Archive for category Globalization

An Indian perspective after watching “Waiting for Superman”

The following post was published by the Coppell Gifted Association at:

http://coppellgifted.org/2011/05/01/members-corner-an-indian-perspective-after-watching-waiting-for-superman/

What led me to see this movie was the catchy title – Superman comics were highly popular in India when I was growing up and my brothers and I used to have endless debates as to who was stronger, Superman, the Phantom or Tarzan and which one we needed on our side to win any battle!  So I could definitely relate to an African-American school administrator who grew up in the projects talking about, as a child, “Waiting for Superman” to come and save the broken school system in his neighborhood and then being heart broken when he was told by his mother that Superman was not real!  The gist of the movie is that it is you and I who need to do our bit to fix the US school system – Superman is not going to show up to do this job!!

The sentence that resonates for me is a statement made in the movie that “till the 70s, the USA had the best public school system in the world” and on the screen flashed pictures of all the luminaries in all walks of life that had graduated from the public school system and all the great strides made in the US in the fields of science, math and engineering during that period.

The next thing that struck me, which is something that I mentioned in my review of “2 million minutes” (scenes from which were used in this movie), is the fact that in those days, only around the top 20% of the students graduating from High School went on to college (to become CEOs, doctors, engineers, etc), the next 40% went on to vocational schools (to get jobs as computer operators, etc) and the bottom 40% just went to good jobs in manufacturing, services, etc.  (This is exactly what we in India thought was a great thing – that kids who had no interest in higher learning were not being forced to go to college just to collect a piece of paper to improve their job prospects).

The problem is that the US economy (which is now tied way more tightly into the global economy) is no longer the same.  High unemployment on the one hand exists side by side with lack of qualified employees to fill hundreds of thousands of jobs available in areas like high tech (a point made in this movie).

The film also makes the point that when Nixon opened the door to China in the 70s, American businesses were salivating over the prospect of being able to sell every Chinese a toothbrush (for example), which meant American businesses could sell a billion additional toothbrushes, not realizing that, in due course, it would be the Chinese who would be selling toothbrushes to the US putting US manufacturers out of business!

The film focuses on the worst performing public schools in the US and the (lack of) prospects for children graduating (or dropping) out of such schools.  Also, the whole idea of the lottery system to assign children to better schools (with the children, sitting at the lottery drawing, watching with devastated faces as if their world had come to an end at such an early age, when they did not get picked) seemed like a travesty to me.  Why not just have some kind of entrance test where the children at least get a sense (which might influence their entire outlook on life) that they can get somewhere due to their own efforts and abilities rather than pure luck?

Looking at this topic from the perspective of someone who grew up in India, when I look at these (so-called) worst schools, almost every one of them looks better than some of the (what we considered) “better” schools in India.  For example, the school I went to from KG to 6th grade was located on top of a busy railway station with heavy and noisy traffic just outside of the school gates.  And yet, this was a “better” school for which my father stood in line overnight to get me admission there because it was run by Christian missionaries who had a reputation for imparting a solid education (meaning it had great teachers) and strict discipline (including corporal punishment, administered even by the Principal or the Head Master, in special circumstances!).

And there were schools on top of movie theaters, schools with broken windows and hardly any facilities for learning, etc and yet students from these schools have made it big both in India and, in fact, many have come to the US and done well here as well.

So how come US students (with access to comparably much better facilities even in their “worst” schools compared to their Indian counterparts) not fare better than Indian students coming from schools with practically no facilities?

In my opinion, the answer is just two factors – “Great Teachers” and “Strong Families”. 

Motivated students (with parents) who believed that only education could pull them out from their poor and lower middle class life style (example: I grew up in an apartment with just one single room and a kitchen with parents and 4 siblings sharing this space resulting in all the kids having a burning desire to learn, succeed and reach a better standard of living, which we all accomplished).  So when I see the so-called “poor” people in the US (depicted in this movie), probably living on Government dole, having relatively nice apartments, driving decent cars and with no shortage of basics like food, it makes me wonder what would motivate kids from such families to stay in school and get a decent education, especially if the family is broken, with no tradition of higher learning.

 When it comes to the topic of having great teachers, what strikes me in this movie is the implication (which could be an overgeneralization) that in the US, Teacher’s Unions have such a stranglehold over the system that even an innovative administrator like Michelle Rhee (trying to reform the DC school system) is not able to push through a reasonable scheme that will reward better performing teachers (while not even threatening the jobs of poor performing teachers).

 In India, teachers (whatever they are teaching) are supposed to be treated with utmost reverence (because of the Indian tradition which teaches, in the order of respect, it is “Mata, Pita, Guru, Daivam” – meaning “Mother, Father, Teacher, God”), that is, teachers are supposed to be respected more than even God!  And correspondingly, it is expected that for teachers (for whom earning money should be their lowest priority), nothing should be more important than sending out learned kids into the world.

