This coming from someone who has had his entire education in India and loves the subject may sound a bit alarming. But this is how I find it. Please note that it is just a personal opinion formed based on the random incoherent surveys conducted over the years and discussions within close groups of friends, always–well… almost always–when they were drunk or stoned.
If you ask, majority of the pre-college going students–in their Senior Secondary years, just prior to the college, that is–in India will tell you that they like mathematics. A big chunk of that number belongs to what the Economists call “the great Indian middle class”. Well, that is true from one perspective. They like mathematics because studying pre-college mathematics is a must in India to get into Engineering. Engineering for the Indian middle-class is “a big thing”. You get the picture.
But if you ask me, the other perspective, the way mathematics is taught in most Indian pre-college institutions can never make it a likable subject. Most of you must have seen the Mathematics textbooks in your school days. And then in college days. And then in your kids’ school/pre-college days… I request you to give it another look and then decide if you or your kid can really like it or not. The way the books are written and the way the subject is taught is to program a human-being. You open a book, you’ll see text that is nothing but a collection of symbols, and algorithms that are to be read and run on a machine. There is hardly any description of the historical importance and the original author’s insight, his fight and vision in reaching the result. The student never feels the sense of discovery the discoverer might have sensed when his/her thought came into the form called “Theorem”.
To be ignorant of the lives of the most celebrated men of antiquity is to continue in a state of childhood all our days.
The best mathematics books in terms of developing a student’s liking and insight into the subject are never taught when they are needed the most. I have been very fortunate in that regard that when interest in mathematics started waning, I had access to those. But, in India, such books have been inaccessible to most of the students studying mathematics. It is way past the time when those books should have been made the part of curriculum.
The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. –Plutarch
But then, a set curriculum ruins the whole purpose of the book for what it is written for, because most teachers at that level never studied those books themselves.
Sometimes, I tend to think that the books at that level, at present, are written by some computer programmers in order to program a child just like a computer is programmed. And we are very good at getting programmed! Due to socio-economic factors mentioned previously, our entire future depends on how well we were programmed. For example, most of the Indian students, at least those who studied a little mathematics at the pre-college level, are good at finding anti-derivatives (which is taught in the name of `Integration’) of some functions. Very few have insight on what really `Integration’ is. They can find surface areas of arcane surfaces and areas under most complex of the curves brooding on the plane using crammed formulae, but they can hardly ever tell you why they needed it or that it is called Riemann Integral. Infinity is another number for them to “produce results” of the questions posed in the exams. They are never taught the profound thought in imaging it in simpler terms. Infinity for them is nothing but some number “out of bounds”–just like a computer–used in simplifying calculations. In short, what we are producing in India in the name of mathematical talent is “human calculating devices.” It is no wonder that India produces so many “skilled” workers in the IT industry.
One of the major forces behind a successful mathematician is his/her teacher who is expected to develop the insight of the subject. The problem with teachers and schools in India, again, is influenced by the changing paradigms in socio-economic scenario. A parent, now-a-days wants the ward to “excel” every aspect of life, be it arts, sports, science, any damn thing. The race of producing sub-standard know-it-all machines has never been so invigorated. The present day teenager is the center of its parents’ hopes. They want it to achieve everything what they could achieve and what they could not, and even more. They want it to get a high-paying position in some multinational, right from the day the kid has entered the school. To heck with the interests or aesthetics! To heck with appreciating ideas. In this rat-race, a teacher is left behind with his values. What should (s)he do? Produce more rats to participate in the race in which no one rat wins the cheese, but several end up biting a little piece and left unsatisfied.
I have observed many examples: kids and teenagers who wanted to study mathematics–or something else for that matter–for their lives, but there will was crushed by the might of the ambition of the great Indian middle-class to reach the top… the economic top.
Probably that’s why we see many brilliant students in India, but not many achieving the heights what Russians, French and Germans do. Probably that’s why a Fields Medal has eluded India despite it being the mother of mathematical thought and its thousands of years’ history of mathematics.
But that is changing. Or, at least I hope that is changing…
EDIT (Friday, May 29 2009): More discussions reveal more problems. Another major problem is the language. You know what I mean!