India must emphasize excellence to reverse slide
by N S Rajaram on 19 Jan 2017 1 Comment
Indians are slipping badly in crucial fields like science and mathematics. This is the result of pandering to weakness instead of encouraging excellence. India needs achievers as leaders and role models, not false heroes with false values, says Navaratna Rajaram


If current trends persist India is on the way to becoming a nation of non-achievers and intellectual weaklings. This is the message of recent reports that show India trailing other developing nations like China in crucial areas like science and educational attainment. Worse, political parties and the media are glamorizing persons of no achievement or even character as national role models for the youth while heaping criticism on high achievers on grounds of prejudice and ideology.


Citing the non-partisan study by Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), a wing of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), The Economic Times reported: “Fifteen-year-old Indians who were put, for the first time, on a global stage stood second to last.” 


The survey is based on two-hour tests that half a million students are put through. According to the same report, “China’s Shanghai province, which participated in PISA for the first time, scored the highest in reading. It also topped the charts in mathematics and science. “More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15 year olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%,” noted the analysis.


There is worse news for India. “The states of Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh, showpieces for education and development, were selected by the central government to participate in PISA, but their test results were damning. 15-yr-old Indians came 200 points behind global topper. … In math, considered India’s strong point, they finished second and third to last, beating only Kyrgyzstan.”


When this stark reality stares us in the face, the claim of some ‘nationalist’ leaders that this will be ‘India’s Century’ sounds hollow. It is more important to understand what brought the country to this pass than engage in boastful fantasy. As seen by this writer, an educator for forty years, it is the price India is paying for half a century of neglect of educational and research excellence in pursuit of social and political agendas. Worse, it has resulted in a climate in which high achievers are forced to leave the country while the intellectual space is occupied by people more skilled at courting and pleasing political masters than achieving and contributing anything of substance.


The curious thing is that this damning report which should be of the greatest concern to all concerned should have received little notice either by the media or the political class, or even intellectuals. Political leaders and their media followers are busy dishing out trivia like Rahul Gandhi’s staying in Dalit homes (greatly to their inconvenience) and Oprah Winfrey gossiping with TV journalists.


Encourage excellence, not perpetual inferiority


The distinguishing quality of constructive leaders is they make their followers feel strong: they appeal to strength rather than weakness of individuals. But the leadership in India since Independence has taken the opposite route. They managed to convince different segments of society that they are weak and helpless and have no future without political protection. This eventually evolved into what we now call vote bank politics. Its goal is not to uplift the weak but keep themselves in power by creating a sense of weakness and vulnerability in selected segments of society. This inevitably creates envy and resentment. In fact this vote bank politics should be called the politics of envy.


This has now seeped into education, with students and even faculty positions being filled with unqualified people in the name of ‘reservations’. There is no denying that there are segments of population that have suffered historic wrongs and need help. But granting reservations is not the way to do it. Reservation acts as a disincentive to achievement by guarantying reward without regard to quality or achievement. Further, they damage self-esteem by making the individual feel inferior.


What is needed is an alternative to reservation to build people’s confidence as well as uplift their skills. The United States has introduced ‘affirmative action’ to help disadvantaged people without undermining excellence. American leaders, especially in education and business recognize that respect for excellence in performance is what draws talented people into their country. India’s policies on the other hand have the effect of driving away talented people.


Viewed superficially, affirmative action may look like India’s reservation system, but the reality is different. My experience teaching at a couple of America’s leading institutions taught me the goal of affirmative action is really to build up the skills and the confidence of disadvantaged students. So, at these institutions we emphasized extra tuition and other support activities to bring up unprepared students to the level of other students. We didn’t always succeed but quite a few benefited from it. India simply gives reservations and then leaves them to their fate.


Vivekananda on education: build on strength


Indian thinkers have not been blind to the idea of building strength through proper education. Swami Vivekananda had profound insight into the needs of national education. Probably the greatest insight that he brought to the problem was the recognition that education must focus on strength, which alone builds self-confidence. This is the exact opposite of Macaulay’s vision, which was to make Indians weak and dependent on the West by making them feel inferior. Vivekananda would have none of it. For him the purpose of education was to create strong and independent men and women who in turn would create a strong society and a strong nation. He wanted everyone to be physically, mentally, and above all spiritually strong. His follower Sister Christine put it this way:


“He refused to solve our problem for us. Principles he laid down, but we ourselves must find the application. He encouraged no spineless dependence upon him in any form, no bid for sympathy. “Stand upon your own feet. You have the power within you!” he thundered. His whole purpose was not to make things easy for us, but to teach us how to develop our innate strength. “Strength! Strength!” He cried, “I preach nothing but strength…”


For this reason he called education ‘man-making’, though by ‘man’ he meant a spiritually strong human being rather than a mere male. (In Sanskrit, a purusha is one who has paurusha— heroic quality.) Again in the words of Sister Christine:


“From men he demanded manliness and from women the corresponding quality for which there is no word. Whatever it is, it is the opposite of self-pity, the enemy of weakness and indulgence. This attitude had the effect of a tonic. Something long dormant was aroused and with it came strength of freedom… We were taught to think things through, to reject the false and hold to the true fearlessly. In this process much that had seemed worthwhile and of value was cast aside. Perhaps our purposes and our aims had been small and scattered. In time we learnt to lift them into a higher purer region, and to unite all these little aims into one great aim, the goal of which is the real purpose of life, for which we come to this earth again and again.”


