Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Education Part 5: An IIT-ian's letter and Columbia's Core Curriculum

A few years back CBS aired a program on IIT's replete with superlatives calling its admissions more exclusionary than Harvard or MIT. IIT's were Nehru's dream of India's own world class institutions. They were,each, formed by a statute of Indian parliament as 'autonomous' colleges. Yet not a single IIT'ian has won the Nobel, not even in US, let alone as Indians. Do IIT'ians deserve the aura? In a word, NO. The aura of IIT is something IIT-ians themselves take pride of. Why have IIT's become mere assembly line feeders for Ivy leagues cracking a perfect score in GRE/GMAT but most end up as run of the mill graduates indistinguishable from the hoi-polloi? Its time we held them accountable.

An IIT alumnus had written "An Open Letter to Director, IIT Bombay" lamenting how IIT hostels equipped with  round the clock internet access had robbed inmates of valuable socializing. He notes with pride, "IITians are known today across the world as great warriors who fight against all odds without losing their sense of humour and wit...I am sure that IITB community will be able to face up to the problem and come up with solutions that will guide all other institutes, colleges and universities not just in India but also abroad". He thinks of IIT-B as a beacon to the world and as having a 'brand value'.

The letter is notable for his comments on the poor presentation skills and lack of ability to communicate an idea effectively by IIT grads. "An average student of IITB during the late seventies honed his skills at discussions, argumentation and debate in the mess, corridors and steps of hostels. I remember that when I came as fresher, I could hardly speak English. In less than a year, I was speaking fluently - albeit, with a lot of slang"

I was surprised to note that an entrant to IIT could barely speak in English. The recent mess in IIT-JEE gave the clue. IIT-JEE is conducted in both English and Hindi. Good number of North Indians go through vernacular schools and learn only rudimentary English. Also unlike MIT or Harvard or Stanford or Caltech IIT admits students based only on test scores. Soft skills, extra curricular activities, rounded personalities, diversity etc are of ZERO value to get into an IIT. C.P. Snow, famous for his book on 'Two Cultures' lamenting the gulf in education between humanities and the sciences would jump over a cliff seeing these cardboard characters pass out of a college with no knowledge of classical literature or fine arts within their curriculum. 

A friend of mine, who did his PhD in Nuclear Disarmament in UIUC (Chicago) wrote to me, "
At the risk of oversimplifying and generalising the problem, I would say that IITians are (there may be always exceptions) generally inept in social skills. They are quite brilliant at doing certain narrow set of things. But because their brains have become compartmentalized they seldom appreciate broad based education. What I really lament is the lack of an interdiscplinary orientation of our learning process and education in general.Coming to IITians, you can't have a decent conversation with most of them on broader issues (say, politics, society, religion philosophy, economics etc). Since I was studying in UIUC, where hordes of IITians migrate for MS and PhD, I have seen them from close quarters. At UIUC, I always enjoyed interacting with grad students in the less privileged departments like political science, economics, etc. They generally came from liberal arts colleges (Loyola, Xavier, Vivekananda, St Stephens etc) and lesser known science and engineering colleges!"

I can attest to that having seen a sampling of these grads at work and elsewhere. Don't get me wrong, they are all pretty intelligent, many do excel in their respective fields. However given their aura, their own pride it is fair to hold them up to a higher criteria for judging and I'd say "The emperor has no clothes".

Louis Menand, professor of English in Harvard, writes "A college's general education curriculum, what the faculty chooses to require of everyone, is a reflection of its overall educational philosophy". Columbia University, New York, comes in for a singular praise for its "core curriculum". Columbia requires all its students to have a good grounding in liberal arts and they consider that such an exposure would widen a student's perspective and help a student be the best possible student for his/her lifetime.

What is  'liberal education' or 'humanities' that US universities lay so much stress on for graduates? "Liberal education is not reducible to a specific body of knowledge. It's a background mentality, a way of thinking, a kind of intellectual DNA that informs work in ever specialized area of inquiry".

"Columbia college believes that there are certain books that everyone ought to have read by the time they graduate...At Columbia..they must take Literatuer HUmanities, which is a great books course. At Harvard, not just any history course will do; students must take a course that introduces them to historical analysis". Important caveat is that this is only for graduate studies not for masters in which many Indians and IITians enroll thanks to their ability to 'crack GRE'.

Quite often Ivy League professors, usually themselves students of Ivy League colleges, appear on TV or write op-eds conveying complex issues for public consumption in lay terms. Many write Pulitzer or other prize winning books meant for lay people. This is important because it demonstrates an ability to take arcane issues and 'explain' them captivatingly. Many serve in government and appear in Congressional testimonies explaining to lawmakers intricate details on live TV. I ask the IIT-ians, where is your Carl Sagan? Who is your George Smoot? Do you have a Louis Menand? Who is your Drew Gilpin Faust? Who is your Neil de-Grasse Tyson? 

Now it would be fair to compare the deans of IIT-B and MIT. Dean of IIT-B was featured in India Today's list of people to watch for in the millennium (he was a professor then). Going to IIT-B website a mangled page takes you to a 'blurb' (yes its just that) on the director. Going to that page you cannot even click on an icon to go to homepage instead you have to scroll back. I am sure he is an accomplished professor in his field but can he stand toe to toe with Susan Hockfield, President of MIT. Check out her page and her CV at . Ofcourse the MIT logo at top left would always take you to the home page. What caught my attention in her CV was her 'Board Memberships'. Fine Arts (Boston Symphony Orchestra), Corporate (GE), Government (Several), International (World Economic Forum). she writes Op-Eds on a variety of subjects relating to research and education. Her speeches and essays are an eclectic collection of a truly 'renaissance' mind.

1 comment:

Jaz said...

Some hostels even have their own bars, which is usually an easy way to spot a party hostel.

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