Mars by MOM, courtesy Isro.org
Mangalyaan snuck into a comfortable orbit around Mars, and a nation came alive. This was a feat of fantastic precision, generating great pride in the hearts of millions. So precise were the underlying calculations, so daring in expectation, so sublime in execution that a senior scientist associated with the mission likened it to “hitting a golf ball from Bangalore to London, and getting it into the hole in one go.” The array of reactions to this achievement has spanned across jingoistic pride, lively optimism for a new future, a sense of vindication for the space agency and its efforts, and yet, through it all, an unmistakable timbre of surprise! It is this last piece that warrants special attention. Closer inspection suggests either a lack of public knowledge of current projects and advances, or reveals a decidedly low opinion of aggregate national ability that may have translated to a general disinterest in tracking such stories outside of a newsflash. It may not be wholly inaccurate to claim that the average citizen does not expect the nation to engineer scientific or academic achievements, let alone be at the frontier. In a significant way, this perception has its roots in a culture of creativity that relies on rote and reproduction; a culture wherein ‘creations’ are but shallow facsimiles, unable to reflect the rigor or audacity that is characteristic of pioneering efforts. If creativity is the source of solutions and progress, it becomes imperative to begin cultivating an atmosphere that stymies the urge to churn half-hearted work out out of sheer obligation, and instead develop one that proactively incentivizes integrity.
The seeds of a culture of creativity are sown at the earliest known moments of learning. Humans, whether in formal, informal or non-formal educational settings, are constantly learning. Exposed to an unending array of new and old stimuli, we learn through an assimilation of pattern and logic. We internalize portions of the extant world bank of knowledge, then springboard from there, adding new insights and dimensions, ultimately leading to the addition of new knowledge to the kitty. It makes sense that at the very early stages, we are rather more involved in the passive receipt of information, as we amass a wealth of building blocks in language, computation and heretofore established truths. Even at that stage, a seed can be as simple as conveying to a young child that her artwork does not conform to coloring within the lines. Now, albeit attention to the lines does hold value in that it represents the tuning of motor-skills, what is problematic is the likelihood of a teacher insisting that the child is “wrong” for not following suit. Such messaging of singular correctness sets the tone for a constricted educational journey.
Given that education is more a process than a phase, the academic habits imbibed at the formative stages of learning can vastly affect the manner in which a learner engages with new ideas and material in all the years to follow. When student ‘creations’ are assessed purely on, say, punctuality, completion and an unchecked adherence to given texts and sources, this sets a precedent that can have adverse ramifications for two important matters- 1) healthy pride in one’s own ability and work, and 2) the lack of appreciation for the history and efforts underlying the source material.
Extracting source content for reference is fairly routine in the creative process. Academic and artistic need along with personal interest continue to remain motivators for research and exploration, only now the avenues available to a seeker are more sophisticated and user-friendly. The current paradigm bears that education is shifting in favor of digitizing components of the teaching-learning process. Wherever possible, source materials are undergoing a translocation from analog libraries to an unassumingly vast “online” database, access to which lies but a click away. Whether it is a teenager attempting to collect materials for her class project, or a PhD candidate cross-referencing cited works, the Internet has come to represent quick and easy access to (largely) free to low-cost content. Further enhanced by said ease and speed of access, the playing field is thus rife with opportunity to parade another’s work as a personal original, or fail to give credit when and where it is due. At a more fundamental and individual level, there appears to be an inexplicable trend to borrow even simple items, despite not being in one’s best interest to do so.
For instance, consider the especially comical case of organizations opting to use existing web images to populate their web pages in the hope of displaying their team at work. The only catch is that the images depict a swathe of people who look nothing at all like the organization’s diverse partners or beneficiaries! This particular scenario fairly begs this question: Was it really that difficult to take a picture of real employees in action, say, for the “what we do” section?
These may appear to be negligible “oversights” in the grand scheme, but they are symptomatic of a larger trend, of complacence and resignation within a creative culture. This is characterized by a growing tendency to take content for granted, underscoring a disconnect between the creators and the consumers. Surely, an appreciation for the struggles and satisfaction of creative process as experienced personally would translate to the ability to grant another the courtesy of similar acknowledgment? On the one hand, the ethics of intellectual property use and plagiarism are often deliberated to simply be a relatively innocuous matter of failure at digital etiquette, requiring but a reprimand perhaps, whereas on the other hand, consequences emerge from the harsh and legal aspects of the transgressions.
Here is a new proposition: Rather than being seen only as matter to be resolved by punitive action, plagiarism should be taken seriously as an indicator of underlying sociological and pedagogical issues. Is it an honest lack of interest or joy in the pursuit of creation in a particular field? Could it be the result of ignorance? How did this cast come to be? The origins are not fully clear. It behooves us to wonder at the root cause of the urge to pilfer, or otherwise we must reconcile with the reality that rallying for punitive action does nothing to change status quo, addressing merely the superficial symptoms.
Mangalyaan’s success has underscored in a massively heartening way that academic independence yet thrives on the subcontinent. The question is how then do we take a page out of this success, and propagate the basic principles of creativity against the backdrop of increasingly digital nations? The onus falls squarely on today’s education providers. They are set to play an integral role in the process of laying a foundation highlighting the nature of the Internet within the context of the origin (of content), the various types and voluntary degrees of ownership, plagiarism and its consequences, and best practices in research etiquette. Demystifying these elements as early in the learning curve as possible can very easily make all the difference in the attempt to foster a can-do attitude, pride in indigenous creativity, and an ability to use existing materials critically. Educational programs need to take the initiative to create curricula that weave these important topics into its core. (Computer Masti is an example of one such holistic program that has achieved success across India.)
Aside: At a time when the digital globe is currently grappling with new finagled issues of the paradigm, a strong foundational grasp of the underlying concepts at work also affords digital natives a nuanced take on the dilemmas du jour, e.g. on open source versus financial sustainability of the creative process, on piracy, on net neutrality, on user privilege based on IP address, gender, socio-economic ‘categories’, and so forth. An authentic creative culture is as much dependent on the way individuals value their work, as it is dependent on the trappings of the playing field itself. As we engage in the critique of solutions and policies, it is imperative that we encourage young learners to use the foundation as a springboard to formulate and articulate opinions. If not, we may well unwittingly sentence the best ideas to oblivion.