Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Relearning America

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Column in Business Standard, May 22, 2015

Returning to America for a few weeks after several years I am struck not by how different the country is from when I last had a much longer passage here but how the strikingly similar the changes are to those in India. Everyday happenings, encounters and conversations – even billboard humour – carry echoes of quotidian Indian concerns.

A mainline Washington-New York train derailed outside Philadelphia some days ago, killing seven and injuring more than 200 passengers. As a result, the Amtrak route was thrown out of gear for days on end. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise: we booked bus tickets for the five-hour journey, roughly the same time as a Delhi-Jaipur ride, and the sights and sounds were hardly dissimilar. Children screeched; passengers griped about lack of rest stops; traffic snarls were long, finally slowing to a painful crawl at the Port Authority terminal in mid-Manhattan, an inferno of chaos, squalor and uncouth push-and-shove to rival the Interstate Bus Terminus in Delhi. Travellers glued to their cellphones en route drew cold comfort from digital displays by a Wi-Fi service provider that read, “In the city that never sleeps, does your cell phone take lots of naps?”
Passing through the suburbs of Delaware, Baltimore and New Jersey another poignantly familiar feature was visible to those who transit from metropolitan to provincial India: large hoardings advertising small-time colleges and institutes with the promise of specialised courses and educational degrees. Admittedly, not of the spurious MIT (“Muzaffarnagar Institute of Technology”, it read in small letters below) I came across in western Uttar Pradesh last summer, but they underscore the same burning desire for self-improvement via higher learning.

May is graduation season in this Valhalla of education, a coming-of-age ritual celebrated with rather more energetic fervour than the modest laddoo-distribution that accompanies degree-taking in India. Everywhere you see fresh-faced graduates posing in their tasselled caps and fluttering gowns, proudly showing off their talismanic robes as symbols of a hopeful future.

The achievement does not come without agonising competition, anxiety and pedagogic controversy. Last month, when 17-year-old Pooja Chandrashekhar, the only daughter of two engineers in Virginia, aced the admissions test to all eight Ivy League colleges, and then some more, her star turn made headline news in India, but was treated with sober restraint in the American media. The running story of the acme of Asian achievers is beginning to grate in the upper echelons of the American educational system. Are they too much of a good thing?

A group of 64 organisations recently filed a complaint against Harvard University with the US Education Department of Civil Rights for “systemic and continuous discrimination against Asian Americans” by setting higher admission standards – in effect, a kind of restrictive quota system. Harvard denies the charge, saying its “holistic” admissions process looks at applicants’ “extracurricular activities and leadership qualities”. That hasn’t stopped a volley of sharp analysis in the press that lays bare some plain facts: Indian and Chinese students, of American or indigenous origin, fare much better in entrance exams, especially for business schools. “That’s causing a big problem for America’s prospective MBAs,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Asia-Pacific students have shown a mastery of the quantitative portion of the four-part Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). That has skewed mean test scores upward, and vexed US students, whose results are looking increasingly poor in comparison. In response, admissions officers at US schools are seeking new ways of measurement, to make US students look better.”

I spent some time with two old friends, an Indo-American couple, both professors, whose combined teaching experience of more than six decades includes Columbia University, and colleges exclusive and egalitarian respectively such as Sarah Lawrence and the City University of New York. I asked how the profile of Indian students had changed over the years. It used to be good to excellent in the 1980s, they said, but is now often outstanding; a steady stream of applicants has grown into a flood in the past decade. The Times of India’s US correspondent, Chidanand Rajghatta, confirms the prestige and price tag Indians attach to an American degree. There are over 100,000 Indian students in the US, and the numbers are growing apace. The average cost of a four-year undergraduate degree is $100,000, but evidently “a growing number of Indian parents can afford to fund this foreign degree enterprise out of their own pockets and assets”.

Meanwhile, who is queuing up outside the Muzaffarnagar Institute of Technology?


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