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Comparing an education in India vis-a-vis one in the US

Sumit Gupta
September 1999

Important Note: The notes below apply best to an education in science and engineering (since I am a electrical & computer engr). It does not apply to liberal arts and social science majors. The comparisons are between public school and college systems in both the countries. Also, I am not beating up on any one country, merely trying to discuss the relative merits of each system.

My views have been formed over the last 2 years of being in a PhD program at the University of California and interacting with faculty and graduate and undergraduate students from various universities, besides, of course, reading the newspapers. For example, read this Associated Press story about how 80 % of college seniors do not know basic American history or this Washington Post story which talks about how US seniors rank near the bottom compared to other countries. There are more links at the end of this article.

The basic and most important difference between the two educational systems is the stress on math that is given in India (and Europe, I have been told) at the elementary and high school level itself. Mathematics, in my humble opinion, teaches students logical and rational thinking - it lays the foundation of independent and lateral thinking. Indian schools start teaching maths, like multiplication tables, at the elementary level itself. It is given a lot of importance and is a must for students who plan to do science related study in college. On the other hand, high school in America is so flexible that a lot of students who end up majoring in sciences in college do not take advanced maths and calculus in high school. In general, I found that at the end of their 1st year of university, math majors in the US are equivalent to high school graduates in India in terms of math study. This emphasis on maths in high schools and engineering programs is also the reason why India produces so many "good" software engineers. The analytical thinking taught by mathematics is exactly what is required for software development.

The flexibility of the American education system is its greatest strength and also its greatest weakness. Students can choose among a host of classes and courses in high school and college. This means they can change their major (i.e. field of study) midway through college. This usually means that students in the US receive more exposure to a variety of subjects and hence, are more aware of their career options and opportunities. However, the downside is that they can avoid taking courses which are hard in their major. The computer science students in my department in the US are often criticized for avoiding a lot of important computer science courses by taking easier courses from other departments that fulfill their degree requirements.

On digging deeper into the root of the problem, I realized that the general problem with the American education (high school and college) system is that it is designed so as not to reduce/hurt the self-esteem of any kid in class. So, the system is designed in such a way that nearly everyone can pass the high-school level. This leads to lowering the standards at the high school, which in turn leads to lowering the standards for college entrance too and subsequent college programs. So, college students in, say, computer science, are learning much less and at a much slower pace than the students in computer science programs in India and Europe. This is one of the main reasons why most of the graduate students in computer science in the US are foriegn students; American students are just not able to compete with the quality of foriegn student applicants. College education is becoming common place, with a large proportion of high school graduates opting for it. Universities are under pressure from state governments to take in more students, that is, in turn, leading to reduced quality and lower standards (quality*quantity=constant). Universities are just not able to cope with the quick increases and the corresponding lack of good faculty.

The situation is not improving either ! People kick and scream about the fact that immigrants are taking over the country and the hi-tech jobs, but very few people are examining the reasons why this is happening. Most people are fiercely defensive about the country and refuse to believe that anything can be wrong with the country's education system since they are the technology leaders. However, nobody realizes or admits that this, to a great extent, is due to brain inflow of immigrants from Asia (India included) and Europe.

However, the flip side of the coin is that the Indian education and social systems are very hard on kids and completely ignore their feelings, opinions and ambitions. Kids are pushed to study from the age of 3 and non-performers are treated as dolts and ostracized by parents and society. The preferred choice of learning and teaching is memorizing facts. These facts do help in the long run; the multiplication tables we learned in elementary school keep us ahead of our American peers who need a calculator to find out what 6 times 7 is ! However, the memorization approach to study does not allow and teach kids to think independently. The American school system lays stress on individual ability development and encourages kids to express themselves and their opinions from an early age. As a result, most Americans are way better at getting their point across as compared to people from other countries.

