The recently launched Write India initiative is an excellent platform to encourage aspiring writers. Writing fills a huge need for self-expression amid youth. Writing longer format stories is an excellent exercise in self-discipline, goal setting, logical sequencing and whole brain thinking.
But there's a reason why we urgently need a "Read India" campaign as well.
The last formal Indian reader survey was conducted some years back. However, conversations and dipstick surveys with students and mid-level knowledge workers across the country point towards an alarming trend. Only a small fraction of our population can be called readers. Even when compared with the number of Google users -- an indication of digital social content users -- the percentage remains tiny. The majority of students do not read beyond textbooks and daily news; those who do don't tend to read more than a handful of books a year. Committed readers are few. No wonder, year after year, IAS study guides continue to top bestseller lists. By the time people reach mid-career levels, an even tinier fraction reads. Other studies indicate that reading is encouraged in early school years, but by middle school many children drop out of the habit of reading. Contrast this with statistics from nations such as Australia or the Czech Republic, where 90% or more classify themselves as readers. Literacy figures aside, the culture of reading hasn't embedded deeply in our country, across all sections of the population. Where reading never caught on, satellite television has found a reach.
"Reading non-fiction books opens up our minds beyond formal education. It may even change online behaviour, once students learn how to probe deeper and become better at analysis and synthesis."
Reading, however, might be essential for the future workforce of the nation.
In the coming decades, we need more entrepreneurs and self-employed citizens to keep pace with the aspirations and needs of the population. Hence, it is even more critical that students learn to read beyond short form content, social media and gossip sites.
Tackling interdisciplinary challenges
Today's problems are largely interdisciplinary and solutions must draw from a wide pool of ideas. Given our focus on technical education and lack of modernisation of liberal arts curricula (barring pockets of excellence), large sections of youth are never exposed to broad-based knowledge and expansive patterns of thinking. In technical institutes such as IITs, social sciences are mandatory. Instead of psychology or art history, achievement-oriented students opt for finance or economics. But ideas for tomorrow cannot come just from the domains of technology and finance. They need interface with biology, chemistry, design, architecture, urban planning, data analytics, marketing, arts, communication, consumer psychology and much more. If students learn within narrow formats, how will this broad, interdisciplinary thinking emerge?
Whether reading occurs through books or digital platforms is moot. Publishing, like other industries, will experience its own forces of creative destruction. Books certainly provide collated and curated content for learning. The internet has opened up the world for us, but navigating information online to get comprehensive understanding on a topic requires an ability to connect the dots. It is like creating our own mind map, as we surf the sites. Synthesising information comes with practice. Reading non-fiction books opens up our minds beyond formal education. It may even change online behaviour, once students learn how to probe deeper and become better at analysis and synthesis.
Government, businesses and institutions are grappling with the problem of employability. Partially, it arises because students from narrow curricula have no connects with the real world and the jobs they may be required to do. But in large part, the gap lies in the ability to imagine outside narrowly established constructs. If select few institutions employ methods of inquiry or multi disciplinary teaching, the only way students can bridge the gap is through self-reading.
"Researchers from UK and US have found that good fiction teaches us more about managing others and ourselves than the best of management books."
Enabling emotionally aware workers
Self-awareness and awareness of others holds students back from success in the workplace or as entrepreneurs. Workplaces can become toxic if people cannot manage themselves, their impact or influence others. BBC and CNN extol virtues of Indian-born CEOs in global firms (see here, for example), lauding them for humility, adaptability and ability to work with diverse people at all levels. They are a handful of exemplars from our educational system. How can more students graduate with higher levels of emotional and social quotient? "Finishing courses" are cropping up to offer counselling and personal leadership lessons. The other surprising answer could come from fiction. Researchers from UK and US have found that good fiction teaches us more about managing others and ourselves than the best of management books. Possibly, because fiction, like an immersive case study, takes us into the minds and actions of the hero and the heroine -- we can reflect on how they battle the odds, or not, and learn from it.
Engaging across languages
Namita Gokhale, director of the Jaipur Literature Festival, rues the emphasis on "working English", which gives large swathes of youth a limited vocabulary but is not sufficient to read deeply and widely. At the same time, these youth don't read in their regional language either. The more people read, the better they can comprehend, analyse or shape their thoughts. It is this ability to shape ideas and concepts that sets people apart. If we are to turn into a nation of self-driven doers and entrepreneurs, these traits must get embedded across geographies and income groups.
We need a "Read India" campaign to encourage youth to pick up books -- fiction or analytical nonfiction, in print or digital. We need reading rooms, lending libraries, reading contests, reader engagement activities, office book groups, college reading sessions and possibly some of the corporate CSR budgets diverted towards this cause. One thing is certain -- without an open mind and varied inputs, we will not be able to attain the dreams we have ignited in our youth. Opportunities don't come to the unprepared.
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