 From what I saw in this movie, the implication that many (but this again could be an overgeneralization) teachers in the US are just like any other vested interest protecting their rights and jobs with scant regard for the quality of education they are providing to their students and having least interest in the future prospects of their students.

Themovie’s main thrust appears to be that till the matter of eliminating poor teachers and rewarding the good ones is addressed, however much money is poured into school education by the US Government (where a lot more money is available to expend compared to relatively impoverished places like India), nothing substantial is going to change. 

However, to conclude on an optimistic note, the movie depicts several people who are cognizant of the problems facing the school system in the US and who are coming up with innovative solutions (like the Kipp schools) and, in my opinion, in due course, sufficient course corrections will take place making most US schools once more the citadels of learning (accessible to children, from all strata of society, who are motivated to learn) that would again become be the envy of the world.

 

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“2 Million Minutes” – Movie Review

The following post was published by the Coppell Gifted Association at:

http://coppellgifted.org/2011/03/14/2-million-minutes-review/

After watching all 3 videos – the first being the final movie – the other two, detailed versions of the scene in India and China which serve as input to the final movie, a couple of things came to mind right away. 

First of all, growing up in India and going to school there (where everyone was expected to go to college, whether one had any interest in higher education or not, making most colleges just degree mills), my impression of US schools were that they provided enough vocational oriented education that only the cream of the crop actually needed to go to college – all others would get reasonably high paying jobs with just a high school education. 

Fast forward to 1984 when I first set foot on US soil and visited relatives in Akron, Ohio (long time settled in the US at that time) during the Thanksgiving holiday.  Over the weekend, the lady of the house told me that “Indians were way smarter than Americans”.  My immediate response was “Aren’t you now an American?”  The problem I saw with her reasoning was that she was comparing Indians in America (who were mostly those who had come here to pursue higher education and were essentially the cream of the crop) with the local gas station attendant types (who had only graduated high school) – obviously not an apples to apples comparison! 

Between 1984 and now, to my knowledge, I do not believe American schools have deteriorated that rapidly but they may have stayed pretty much unchanged, that is, providing students an “all round education” (as the American kids in this movie say) which meant that academics were only one of the many things in which the students were expected to expend their time during their tenure in school. 

The difference now is that times have changed.  Manufacturing jobs of the past, for which a high school education would suffice to make a good living, are fast disappearing in the US.  Service jobs that have replaced them do not result in equivalent compensation and these too get outsourced every day.  And someone with just a high school education might end up with little prospects. 

But despite all this, the average American High School is definitely vastly superior to an Indian (and possibly Chinese) school in terms of facilities, funding, etc.  What the movie has done is to compare a public school in Indiana (and schools of that standard would be available to most US residents, except those living in impoverished areas like inner-cities) with an elite school in India (and possibly China), the type of school which is available to a very small sliver of the Indian (and possibly Chinese) population.

 If you look at it in terms of numbers, in my estimation, less than 10% of the population of India (which would be around 110 million people) would have an opportunity to go to schools of the caliber represented in the movie while the remaining 1.1 billion people only have mediocre to substandard schooling available to them.  But then there are plenty of manufacturing and menial type jobs now available in India and China (which do not require higher education) to cater to this segment of the population .

In contrast, I would say that 90% of the US population (which would be around 270 million) would have the opportunity to schools which are not too different from the Indiana school depicted in this movie. These students would always have an opportunity to go on to a reasonable college education (since these school have all the facilities like excellent libraries, labs, etc), if academics were sufficiently emphasized during their school years.

To conclude, I would state that the average American student still has way better schooling facilities and opportunities to get a quality education compared to Indian or Chinese students – it is just that the curriculum has to be retooled to adapt to changing times (which I believe is already taking place).  In due course, America with its dynamic and diverse population will eventually out-compete both China and India. 

So, in my opinion, the dire predictions of this movie regarding the competitiveness of American students compared to their Indian and Chinese counterparts are way off the mark.

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The Universal Appeal of Avatar …

Avatar - the movie

Avatar - the movie

Yesterday was not a good day for James Cameron.  His highest grossing, block buster movie, Avatar, was beaten to the Oscars by his ex-wife’s movie, The Hurt Locker.  As Jay Leno had predicted, he will get see these Oscars only on Wednesday evenings and every other weekend!

Last year’s big Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire brought a gritty piece of India to the world audience. Avatar (meaning “reincarnation” in Sanskrit), on the other hand, is based on a concept of having multiple births (which is familiar to most Indians), a word that has now been adopted into the English language.

The best known Avatars for Hindus are those of Vishnu (the God of Maintenance) whose 10 Avatars (known as Dasavatars, see below) include well known ones like Rama and Krishna.

10 Avatars of Vishnu (dasavataram)

10 Avatars of Vishnu (dasavataram)

 

 

Ever since I saw the movie Avatar (in 3D), I have been pondering about the rationale for the popularity of this movie (other than the obvious entertainment value) all over the world.

