The Value of Copying

Ashim D’Silva

When we were doing our first ‘creative’ endeavours in high school–essays, paintings, poems–there was a large focus from the very beginning on originality. We were told to try and be original, discouraged from copying, and rewarded for uniqueness, even in its most basic forms.

This however, came at odds with most every other subject we were being taught–sciences and humanities. In language and art classes, be original, in maths, sciences, history, do not dare stray out of the limited knowledge in a text book. As we grew older, all focus shifted toward the latter and any lessons in creativity and originality were quashed under a mass of memory intensive learning techniques.

I think one step was missing: an understanding.

When I later did art at uni, one of the workshops that had a profound impression on me involved copying. I was at a university level, under the impression I was going to learn to be original, expressive and ‘creative’, and this class centered entirely around copying. We looked at pieces of work from history–we picked them ourselves—and we slavishly copied. Some of us had the requisite skill to do justice, but for those of us who didn’t, we needed to search for the most value we could replicate. Suddenly the art was no longer visual; it had context, it had meaning, the depth seemed to expand past what you could see on the canvas and became about what it felt like; it became visceral.

And I think this would be a valuable learning in science and math, as in history, geography and civics. We focused heavily on truths, unquestioned, often unexplained, but with requisite proof that these seemed frivolous exploits. To wonder why Pythagorus’ theorem worked, or a screw made the workload lighter, or even why a war started instead of who started it and when it ended, became an inefficient use of time since the target simply was the end of year examinations–notoriously dependent on memory.

As a result, much of what we learnt in school was valueless in later life. We are trained specifically for the job at hand and execute with ruthless efficiency, larger and more complex projects. I think we need to step back and relearn; go through high school physics and understand its real world application; understand wars and government policy, why they existed, why they were flawed, what we can do to improve them; learn the maths we dreaded in a space unrestrained by failure… after all, maths is the language of the universe.

India lives in a near infamy of copying, but it often misses a step. When we build bridges, lay roads, organise traffice, contruct buildings, force public policy on a confused people, we are often missing why these exist in another context, and what part needs to be ported over, with new improvements. We build glass buildings in tropical climates and fight the heat with air conditioning; we produce a $30 tablet computer with no focused goal for release, and wonder why the country doesn’t applaud; we mimic the movies beloved by history, minus everything that made them unique; we are confused about what we want because we are a distinct people, in a diverse world, and we haven’t learnt how to copy and improve in a new context.

When we do, originality will become habitual and regular rather than awarded for its rarity.

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