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Caught up in the East-West Split: How the Education System Differs in US and India

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a month ago
a month ago
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Having lived in the radically different cultural atmospheres of US and India - as a student - has transformed my world view and the way I look at the Education systems in the different regions. And it's taught me valuable lessons about openness, respect, balance – and people.

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I was a mess the entire plane ride. Tears streaking my cheeks, trembling hands and a paper white face. I was inconsolable and unresponsive - particularly to the likes of my parents, to whom I attributed the infliction of this horrific change in my life. And the worst part of it were the people I would miss, and the people I dreaded to meet.

Packing my bags and moving across the world with my family to live in India is something which has profoundly affected me and shaped my identity. It has made me who I am. It has also unfolded the workings of the world before my eyes and offered me a unique position to study the human psyche. And I got to do it all as a student.

The US had been my one and only world for the 11 years prior to the shift, and this meant that I was largely narrow-minded and very privileged. I was so fortunate as to study in the Cupertino school district, with a proximity to the Silicon Valley, and, to my much greater pleasure, with only a couple hours' ride to Disneyland and Universal Studios. Because much of California thrives on the public-school system, and because the American government channels so much spending into education, I found myself the extremely lucky beneficiary of a free, top-notch education. Our teachers had rich histories and diverse backgrounds; our classes were energized and powered, largely by students; we were disciplined with the use of the carrot rather than the stick, and our relative 'freedom' meant we were inspired inquirers - fascinated by the world around us.

This worked out largely to my advantage in India.

I enrolled in an international school in Hyderabad, which boasted a sprawling campus and 'state-of-the-art' technology. Students were to be given dozens of opportunities over a broad spectrum of interests, and test scores were some of the highest in the state. These swaggers, of course, fell flat the moment I entered the school. While the campus was indeed huge, with labs and libraries for students, most of the times the dual curriculum (CBSE and CIE) with grades K-12 meant the sports 'ground' was occupied, and the labs, too, were never free. The libraries had a small selection of books, which weren't open to perusal except to senior students and teachers. When we did reach higher grades, we mostly entered to escape class or enjoy the AC.

The contrast was definitively clear, and the first year was immensely difficult for me. My grades did well, largely as a result of my previous schooling in the US. But that wasn't the point. I hated the atmosphere of tension and rigid discipline. I hated the lack of responsibility given to the students and the incredible amount required to finance what I nonetheless considered a daily struggle. I hated the depravity of a monotonous class schedule and the lack of attention to students' physical and mental health. I would have done anything at that point to get out.

To me, it was clear. Six years in this intolerable hole, after which I could return to my beloved California, with its openness and discipline, and intellectual and extracurricular superiority. But there were several caveats to the validity of this view, to which I was alerted only in my later years in the school. First, I had a very specific experience in the US, limited to the largely Asian-dominated community that characterized the Santa Clara School District. Additionally, I'd only experienced one elementary school, and one year of middle school there. While my experiences may have been generalizable to an extent, they could be applied to the entirety of California, let alone the US. And I'd based my hatred of this school on the accumulated prejudices I'd had since a child about India. Clearly, I hadn't judged India's education system fairly. So, what I really began to search for as I neared the end of my high school years, was this unbiased evaluation of both school systems, and more importantly, the answer to why this search even mattered.

And here, now, I think I've got the answers.

Cupertino Middle School (Source)

The Cupertino education system worked for me, and for almost all my peers, because it gave us the responsibility and power to act, think - and most significantly - affect change. We respected our teachers (at the time, though I've heard from many of my friends that this wasn't the case in subsequent years) because we trusted them and admired their professionalism. We were organized and timely because of what had been drilled into our heads (though not through shouting and incessant nagging, as in India): Homework first. And we could make connections because communication was encouraged, not put down; because the atmosphere was conducive to individual and social growth, not discipline - though this was a happy side effect.

The Indian system seemed a crudely done, inaccurate reconstruction of this system, upon first glance. However, I later understood why the same person who might have been capable of learning a musical instrument, engaging in sports teams after school and getting straight A's might have done so badly in the Indian system. The key was the mindset of the people.

I am pursuing animation, a concept which most people in India are very unfamiliar with. This meant I would often get a lot of discouragement from teachers (who believed my good grades were equivalent to an interest in engineering or medicine, rather than an interest in learning itself), and even have people who felt I was wasting my talents or believe that I didn't have any focus. This was rather frustrating. But I soon learned that the effect wasn't limited to school. A lot of my cousins - though they were more supportive because of their closeness to me - didn't understand what pursuing a career in the arts even meant. The atmosphere in Hyderabad itself was largely against the pursuit of anything other than Math or Science.

But that didn't mean I didn't receive support. I studied arts as a formal subject that affected my grade as much as Math and Physics did. So yes, I faced criticism, but school helped me overcome it as well. I grew close to my teachers in a way I might never have in the US. Teachers who had huge amounts of pressure on them to manage students, pursue their own subject-related interests and occasionally indulge in hobbies, still had time to take a look at our work. Since international schools were few and far in between, we were a tight-knit family of friends, families and colleagues. So maybe being at a 'rich' school meant dealing with a few stuck-up people, but we were taught to give as well. Maybe the hierarchy meant students struggle to get ideas implemented, but we still managed to circumvent the system and get a couple of good ones in. Maybe the school wasn't as open as ones in the US had been - maybe it was still old-fashioned and used out-of-date ideas - but we managed to take a lot away and learn and grow, together.

What school and my family - and the move - have taught me is that people are the same, wherever you go. So, I think education is more about shedding the masks of culture and national sentiment we wear and getting to know the person underneath. Because that is when we are truly 'educated'.    


By Sarvani K


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