One could understand its universal appeal because of the fantastic special effects but more than that, I believe everyone read into the movie whatever they wanted to, based on their own cultural values and political beliefs.

For example, the environmentalists could see this as promoting their cause of conservation.

Devout Hindus could see this as affirmation of their beliefs.  For example, an uncle of mine related the following story after seeing the movie.

The transfer of soul from one body to the other (Parakaya Pravesam) is not new to the Hindu thoughts. Adi Sankara was involved in an intelectual argument (known as Tharkasastra) with Mandana Misra at Varanasi (Benaras). Mandana Misra was a married person and an erudite scholar in Meemamsa,a science of Vedanta. He was on self immolation bid in his last stage of life,covered in a heap of rice husk,just lighted at the bottom.The fire was gradually spreading from the bottom when the argument was proceeding. At one stage when he found that he could not win over Adi Sankara in argument, said that Adisankara was an unmarried Sanyasi and that he had no experience as a Grahastha (married person) to argue on grahasth’s life. At the sametime the king of Benaras had just passed away and his body was lying in state.Adi Sankara left his own body and entered the dead king’s body.When the queen was delighted to see the king alive,Adi Sankara told her the true story to her surprise. It was just to qualify himself as a Grahastha he had performed the act and discussed with her certain relevant topics and then re-entered his own body and continued his arguments with Mandana Mishra,who was immensely pleased with Adi Sankara’s efforts to emphasize on the truth and conceded his defeat.So goes the story.

And so why would be a movie such as this be popular among Muslims (or some other religious or ethnic group) for whom the concept of reincarnation is as alien as the residents of the planet Pandora in the movie?

Well, the movie depicts a situation where natives armed with rudimentary weapons, by relying on just their religious faith and ancient culture, could defeat a mighty invading, colonial army trying to occupy their land.

Would not the movie not then inspire the Taliban (and others of their ilk) to believe that they would one day get the better of the forces that had “invaded” their land?

And the following news item (available through various media outlets) from last month seems to confirm that this theory may have some legs:

http://artsyspot.com/palestinian-avatar-demonstrations/

So if I was Mullah Omar watching this movie from my hideout somewhere in Pakistan, James Cameron would certainly inspire me to continue my struggle against the “infidel” powers who have invaded and occupied my land! 

And I would definitely have been rooting for Avatar to win against The Hurt Locker!!

India Aims for Center Court

An article with the above mentioned title was published in the Wall Street Journal of September 11, 2009 (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203440104574406704026883502-email.html).

In my opinion, one dopey, uninformed statement in the very first paragraph ruined the credibility of what was otherwise an interesting article.  What do you think?

Below is the comment I posted on this article:

Although Yuki Bhambri ended up losing in the quarter finals of the rain marred US Open Juniors, the statement in this article that “Yuki Bhambri hails from India, a country whose professional tennis history is only slightly richer than America’s record in cricket.” is ridiculous!

 

In 1960, Ramanathan Krishnan reached the semi-finals of the men’s singles competition at Wimbledon where he lost to Neale Fraser. He reached the Wimbledon semi-finals again the next year, losing to Rod Laver.  Both Fraser and Laver were the eventual champions.  Also, Krishnan was a key member of the Indian team which reached the final of the Davis Cup in 1966.

 

India reached the Davis Cup finals again in 1974 and 1987.

 

in 1973 Vijay Amritraj (quoted in this article) reached the quarter-final stage at two Grand Slam events. At Wimbledon he lost 7–5 in the fifth set to the eventual champion Jan Kodeš and later that summer at the US Open, lost to Ken Rosewall after having beaten Rod Laver two rounds earlier.  Amritraj repeated his feat at Forest Hills in 1974 when he went out in the last eight again to Rosewall after beating Björn Borg in the second round.  In 1981 Amritraj again reached the quarterfinals, going out in five sets to Jimmy Connors.  He had victories against most of the top players of his day, including John McEnroe at his peak in 1984.

 

Finally, Ramesh Krishnan reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon once (1986) and the US Open twice (1981 and 1987).

 

All of the above information could be obtained in a few minutes by doing a simple Google search.

 

Obviously, if American cricket over the years was any way comparable to Indian tennis, then America would be in the league of Test and One Day International playing nations, at least on par with Bangladesh!

 

Overall this article is accurate but it has been marred by just one sloppy statement in the beginning which takes away from the credibility of the writers.  Hopefully they will do their homework more thoroughly next time before putting pen to paper.

 

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Globalization

I realized that I had not made an entry into my blog for over a month!  Recall hearing somewhere that more than 99% of the blogs that are set up world wide are abandoned within a few months since the originally enthusiastic writer loses interest once the novelty has worn off and he/she realizes that probably nobody is reading them anyway!!

Anyway, here I am back and typing and I figured rather than write new post from scratch, I will share with you my paper on Globalization that I wrote as part of my doctoral program at SMU.

Look forward to any comments on this topic – agree or disagree, as long as you actually read it!

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