Most of my friends in the UK seem to hate maths with a passion usually reserved for rival football teams or celebrities. Now I'm not saying that all Indian kids love maths and science, but traditionally they have been the bedrock upon which we've founded our careers. For most of the older generation, the "Son, do you want to be a doctor or an engineer" jibe that we joke about now, was straightforward and logical reality 20-30 years ago. "Excel at maths and science and you will excel in life" is something you hear a lot from those Indians who grew up before the 80s. Yet my impression here in the 'West' - having lived roughly half my life in Asia and half in Europe- is that maths and science are a bitter medicine, painfully swallowed by kids in school who can't wait to drop it. "When am I ever going to use maths later on in life?" is something I hear a lot from students in England. Is it a cultural thing?
Compared to my colleagues in India, my level of maths is spectacularly mediocre but here in England people ask me for help with numerical questions. I say without a shadow of a doubt, that this is down solely to tuition or "tutions" as extra classes are known in India. I don't think it is any wonder why British kids are better at sports than Indian kids, but Indian kids are better at maths. In India, from the age of 13, football, cricket, badminton and table-tennis are forsaken for that unrelenting monster, "tutions". Where a child in Europe or America would come home from school and go play his or her sport or extra-curricular activity, most kids in India come home from school, have some Bournvita and biscuits and go back to school. To those Indians who are reading this, think back to your childhood and remember your "tution sir/master", that mythical being who spoke with a funny lisp and who had 7 kids suckling him for knowledge like puppies do their mother. You would go to a nearby tuition centre or the teacher's house and along with 8 or 9 other kids your age and spend 3 hours a day there. Monday and Wednesday were Physics. Tuesdays and Thursdays were Maths. Fridays were Chemistry with 'nani'.
There was also a sense of importance given to your grade 10 and 12 examination results that I don't think we see in Europe. In India your board exam marks are like your driver's license or birth certificate. They quantify you as a human being. They rank you. They form part of your identity whether you are proud of them or not. To be a 'topper' is to succeed for the first time in something real. To be a 'topper' is to be revered by fellow students and their jealous parents. "Why didn't you get more than _____? Where does he go for tutions?". I think on one level it is unhealthy. It drives children and their mothers to the brink at times - it makes them crave competition for the sake of it, rather than for improving the child's academic calibre.
At another level I think the sense of competition, especially in maths and the sciences brings out the best in many people. With so many students fighting for so few seats at so few top universities, the scrap and battle for the last 1% makes everyone push themselves further. In Bombay, children who go to the top schools start training for the Indian Institute of Technology entrance exams 5 years before they are set to take them. I know many people who wake up at 5am, go to specialised IIT entrance classes till 7am and then to school, come back at 4pm and then go to school-exam tuitions untill 7pm or 8pm. All for that last 1%. When you are competing with a thousand other hopefuls from all over the country for that one seat, you foresake football for Mr Giri's stuffy tuition centre. Not that I would know. I went to an International School and I suspect my parent's money got me into university rather than my grades.
That being said, I still have that love for maths, science and the will to score more than my friends. Four years of travel, political discussions, parties, international relations seminars and writing have not diminished my will to get a 1st class honours, only my ability.