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Needed thinkers, not servers
Tuesday, 20 November 2018 00:03
M A Siraj, Aug 22, 2013, DHNS:


Firms, factories and workshops today need thinkers, not servers. The days of run-of-the mill graduates are clearly over, observes M A Siraj.

In the recent years, gatherings of final year degree students were organised across Karnataka to guide and motivate them for appearing in competitive examinations.  Prime focus of these meetings was to gauge the analytical skills, common sense, exposure to surrounding environment, general understanding of public affairs and motivate them for civil services.

Some of the following queries to these audiences asking them to say why these sentences are factually wrong were;
* Assam Chief Minister dismissed his Railway Minister from the cabinet following collision of two trains in Silchar.
* The Department of Police, Government of India, will be recruiting 1,000 policemen.
* The floods in Ganga have destroyed crops over one lakh hectare in Punjab.
* Sanchipuram is a city located 250 kms east of Chennai.
* The goods train carrying coal for Linganmakki hydel power station was delayed by four hours.

It was dismaying to find that only a few among the students were able to identify the factual fallacies and others tried to find fault with either the grammar or the syntax. While most students were able to expand SRK or LIC accurately, only a few could do the same with BSNL, NTPC or HUDCO. Not a single reply carried the correct answer when asked to state the difference between ‘meter’ and ‘metre’, ‘sewerage’ and ‘drainage’, ‘hydel’ and ‘thermal’, ‘cheque’ and ‘draft’, ‘savings account’ and ‘current account’.


Still fewer were willing to answer questions such as “Why ambulances display their alphabets in reverse order?” or “Can there ever be an English calendar month without a full moon?” or “Why larger premises with gardens and grass courts lay pipes over a drain at their entrances?”

Reasons were obvious soon. Most students could not name the title of a book other than their textbooks that they would have read although several of them asserted that they did read some books. Most gazes were downcast when asked how many hours they logged in their college libraries. There were only a couple of hands in a gathering ranging from 40 to 60 that went up when asked if they looked at /or read the newspapers before they left their homes every morning.

The deficiency in understanding the questions does not owe itself completely to the reasons just cited. Switch over from regional language to English medium of instruction, underprivileged social background, burden of syllabus, time consumed in commuting to the campuses and engagement with electronic gadgets such as cell phones, Facebook, movies, digital cameras and musical instruments are some of the major factors to be blamed for their understanding deficit.

The questions are not such that a general city dweller or an average student from a high school cannot answer correctly. Even a cursory imagination of India’s map should be enough to convince that there cannot be any city east of Chennai or a vague understanding of the country’s federal structure is enough to impress that States do not afford to run railways and policing is not a federal subject.  Similarly, only those who have a basic understanding of hydel and thermal power can point out the folly of carrying coal to a hydel station.  

What emerges very clearly is that students, barring those from the well-heeled families in the cities, do not read or get to read anything beyond their textbooks. And whatever they read is read by way of rote learning which is exam-oriented.  Writing skills do proceed further than the exam answer sheets. Project reports are an apology contrived through cut and paste of excerpts from various websites made easily accessible by the Internet. Articulation is abysmal. Marks are thought to be the ultimate criterion for intelligence.

But employers are not convinced. They look for analytical skills, high degree of articulation which should allow workers to collaborate with each other on the shop or office floor and creative minds that come up with solutions rather than elaborating on problems.

Nature of pedagogy these days is however to be blamed in a major way for much of these deficiencies. Students are hardly ever asked to apply their knowledge to different context, the only way to trigger the spirit of inquiry. Kids are asked to solve stereotype sums while the same could be framed in myriad ways to fire the imagination.  Most such students have never been encouraged to pore over maps and atlases, reach for the dictionary for words beyond their ken or asked to refer to books beyond their syllabus.

We face the challenge of making students not only employable but citizens, who could live, work and contribute to a nation which has humongous diversity and a huge backlog of development. A student population that lacks the understanding of basic facts will not measure up to these challenges. Cramming the lessons, passing the exams and producing the degrees do not suffice today. 

The students should be constantly urged to walk a few extra miles on the trajectory of knowledge. Reading of books, keeping a constant company with newspapers, reading the government office signboards while commuting to colleges, will in itself provide some modicum of knowledge necessary to feel those gaps that were evident in the question and answer sessions. The students must be impressed that a day without reading a newspaper would set them back in the race for jobs that are looking for knowledgeable young men and women who can think and decide rather than those who merely hear and carry out orders. Jobs that are routine in nature are being reserved for computers. The firms, factories and workshops today need thinkers, not servers. The days of the run-of-the mill graduates are clearly over.