Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Future History and Education

History remains one of the least predictable domains of human endeavor, but unencumbered by an formal knowledge we leap into the breach where the wise fear to tread. The future powers of the world are widely speculated to be China and India, and why not? They have been the most populous nations for centuries and have often been in the forefront of invention and culture.

China has already secured a place as a great power, but India seems much more problematic. China's old civilization was thoroughly shattered by the Communist revolution, and that destruction may have prepared it better to accept the revolutionary implications of modernity. It also appears that totalitarian rule makes it possible to introduce changes that a democratic society will not tolerate. Moreover, China has a long history of political unity that India cannot match, and the utter dominance of the Han imposes a kind of ethnic and cultural unity.

I won't venture to guess how much India is held back by the remanents of cultural legacies like the caste system, but one problem or symptom seems to be the continuing failures of the Indian educational system. India has managed to produced a highly educated elite while most are left behind.

PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, assesses the educational attainments of 15 year olds in industrialized countries. Via Marginal Revolution, we have this WSJ report by Prashabnt K. Nanda on India's performance in its first outing in the PISA.

New Delhi: A global study of learning standards in 74 countries has ranked India all but at the bottom, sounding a wake-up call for the country’s education system. China came out on top.

It was the first time that India participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), coordinated by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). India’s participation was in a pilot project, confined to schools from Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh
...
To be sure, there are some reservations about the findings of the study. Such comparisons may not be fair as they are not between equals, says Manish Sabharwal, chief executive officer of human resources training and placement firm Teamlease Services Pvt. Ltd.

Yet, he argued, it does serve as a timely warning.

“Industries are already facing a problem because of poor quality (of graduates),” Sabharwal said. “What we need to do is repair and prepare. Repair by imparting skill training and prepare by improving the school system, which is the main gateway.”

In Tamil Nadu, only 17% of students were estimated to possess proficiency in reading that is at or above the baseline needed to be effective and productive in life. In Himachal Pradesh, this level is 11%.

The United States fares much better in these studies, but falls far short of the elite, ranking just 15th in reading and falling to 21st in science and a dismal 24th in mathematics. Those who fail to upgrade their infrastructure, both physical and intellectual, are poorly placed for the future competition.