Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Pervasive Culture of Learning

This semester a 19-year-old Indian student, originally from Kerala, has been riding to and from the college with me, and it’s been a terrific experience. Not only do we talk about Indian food—one of my favorite topics--but we often discuss differences in American and South Indian culture. Aliyah is a dedicated student, determined to be a doctor, and though it is unlikely that her family can afford the price of medical school, her excellent grades may well earn her scholarships to help her achieve her dream.

Through talking with Aliyah and her family, I have learned the great value her Indian and Islamic cultures place on education. We often hear that Islam discourages or even prevents women from being educated, yet did you know that the Quran tells Muslims, both male and female, that it is their sacred duty to acquire knowledge that will serve the public good? 

India’s education system is often criticized, yet when Indian students come to study in America, they often excel, especially in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Aliyah certainly possesses a great deal of innate intelligence, but I am convinced that the culture of learning she and her family brought to the U.S. with them plays a huge role in her learning and academic success. 

Aliyah says that she was brought up that education is of utmost importance. “In India there is this quote which says "Matha, pitha, guru, daivam" (translation: Mother, Father, Teacher, God)” she says, emphasizing the importance of learning and the respect given to teachers.

Attending school is not enough; the culture emphasizes excellence in learning. “There is this competition sense in every student’s mind which pushes them to get good grades. Everyone tries to get better grades than their classmates,” Aliyah tells me. “There is also specific time set as study times. Weekends are not just for partying; instead most of the students sit and study so that they can make better grades. Parents are very focused on their children’s education, and most students work hard in part because they want see their parents happy. 

The difference in cultures is evident to Aliyah, who sees many Indian families losing their culture of learning after years in the United States. Like many American students, she laments, they spend little time studying, give up quickly when the work is hard, and no longer want to attempt the challenging STEM classes. “In India, they would be encouraged to study to be engineers,” she says, shaking her head.

Garrison Walters, executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education suggests that the “lack of a pervasive culture of learning” is greatly responsible for America’s decline in competitiveness. He claims that unlike our competitors, such as India and Japan, too many Americans generally "don’t greatly value educated people and don’t seem to believe that being educated contributes to quality of life beyond that offered by greater economic success. Perhaps we could learn something from India about instilling the value of education in our culture and in our children.

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