Bhargava discussed a plethora of issues ranging from the importance of early childhood education to the need for a borderless world of ideas with Infosys founder NR Narayana Murthy. Edited Excerpts:
Murthy: Most youngsters are scared of mathematics. I have met a few undergraduates at Princeton who rave about your course on the mathematics of card tricks…
Bhargava: I feel all of mathematics is recreational. You have to see the fun of what you are doing to really become passionate about it. For me, mathematics is always fun. Unfortunately, usual mathematics curriculum doesn’t do too much of that and that is the reason youngsters are scared of that. Teaching mathematics in puzzle, in magic, in music — that helps you see the fun side.
Murthy: Why has Indian education not kept pace with global leaders in science and mathematics?
Bhargava: One thing missing in Indian education is (freedom) for teachers to innovate, to learn the latest and to update their curriculum. Often teachers are just given a book and (told to) teach page by page. Such autonomy is there in other countries … for teachers to innovate, be creative and learn the latest. Unfortunately, it is not there in the system in India, which requires cultural change.
Murthy: You took a year off from Princeton to work on a committee in designing a modern education system for Indian schools and colleges. Tell us the major suggestions:
Bhargava: One of the things I have already mentioned is changing the culture of promotions, salary increase and merit-based hiring. Institutional architecture has to be designed to enable that cultural shift. Kids get interested in science or whatever their passion is, very early. The Indian education system at the moment does not give too much attention until Grade 1. But the fact is that 85% of a child’s brain development happens before the age of six. One really has to stimulate children’s mind even before the age of six. For families that are well-to-do, that kind of stimulation happens automatically. That kind of cognitive stimulation does not happen in poorer families and where both parents are working. So, when they enter Grade 1, they are already behind the rest of the class. Provision for early childhood education is very important.
(There is a need for) more multidisciplinary education. Why are we putting people in silos in 8th, 9th grade? Even for their board exams they have to go for either arts or science. In college, if they are doing engineering, they are only doing engineering. They don’t get any stimulation on the other side of the brain. I think this is something that really has to change.
This actually was the ancient Indian tradition of holistic education and studying science through arts and arts through science. Breaking silos is going to be very important in coming years.
ET: India has not been able to attract world-class faculty to spend a longer time here…
Bhargava: With more faculty coming here and seeing the ecosystem and building relationships with researchers they will be motivated. Places like Ashoka University, Azim Premji University, these kinds of multidisciplinary institutions where faculty have that autonomy to teach how they like, are getting a lot of people to come back.
ET: There is concern that artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies will exacerbate the problem of unemployment…
Murthy: I don’t think so. As long as the human brain is utilised to bring in innovation and frees more people from drudgery, I believe these technologies will add value. I remember in the 70s in the UK, there used to be huge argument against computerisation. Later on, in the 80s against ATMs, but what both computerised systems and ATMs did was to improve human productivity, improve comfort and convenience for customers. The key is to use these technologies in areas that are assistive, we need to make human beings do more important tasks
ET: We see imaginary walls being erected by governments restricting people and ideas. Do you think this will stop exchange of ideas at the academic level?
Bhargava: I very much hope that academics will remain free to work with academicians across countries. It is very important for all countries to ensure that. The same with artists, the same with all kinds of ideas. Free exchange of ideas is what allows humanity to progress and science to progress.