However, again, the downside of this is that students in the US who are more out-spoken do well in class and outside class too only because they are more effective speakers. In the Indian system, individuals are not asked to stand up infront of the whole class and recite something. Instead, the whole class reads books out aloud together in unison. This allows more timid students to participate and overcome their fear of public speaking (since they are actually speaking with a group). Individual speaking is only done with the teacher one-on-one during "oral" examinations, where students are asked questions on the subject matter. Both systems work, however, in the Indian system, just because you can't speak well, does not mean you don't do well in class. But students in the US build more self-confidence and are much better at public speaking. Indian students on the other hand find it hard to learn to speak up or express their opinions (I know those are really broad generalizations). Classroom discussion and asking questions to the professors is encouraged. However, in India, professors expect you to treat them like God and often use their almost dictorial powers against students who upset them in some way.

On a different note, another observation I made, while I was a teaching assistant (TA) for a senior level (3rd-4th year) class of computer science undergraduates, is that their focus in class and attitude towards the course was completely exam-oriented (ofcourse, there were some highly motivated and intelligent students too). They constantly wanted to know if what was being discussed would be on the quiz or the final. Almost no one in the class was attempting to understand concepts. They wanted to learn to solve all the kinds of problems that may appear in the quiz. One may argue that this is a natural thing for students to want. But the fact of the matter is that the American college education system is industry-oriented and hence, is structured so that it produces people who can do a certain type of job efficiently. So it is like a custom-design factory which produces engineers/workers who can do one or two jobs very well but require massive retraining if they have to do something new. In contrast, the education in India (and Europe) is more towards teaching the basic concepts and a broader mass of information. The products of this education system, are therefore capable of taking up several different types of jobs and are not masters of any single job. To do any single job well, they have to go through some amount of training at work.

Another realization that the other TA and myself made was that the students wanted to be "spoon-fed" and told exactly what they needed to do, in order to do well in the course. This mentality of always being told to read something, do some assignment and essentially, being given goal-oriented tasks to perform, works great when students are being trained to work in the industry. And this is an admirable goal - America is built on the strength of these students who can perform what they have been told to do. However, in the long run, these people are not able to adapt quickly to changes in the industry. And they are definitely not prepared to go to graduate school (for a master's or a Phd).

Graduate school is very different from undergraduate school. There is no single book being followed; the reading and writing assignments require paper chases and are ambiguously defined. Also, most courses do not have regular evaluations such as quizes etc. but rely on a final project or term paper - this makes it very hard for one to know how much effort one needs to put into the course. One has to come out of the "spoonfeed me" mode and learn to think independently. This lack of spoonfeeding in graduate school also means that one has to be motivated by themselves - especially in PhD programs. The amount that you get out of your master's or PhD depends on the amount of work you put in (more work also means faster graduation). There is no one motivating you to work harder or checking on your progress regularly. (By the way, my arguments in the Master's versus PhD debate are available here)

Something I would like to stress is that the situation I have described is for public universities in the US. Private liberal arts universities provide much better personalized attention to students besides a broader education. Also, non-science programs are stronger in general in the US due to the fact that they follow regular quarter or semester systems - in India, non-science programs usually have year long schedules with exams at the end of the year, whereas in the US, these programs have regular quizes and exams like all other science programs. On the other hand, most university students in India waste their whole year doing nothing; attendence requirements are very low and usually can be bypassed.

Overall, I feel that the high school system in the US leaves students at a disadvantage when compared to their peers in India, Europe and perhaps the rest of Asia too. Some Americans cannot point out all the states in the United States on a map, let alone know anything about India (read the humorous commonly asked questions about India or watch Jay Leno's street walk).

This leads me to conclude that an Indian education is overall better atleast till the undergraduate degree (for engineering). However, graduate programs in the US are probably far ahead of most other countries due to the critical mass they have and the fact that they attract the best students and faculty from all over the world.

Well, I hope this has been a useful article. Please feel free to contact me at sumitg at gmail.com

Sumit Gupta
http://www.4bearsonline.com/sumitg
(I would like to acknowledge feedback from innumerous people who wrote to me after reading this article; in particular, special thanks to Vijay Ganesh and Angie Mahtaney for making me see the upsides of American education more clearly)

This article was recently quoted by Bloomberg News

Please leave a comment. I really look forward to your experiences and feedback.

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