This is what the goal of education should be - not to produce emotional and spiritual weaklings that throng the courts of anyone who has a few crumbs to throw from the table. It is worth recalling what the great historian Edward Gibbon said, speaking of the fall of the Greeks to the Romans:

“Greeks valued security more than freedom. In the end they lost both - security and freedom.” This is what is happening with the courtiers who are clinging desperately to their colonial umbilical cord - from Sonia Gandhi’s court to the few crumbs thrown at them by Western institutions. They have sold their independence for the sake of security, but they will end up losing both. Worse, seen as the elite, they have brought national life down to their own level and thinking.


It is time that India, her educational system in particular, came out of this spiritual prison and made itself a proud and free nation. To achieve this goal, we have before us the teachings and example of intellectual warriors like Sri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda. As Sister Nivedita wrote of the presence of Vivekananda before the great Chicago Parliament of Religions: “Monk, they called him, not unwarrantably, but warrior monk he was, and the first impression was the warrior rather than the monk, …and his figure was instinct with pride,…”


Our goal should be strength through excellence, not patronage through pity. But this debilitating culture that values birth, be it as caste or ‘dynasty’, over achievement is what dominates the national scene today. This has deprived the nation of true heroes as role models.


Krishna’s message: excellence creates role models


Everyone knows, or should know Krishna’s famous teaching to Arjuna in the Gita: “Your right is to your duty, never ever to its fruits. Let not the fruits of (your labor) distract you from the discharge of your duties, not let them allow you to desist from performing your duty.” What is not sufficiently recognized is that this is a formula for excellence at the highest level.


This means that a highly accomplished person (like Arjuna) should set his sights high and strive for more than success - pursuing excellence for its own sake. Working for profit, though not inherently wrong, is unworthy of a great man like Arjuna. This is made explicit in the succeeding shlokas. “Absorbed in yoga and abandoning self-interest, occupy yourself in performing your duty (to the best of your ability). Keeping an equable state of mind while holding success and failure the same - this state is called yoga.”


This defines yoga as pursuit of excellence, with focus on the task rather than the result, undisturbed by the prospect of success and failure. It means not allowing the fear of failure to make one retreat from a challenging task. Krishna next points out that even the act itself is inferior to this perfectionist attitude that one brings to its performance. In Krishna’s words, “Those motivated by fruits alone are to be pitied.” In the next shloka (50) Krishna points out how this leads to excellence.


Krishna’s exact words (in Sanskrit) are: tasmad yogaya yujyasva yogah karmasu kausalam, meaning, “Act with this singleness of purpose, for this yoga leads to excellence.” The last phrase karmasu kausalam means excellence in performance. By this Krishna identifies yoga with pursuit of excellence.


At the time of the Mahabharata War, when Krishna acted as the advisor to the Pandavas, he had achieved everything - wealth, power and fame; he had no desire for position. Yet he saw his responsibility as an example that others would seek to follow. This was his message to Arjuna when he said, “You see Arjuna, there is nothing in the three worlds that I need or want. Yet I never cease acting. If I stop acting, others will follow me and I will be the cause of degeneracy in the world. For, as leaders do, so will others follow.”


In short, Krishna was telling Arjuna that as a leader he had to show that he should aim to be a worthy role model to the world. And this was to be through ‘excellence in action’ (karmasu kaushalam) and not rhetoric. Deeds always speak louder than words.


False heroes by ‘reservation for the privileged’


Young people need role models. I was fortunate in growing up in an era when national leaders represented values like honesty, sense of sacrifice and service to the nation. Also, many of them grew up in poverty but rose through the dint of talent and hard work. Two of the most inspiring heroes of that era were Sardar Patel and Dr B.R. Ambedkar. Both rose from humble origins to reach highest standards of achievement to become national icons.


Reservations act in reverse also, especially in India - with those of privileged birth or the right color of skin claiming leadership as a birthright and being held up as role models regardless of achievement. This attitude, which should be repugnant to every self-respecting person, and an insult to one’s intelligence, is the situation that prevails in Indian politics today.


Rahul Gandhi is constantly held up as a ‘leader’ and a role model because of his ‘youth’. At 45, he is more middle aged than young, unless we regard him as a 45 year-old child prodigy about to blossom. (Swami Vivekananda was 39 when he died.) Rahul Gandhi’s achievement consists of being a member of the ‘dynasty’ or privilege of birth. The message seems to be - your character and achievement mean nothing, only the right parentage matters.


Let us compare this youthful dynastic warrior with an authentic Indian hero, Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar. Born into an impoverished Dalit family, he was an exceptionally gifted student who went on to “earn law degrees and multiple doctorates for his study and research in law, economics and political science from Columbia University and the London School of Economics.” All this before he was thirty! He didn’t just sit on his laurels. He went on to become an Indian jurist, political leader, philosopher, anthropologist, historian, orator, economist, editor. He was also the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Indian Constitution.


How is that for a role model? But going by the Rahul Gandhi criterion, Ambedkar was unfit for high office. Here is another.


Every year America celebrates the birth anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King, a true American hero. Dr. King like Ambedkar dedicated his life to help the oppressed. How old was he when he fell to an assassin’s bullet? Thirty-nine.


Where can one find words more inspiring than his famous “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” uttered by the 34 year-old Martin Luther King?


And who was Dr King’s hero? Gandhi - the Mahatma, not the ‘youthful’ pseudo-icon whose followers stand this noble message on its head by propping up a mama’s boy as hero and role model to the youth because of his privileged birth.

(Visit to hear the inspiring words in Dr King’s own deep and resonant bass.)


Unless reversed by placing excellence and achievement in place, these false values (and heroes) will take India sliding into the cesspool of non-achievement. The way to reverse it is by honoring true heroes for their achievement and pursuit of excellence. Dynasty or privilege is never a substitute for excellence. It becomes an obscenity when held up as a qualification to be admired. 

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