halfway home

I’m back in Seoul, with a lot to say, but I won’t say much.

First, let me address the elephant in the room.¬†Hello third world visit epiphany cliche-aphant. How are you today? Yes, I’ve returned from India and I’ve seen a lot of disturbing things. I saw the Muslim slums of Mumbai, naked children running through the streets, tweens selling day old newspapers for a rupee and homeless mothers begging for money with their sick and sleeping children dangling from their arms. People were dirty, water wasn’t potable, wild dogs slept in the street, ignorant and apathetic about the armada of auto-rickshaws swerving around them.

But, I also witnessed human experience of every other kind. I watched Rolex-laden businessmen step over old women laying on the sidewalk in the heat. I saw families of five clinging to a motorcycle and to each other, smiling, laughing, and close in a way I’ve never seen western families. In all of the squalor and dirt and poverty, I saw the exact same kind of joy that those of us in post-industrialized countries seem to struggle to find. I saw nothing about human experience in India that was substantially different from the rest of the world I’ve seen, other than the clothing that people wore and range of their reach into the rest of the world.

Would those children in the slums be any better off with a pair of Nikes and a sterile heated two bedroom condo? Would they laugh any more than I saw them laugh, play any more than I saw them play? There certainly are some absolute improvements that everyone deserves, food, health, shelter, but beyond these Maslows, its difficult for me to think of a legitimate reason why my US lifestyle would bring any more happiness or joy.

Yet as much as I won’t judge the quality of life and the reach of India’s people into the global community, I can’t be impartial. I just spent a week engaging with the academic computer science community in India, forming relationships and watching unfold an incredible attempt at recreating a US style scholarly community. I’m part of this dialogue between India and the western world, helping to propagate¬†my scholarly culture. Whether I pass high-minded judgement on India’s quality of life or not, I’ve now actively engaged in helping India’s academic community mimic and mirror that of other nations, with conferences, posters, panels, and papers, and all their inherent limitations and western bias.

In some ways, I wish India would find its own way of being scholarly. I wish it would establish its own research communities, rather than focusing solely on engaging with those in the US and Europe. I want it to find something compatible with its people and then communicate these ways to the western world. By trying to mimic the rest of the global community’s scholarly practices, it ghettoizes its own efforts. If India invented its own practices around scholarly pursuits, it would be about apples and oranges instead of Honeycrisp and Fuji. For example, instead of trying to have poster sessions (and failing because of the lack of high quality poster printers), what if they drew their posters on whiteboards, chalkboards, or paper? They could find innovative ways of communicating their work, and even find better ways than the western world. If I were India and its academic leaders, I would look at this as an opportunity to innovate and reinvent academic practices, rather than mimic them.

Time to board.

3 thoughts on “halfway home

  1. Hi Andy,

    I’m a MSIM student at the ISchool, and from India. I chanced upon your blog and was pleasantly surprised to find a post about India.

    What you say about the academia trying to mimic the west is true in certain respects- especially at the higher education. However, some of the indian learning methodologies ( vedic math) do exist , although not in mainstream learning. I suppose, in the need to fit in to the global scene and learn to communicate (like and with) the western world, many of the traditional learning methods have been lost.

    My grandmother, who was home schooled, had a poem which she used to remember multiplication tables and decimal calculations and was( is still probably) much faster than me at mental math calculations!

    The school i went to tried hard to incorporate some traditional leaning methods, however- mainstream schools and universities are definitely mimicking the west. I’m not sure if it is entirely wrong too. After all, there are some amazing – ground breaking innovations happening here. And research is so heavily depending on industry funding, that it probably is logical to gravitate to where the funds are:)

    Anyway… I hope your trip to Mumbai was good


    Aditi Sundarraman

    • Thanks for your comments Aditi; I appreciate your perspective. A lot of my thoughts on this matter come from my belief that many western educational methods are broken. I don’t believe in grading systems, for example, but so much of the world has adopted them as an integral part of education, without really understanding what grading is and how it changes learning. But the same is true for a lot of other western ideas. There was a great segment on Marketplace, for example, about how the western world has been exporting its views on abnormal psychology through the DSM, without really understanding which parts of the DSM are specific to the west.

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