Beyond education: How do you build geniuses?

Developing nations like India are trying to take a great leap forward in education to match their coming leap in population. Can they produce enough good thinkers to produce enough new jobs?

Krishnendu Halder/Reuters
A converted school bus serves as a mobile classroom in the slums of Hyderabad, southern India.

Benjamin Franklin enjoyed no familial boost of wealth, fame, or education. He was one of 17 kids. His father was a candle-maker. In today’s terms, he started life well within the 99 percent. But through systematic study, practice, thrift, and most of all an optimistic embrace of possibility, he rose to become the famed intellect, scientist, statesman, diplomat, and writer honored on currency, in statues, and by namesake institutes dedicated to higher education. 

Everybody should be a Franklin. India needs up to 100 million Franklins.

The world’s most populous democracy has been growing at a healthy clip but a moment of truth is looming. In a mere eight years, 100 million more people – equivalent to the population of Mexico – will enter the Indian workforce. Vanishingly few of them will enjoy a familial boost of wealth, fame, or education. 

In the old India, those 100 million would be a nightmare, a tsunami of humanity racing toward an overburdened infrastructure and social system. In the new India, they are possibly something else. It all depends on where they sit on the scale that runs from basic need to productivity to creativity. It all depends on what the magic of education can do for them.

Let me take you on a detour to explain why this is so important. In the late 1980s, I was on a reporting assignment in Japan, which at the time was considered an economic superpower in the way that China is today and India hopes to be. There was no doubt about the productivity of Japanese workers. The watchword at the time was kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement,” and Japanese workers seemed to make everything better – TVs, cars, Walkmans, fax machines. 

But Naohiro Amaya, a government adviser on education, was worried. From the mid-19th century until the late 20th century, he said, Japan had succeeded in producing a high number of moderately educated people. That helped raise the overall capabilities of Japan as it transitioned from feudalism to industrialization. “Standardized people of pretty high quality worked pretty well,” he said, “but now they won’t meet the demand of future Japanese society.” It was not enough to be better and better at what already existed. Japan needed Franklins – innovators who would ask basic questions, experiment, see the unseen. Without breakthrough thinkers, the Japanese miracle would stall. 

Japan has been stalled for two decades. Now think of the stakes in India: Japan’s population is decreasing; India’s is growing faster than that of any other nation on the planet. 

Some nations are blessed with natural resources. Some have a legacy of wealth by virtue of past conquests or economic achievements. But the ones that prosper generation after generation have a culture of Franklins – smart people eager to get smarter. Economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, a pioneer in the study of human capital, notes that “large increases in education and training have accompanied major advances in technological knowledge in all countries that have achieved significant economic growth.”

India’s challenge is epic in scale. The Monitor’s Ben Arnoldy, who has just completed a three-year assignment in India, produced a special report in what India faces. Ben notes, “Aside from the eye-popping number of colleges India hopes to build – some 50,000 in a decade – the country faces a challenge of reforming how it teaches to produce knowledge workers. The good news on this front is that many Indians love to debate and argue. The challenge is to get teachers who will allow that energy into the classroom.”

Education of any kind helps. But as Naohiro Amaya knew, the best kind of education doesn’t just produce productive workers. It frees thought. That is what India – and every other nation – needs most.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor. To comment on this column, please e-mail 

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