, we Indians are now used to a lack of infrastructre. And at the same time we hve faced the demands in terms of performance and service owing to an economic boom. We have found out ways to work it through, and this is one of the points I would like to add to Mr. Friedman’s 2 point-list in ‘It’s morning in India’: ‘Making it work’. I rarely understand social sciences, so I wouldn’t say this is a point where India leads over China or anything. It’s just that, it’s amazing at times the things people pull off. Even in urban areas, there is always a gap between desire and possession. And people overcome that gap (which mostly is not monetary, but rather the result of inadequate supply) in various ways. Gaming the system and just making it work.
Coming back to the whole “school” scenario, this is not a rant about the educational system. The Educational system here is mostly horrible, does not encourage new ideas, overlooks talents… to name a few problems. I could go on and on since I face these problems on a daily basis. The thing here is, even though talent is ‘overlooked’, it is not ‘supressed’. We don’t see things as a ‘part’ of life, we see it as stages of life that we must live through. We do not have a very strong emotional attachment to any such ‘stage’. Get through college, if it means slogging, slog it through. Accept the system and then work through it for your own benefit. This also explains the widespread corruption, because we accept corruption just as easily.
I can count on my finger tips the number of people who actually take pride in being an ‘engineer’. I can’t say about other fields, since I’m mostly not aware, but the truth is on an average, we do lack a lot of driving passion. People often criticize the people who finish their B. Tech. (equivalent of B.E.) and then eventually take up a job in some company’s upper management. Engineering teaches one to think systematically, gives one the edge of understanding everything as a huge system. This method of working can be used anywhere and it does make a difference. It’s not about engineering, it’s just about any knowledge can be put to good use. And we can do it, because that’s what we’ve seen since a long time.
Inadequacy is a huge problem here. Supply is not always enough for the vast population that this country houses. This is what has always fuelled people to find a way out. To find a way to bridge that gap. Just making it work. By gaming the system, by finding a way out, by writing the “Given”.