NEP2020 And Why India Needs A Martin Gardner More Than A Shakuntala Devi

I have been a bit busy because of multiple things happening on personal and professional front. So I missed blogging about some interesting events/topics. Finally I decided to prioritise and post this blog. (As they say: “It’s never about time; it’s about priorities and genuine intent”)

I am combining two blog topics/themes into one because I feel they are connected (and also because it’s late now to write to separate blogs on the topics).

The much anticipated and much hyped National Education Policy 2020 was finally released earlier this week. You can read the detailed policy here. It’s a 66 page long document. Some policy changes are positive, some are extremely negative and many others are not worth discussing (for example, HRD Ministry will now be called as Education Ministry).

Without getting into merits of NEP2020 I’ll just say that as of now it’s just a policy document. A text on paper. More like an election manifesto. The key is implementation. And in that regard, the NEP2020 really looks like a manifesto. Lots of slogans/announcements and rosy picture, but very less “thinking” and “understanding”.

I’ll elaborate on this with another theme which I have mentioned in the blog title.

On Friday, 31st July, a movie on gifted Indian savant, mental calculator (also known as “Human Calculator”) Shakuntala Devi was released online. It should be noted that she was into speed mathematics, similar to Arthur Benjamin. She was NOT a mathematician, like Katherine Johnson, who passed away recently.

Now, since the trailer of movie on Shakuntala Devi was released, there were many people who are trying to rediscover her and searching for articles and videos on her. You wouldn’t find many on Youtube or elsewhere. And the ones you fine are of two types: (1) Brief biography – typically portraying her as a superwoman who was gifted (something which a normal person can only dream of), or (2) Few old videos of Shakuntala Devi where she “performs” i.e. demonstrates her prowess by doing speed mathematics and mental calculations. Here is one as an example:

Shakuntala Devi did such shows for many decades. She also wrote few books on puzzles, which are popular among students for their campus interviews and competitive exams. But through all these demonstrations and shows did she help create curiosity among the students/people in general? With all due respect to her amazing abilities, the answer is NO.

She amused students and public and she entertained masses. That’s important and useful. But did she help people get rid of fear of mathematics and did she encourage them to pursue mathematics? Not at all. People were just amused, not inspired. The correct analogy would be that of a gymnast in a circus. She definitely entertains people by her act, but does that inspire the audience to go to gym or get physically fit? I doubt. The same is true about Shakuntala Devi.

Second and more importantly, there is huge difference between a math savant and a mathematician who contributes to the field of mathematics. Mathematicians like Srinivasa Ramanujan a century ago or Manjul Bhargava today contributed to new theories and new methods or ideas in mathematics. Many of those have led to great breakthroughs in some unsolved problems or research. Shakuntala Devi didn’t do any of that. She was not capable. Not because she was not a trained a mathematician – even Ramanujan was not a trained mathematician – but because she is gifted in a different domain, which is mental calculations – not the mathematical concepts.

Most people in India don’t get this difference. Hence they equate her with Mathematicians and that just shows how bad our education system/policy is. And NEP2020 is not going to remedy that.

This brings me to the last part of this blog. Some may say that not everybody can be a mathematician, but one can still develop interest in mathematics, get rid of fear etc. Perfectly valid argument! In fact that is what we need. To popularise mathematics in school, among common people and use it to stimulate thinking, develop analytical and reasoning skills. And Shakuntala Devi won’t help in it. She performs like a magician, but she doesn’t reveal her magic – how she does it. Probably because it was a “gift”, she couldn’t teach it or pass it on.

Hence we need, not a Shakuntala Devi, but a Martin Gardner. For those who don’t know him, he was a journalist who had a passion for maths, and who wrote several books on mathematical puzzles, recreational mathematics, popularised a column devoted to mathematics in “Scientific American”, created new and original puzzles, and most importantly taught how the puzzles and mathematics behind the puzzles worked.

Here are a couple of videos about Martin Gardner:

India desperately needs a Martin Gardner, or in today’s equivalent terms, a Matt Parker.

If you try searching for Shakuntala Devi and Martin Gardner in Youtube, you’ll realise the difference. All the videos of Shakuntala Devi are mostly about her performances in front of audience, or an occasional interview about her life (but not how she did her calculations). Whereas, in case of Martin Gardner you’ll find videos of people who were inspired by him, who solve his puzzles and explain the logic others, who are trying to take his work forward in their own way (be it Matt Parker, or Alex Bellos, or Numberphile channel on Youtube or Presh Talwalkar). Gardner has created a legacy! He has aroused interest in Mathematics among millions of people across the world (including myself) and shown that recreational mathematics has a significant value in developing analytical and logical reasoning capabilities.

And that’s why India desperately needs a Martin Gardner and not a Shakuntala Devi. Wish this could be incorporated as a vision in National Education Policy 2020.

P.S: If you still don’t get my point, just watch following few (at least 3 each) videos on Youtube by following two people.

  1. Arthur Benjamin (equivalent of Shakuntala Devi)
  2. Matt Parker or Numberphile (equivalent of Martin Gardner)

You might realise that you have actually gained something new by watching Matt Parker or Numberphile videos, while you were only amused and entertained by Arthur Benjamin’s speed mathematics and magic tricks.

Here is one sample video of each for the lazy ones (that’s you ALL!)

Arthur Benjamin:

Matt Parker:


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