THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
By M.V. Kamath
The year 2012 is named as the National Mathematical Year, courtesy of the Government of India. The Government had also declared 22 December 2011 as National Mathematics Day to celebrate the 125th birthday anniversary of one of India’s most distinguished mathematicians, Srinivas Ramanujam who was born on that day way back in 1887. Little is known about him in our schools and colleges. He passed away prematurely on 26 April 1920 when he was barely 32 years old, but his original and highly unconventional studies in the realm of mathematics were to get him the Fellowship of the Royal Society in Britain, as high an academic honour one could aspire for in those days and times.
In the world of mathematics, Ramanujam still remains a legend. His friend and admirer at Cambridge University, Prof GH Hardy was to say, long after he came to know him personally, that Ramanujam’s “limitations of knowledge was as startling as their profundity” and that they were “beyond that of any mathematician in the world”. Hardy was also to say that he had “never met Ramanujam’s equal”- and no greater tribute could have been paid to any mathematician. Another distinguished scholar ET Bell was to say that “when a truly great mathematician like the Hindu Ramanujam arrives unexpectedly from nowhere, even expert analysts hail him as Gift from Heaven”! What is amusing is to realise that Ramanujam kept failing in his pre-University examinations, because he did poorly in subjects like English and history! He must be the only Fellow of the Royal Society who could not boast of a degree! And to think that one of his earliest supporters in those difficult days was C Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji as he was known who was to become the last of India’s Governors-General!
Famous as Ramanujam is, and widely regarded as India as the fountain-head of mathematical knowledge is (it is India which conceived the idea of zero and the decimal system, apart from several other claims in the realm of mathematics) India’s standing in regard to mathematics, is presently at its nadir. To know that comes as a shock. In the last twenty years, as many as thirteen students from China have won the International Mathematical Olympiad and India’ hasn’t won once. It is a crying shame. China has ranked first in ten occasions and ranked second twice. On the other hand India barely managed two top-ten results with the highest position of seven, ranking 23rd and 38th in the last two competitions.
Is this the land of Aryabhatta, Bhaskara, Sridhara and Sankara? Is Ramanujam the last great mathematician India has had since 1900 of whom we can truly be proud? One has only to read Robert Kanigel’s great work The Man Who Knew Eternity to understand Ramanujam’s contribution to the world of mathematics. Why has India fallen so low in the past few decades? Who is responsible for this? Our system of education? Blame is laid on poor teaching right from the elementary school days. Children, it would seem, are no longer taught multiplication tables or expected to learn them by heart! A paper submitted by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in 1981 noted that teachers of mathematics trained by the Districts Institutes of Education and Training (DIET) “either had no experience of teaching or they are teachers teaching at secondary levels” 80 per cent of whom are from secondary school level, the implication being that their understanding of mathematics was low.
In 2007 Bihar apparently employed 2.5 lakh people at the elementary school level who couldn’t even spell words correctly. It is not that the teaching of mathematics is completely neglected. We have, for instance, the Indian National Mathematical Olympiad (INMO) which conducts examinations every year and chooses around thirty students among the top scorers for undertaking a month’s Mathematics Camp at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai. Here at the Centre the top graders are taught “Olympiad Mathematics” and it is from this lot that the best six are sent to represent India at the International Mathematical Olympiad. But if, despite all these efforts, Indians fail to win IMO Award, one must presume that there is something basically wrong not only with the training the Bhabha Centre provided, but with the entire system of teaching mathematics right from the primary school level.
It is claimed that students qualifying for the INMO become automatically eligible for admission to the B.Sc (Hons) Mathematics Course in the Chennai Mathematical Institute. It is also claimed that students who make it to the INMO are eligible for the prestigious Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY) Fellowship, provided they study science subjects in India. The Fellowship amount stands at Rs 4,000 pm, not too bad. Just as significantly, one understands that Indian team members who receive a gold, silver or bronze at International Mathematical Olympiad get cash award of Rs 5,000, Rs 4,000 and Rs, 3,000 respectively. To cap it all, inputs on how to improve education in Mathematics are available from the International Congress on Mathematical Education (ICME) which meets once every four years. If despite all these incentives and access to information, our students don’t do well, it is for Education Ministers both at the State and Central level to give thought to what has gone wrong.
If China leads in the field in excellence at mathematics the least one can do is to send a team of mathematicians to China to make a study of the Chinese system of education. Literally billions of dollars are drawn from the public exchequer to finance our students to study abroad mostly at third rate universities whether in the United States or Australia and we get nothing back in return. These days teachers are appointed on a caste basis and not on merit. But then what can we expect when our politics itself is caste-based and leaders take pride in their caste-based strategies? If Ramanujam was alive today he wouldn’t have got any job, considering that he had no degree and worse still because he was born a Brahmin! He had to go to distant Cambridge to win accolades. Our education ministers and our bureaucrats should take their jobs seriously if we are to make our presence felt in the world of mathematics. As matters stand that is living in a dreamland. Mathematics and caste do not match but try telling that to our Nitish Kumars and Mayavatis in the country.