It happens like clockwork; after any major event – the Olympics, the discovery of the Higgs-Boson, the Booker Prize, a space shuttle launch – the Indian media and blogosphere rushes to find and advertise any Indian connection the current person of interest may have. A few editorials may ponder on why a nation of 1.2 billion (and counting) cannot produce anything of international stature and the usual suspects – government, corruption, infrastructure – are beaten again. Everyone then settles down to wait for the next event.

Undoubtedly, the government has grievously failed its subjects on many counts. Yet the problem lies deeper than that. At a very basic level, Indians remain automatons par excellence, rarely venturing off the beaten path. This quality has made some of them very good at what they do and a generally quiet, productive, and unproblematic diaspora when they emigrate. In the United States, Britain, Canada, and Australia particularly, Indians have a substantial presence in engineering, medicine, and business but are not known for their gangs, crime syndicates, or socially disruptive behaviour.

Despite this demonstrated excellence, few Indians have gone on from a commanding presence in their field to redefining and shaping them. Indians – particularly those at home – hold fewer patents, have fewer peer-reviewed publications, and do less research than their counterparts in the United States, Europe, Japan, and China. India publishes no prestigious professional journals, and lack of attention has made many fields virtually extinct in the country.

In the humanities, the situation is much worse – Indians are yet to make a dent in any number of fields – history, philosophy, anthropology, or comparative literature. The few recognisable names are, again, those who work and have received their doctorates from Europe or the United States and work mostly on topics related to India. The few who focus on India’s foreign or security policy are hindered by lack of access to government records and institutions that may be called libraries only by the grace of semantics. As a result, the places best equipped to study India are in the United States and Europe.

This state of being first-rate technicians but third-rate pioneers stems from the risk-averse nature of most Indians. In a market that has room mainly for engineers and doctors, the surety of return on investment is much higher in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) than in Sanskrit or Brazilian literature. Furthermore, the increasing demand for these jobs to fuel India’s economic growth makes straying from the beaten path into an undeveloped non-STEM market even more dubious.

However, it is this same reason that attracts less qualified students to STEM; those who might have been better litterateurs, athletes, historians, or curators are drawn by the promise of an easier job market and pressures of an unimaginative social environment. While countless hours spent in IIT coaching classes and working through question banks may salvage even a dullard, these graduates find it more difficult to become pioneers in their fields because it is not their passion. Great achievement, one often observes, is fuelled more by an infatuation than raw talent in the last stretch; how can one have such a burning desire if the only reason one is in the present job because that is what the market is willing to pay most regularly for?

An anecdotal illustration of this is the number and quality of Indian participants at international science fairs, exhibitions for young inventors, or other similar fora. Similarly, the number of opportunities via science camp, directed studies, space camp, internships, and advanced placement allows gifted children in developed countries to learn at their own pace whereas in India, even college level elective subjects used to be chosen for the student until recently! One reason for this, again via personal and anecdotal experience, is that many of these competitions fall during that crucial period for Indians between 13 and 17 – right when they are preparing for their Std X or Std XII board exams. In the Indian world view, those exams are worth far more than any competition.

To borrow a phrase from the Early Modern English physician Sir Thomas Browne, one should not approach the temple of knowledge with the soul of a money changer. India’s utilitarian approach to knowledge creates glass ceilings for its workforce, and unless the test-centric attitude changes, Indian workers and scholars will remain middling at best.

Decades of functionalism has left the country’s market structurally unfriendly towards change. Employing people outside their natural talent area causes hidden inefficiencies in the system, perhaps one facet of the reason business houses are finding Indian graduates unemployable. In many developed countries, companies that do not require technical skills hire from a wide variety of fields. At a local bank, for example, most employees on the floor will have only a minimal knowledge of accounting and economics; after all, they are hardly expected to conclude a negotiation with Rand Uranium for a multi-million dollar loan. This means that those pursuing zoology, art history, or tennis are also able to make a living if their plans do not work out. Career advancement training and other opportunities will support upward mobility in such secondary careers if necessary.

Problems beset India in education as well as industry, school and university infrastructure as well as economic conditions of students; the material shortcomings may eventually be set right by dint of throwing enough money at the problems, but a calibrated material and human effort can only happen when the very purpose of education is deliberated upon. A strong foundation that encourages independent thought and inquiry must be the primary characteristic of education, upon which may be built a technical edifice if desired; inquiry happens only when one cares. It is a myth that societies can focus on art and culture only once the basics have been met – societies have multiple strata that feed into each other. The Late Roman Republic was the age of Virgil and the Dark Ages were also the period of the Nibelungenlied; the Black Death hit Europe as the Renaissance was starting. The real question is if India is happy, ensconced in its mediocrity and living off reflected glory. Or does it perhaps want more?

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on October 17, 2013.