My mother insisted I wear my Harvard sweatshirt on the flight home to Bombay. “If you get lost, which you probably will, people will know you’re a college student and help you!” she had said, beaming. So, clothed in crimson, I waited along the aisles to disembark at the Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport. A boy about my age wearing a UCLA sweatshirt made a remark about how great it was to be home, and then asked me the usual line-waiting questions, “Where are you flying from? Do you live in Bombay? What school did you go to (everyone knows each other in Bombay)?” I was more than a little confused when he responded to my UCLA-oriented banter with a, “So, what college do you go to?” I thought the massive white Harvard lettering would have sufficed, and mumbled, “Harvard.” His eyes widened: “Oh wow! Really? That’s awesome, man. I’ve never actually met an Indian kid wearing a Harvard shirt that actually goes to Harvard. Good for you.”
That’s the prevalence of the Harvard name for you, and part of the reason I feel so privileged to be here. Though there are countless worthy institutions of higher education in the United States, in India, it’s the H-bomb that will elicit those awed eyes or the offering of a business card. India is a country that truly values knowledge, and Harvard has earned the reputation of being at the very pinnacle of knowledge-acquirement. Perhaps it’s because Harvard accepts so few undergraduates from India (the class of 2015 has only six Indian students from India) that their reputation for high standards has become so deeply ingrained in Indian society. College applications and acceptances in Indian high schools is the worst kind of rat race; you compete against kids who have straight 2400 SAT scores, who fight for every mark on every test, and who are truly diligent and hard-working.
It was into this kind of environment, and with this kind of reputation that President Faust made her entrance into Bombay and India. She attended a number of events, from a visit to the all-girls’ J.B. Petit School to a luncheon with the Asia Society chapter in Bombay. Harvard’s new focus on India makes for an extremely interesting strategic relationship, one that I think has extraordinary potential. Though the emphasis appears to be on sharing information and exploring possibilities in graduate school education, President Faust made some exceptionally interesting remarks about Indian education as a whole. In a most eloquent speech to the Asia Society, she noted that both sides can learn a great deal from each other, and I’m inclined to agree.
What makes India a good choice:
Harvard’s decision to pursue a relationship with India over a number of over Asian countries seems justified. The Indian economy will likely be the third largest in the world by 2030 and the country has the fastest growing middle class in the world – it makes complete economic sense that Harvard would want a stake and a degree of influence in this rising powerhouse. The Indian education system is made distinct by unfortunate and fortunate conditions, from the lack of enough schools in rural areas and outdated materials to the luck of being able to attract hard-working foreign teachers to international schools in the cities. The comparison between China and India is made far too often, but it’s important to note how India’s educational system is not your average Asian system. India, like China, does focus extensively on math and science. In my childhood, one’s academic prowess was often measured based on mathematical and scientific aptitude, as opposed to creative writing (Drama, Art and Music weren’t even considered “real” classes). President Faust spoke to the need for balance in education, most importantly, the confluence between science and technology, and the need to understand and appreciate both engineering and poetry. Here’s where Harvard can play an important role; as a liberal arts institution, I would hope that Harvard’s interaction with India and its institutions of higher learning will allow the stray poet, artist or history student to eventually receive the same accolades as an IIT student.
What’s in it for India?
In short, a lot. Harvard can help steer India educationally as it grows economically, with its abundant resources. The Harvard Business Research Center in Bombay has already become quite successful, and such initiatives can bring together intelligent minds from both countries. India can learn a great deal about what a college (and even high school for that matter) education should be like – something more than ability to absorb and spew out facts, and encouraging an actual joy in learning (something my Marathi language class did not inculcate). Harvard’s relationship with India will undoubtedly open doors for more Indian students in an interesting sort of way. The bottom line is that Indian kids are really smart. I spent most of my school life in absolute awe of the students around me, marveling at their ability to consistently score 95 percent on every test in every subject. At my high school, which was extremely academically competitive, almost every student was worthy of going to an Ivy League school, every student was a straight A student with a list of activities and extracurriculars on their resumes. But not everyone in India can get into Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Hopefully, Harvard’s interaction with India will expose students to the wide range of different American universities and educational choices (because as it is right now, high school students generally choose one “school of the year,” that becomes the it-school to get into: last year it was Columbia). In turn, perhaps Harvard will choose to accept more students from these schools, giving them the chance to broaden their horizons beyond the very grade-oriented Indian system.
And therein lies the rub?
However, there’s always the possibility that students in India or at Harvard would reject the ideas of a liberal arts education. For every Anand Mahindra who gives back to his alma mater, there are a few Lakshmi Mittals who feel they are “too young for charity.” Harvard’s exertion of its influence in India and its creation of a true relationship there could go wrong; Harvard endorsed programs might eventually not carry any Crimson influence, but might simply carry the university name to gain credibility. Despite these fears, however, Harvard’s creation of a relationship with India is undoubtedly a good thing. President Faust quoted some great Indian leaders, from the former Indian national cricket team captain, Rahul Dravid to the famous poet Rabindranath Tagore. With any luck, that speech will be just the beginning to a highly successful and flourishing partnership.