Of marks and grades…

It’s that time of the year when the marks and grades frenzy grips every household that has a student old enough to ponder over questions of career. And every year, unfailingly, we see and hear reports of students choosing to end their lives over their perceived failure. It’s depressing and disheartening to see that so many teens view this failure as a failure in life itself.

There’s something seriously wrong with a system that encourages rote learning and privileges grades and marks over a true understanding of what is taught. Somehow, every year, the focus shifts a little further away from learning and towards the result. So much so that we’ve moved so far away from learning that we no longer recognise the true purpose of education: learning.

What drives children to end their lives over something so trivial as a few marks lost here and there? What makes them believe that they’ve truly reached the end of the world and there’s really no way out of the mess? Haven’t they ever heard of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Or are such motivational stories just stories that bear no resemblance to the lives we live? 

I am not qualified in any way to talk of education, its quality or the way it’s delivered. But, what I do know is that this is not what it should be. Learning should inspire, not terrify. It should bring joy, not stress. If our system brings so much stress that we no longer feel or experience the joy of learning, maybe it’s time to change the system, one brick at a time. And perhaps, we should start by telling our children that it’s ok to fail sometimes. 

India…

Over the last two days, I have been meeting people from other countries, many of whom have only heard of India over television, but never visited. Some others have distant memories of this country and find that the country that is, is no longer the country they remember. India has changed; irrevocably, and in ways that were completely unimaginable 10 years ago.

Personally, I find that I have ambiguous feelings towards the whole issue. A part of me presents the new India with a pride, a pride in having come this far, a pride in having the capacity to match some of the best in the world. Another part feels ashamed of the traffic, the indiscipline and the sheer chaos that characterizes much of India. Yet another part yearns for some unknown, lost innocence that seemed a part of my childhood, that I don’t find any longer in the children of today.

I am trying to put these conflicting feelings in words as I experience this inner struggle between pride, shame, embarrassment and nostalgia. On the positive side, I feel truly proud that people who came into India 20 years ago, find it unrecognizable today. Better roads, better cars, greater material comforts and impressive buildings, all speaking success stories that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. I feel happy that there is nothing that is not available in India. I feel proud of what we have managed to achieve since the pre-liberalization era of the 1980s.

I also feel embarrassed that despite our obvious economic progress, we remain indisciplined. We have no idea how to use our roads, how to respect the traffic lights or how to follow traffic rules. I feel ashamed that while we publicly applaud Anna Hazare’s efforts at eliminating corruption in the public sphere, we do not think twice about offering a cop a hundred-rupee bribe to let us go for jumping the red. I also feel ashamed that our sex ratio is a pathetic 914:1000, while we continue to wax eloquent about the Indian tradition of worshipping the Mother Goddess.

I sometimes wonder if my western education and the short time spent in France have made me an incorrigible cynic. But, I would be happier seeing my country develop not just in economic terms but also in human terms. I would like to see some concrete action against the most damaging social ills like corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. I would like to see social development getting as much focus as economic success, at the risk of sounding like a card-carrying member of the Communist Party! I also hope to see the freedom of speech and expression being defended as passionately as it is today, even if that freedom is inconvenient to me. I hope to see more people believe that the most important thing about a democracy is the freedom to debate, discuss and disagree on the most critical issues facing our nation today.

And I hope my hopes and dreams materialize in my lifetime. I hope that one day I will leave India, and also hope that one day my India will make me regret my decision to leave it. I hope to see my country win that many more World Cups, but also hope that cricket doesn’t become the only binding force in this country of 1.23 billion. Only time will tell if my hopes and dreams will be realized.And I hope that day comes soon enough!

Of marriage, MBA and communication skills!

I just saw this blogpost by Rashmi Bansal. She’s blogging after a rather long break and it’s good to see her back! But, to get back to the point, she touches upon issues that are varied and yet pertinent and most probably interconnected. As far as small-town, tier 3 B-schools are concerned, the truth is that today, a B-school degree is “buyable”. You don’t need any degree of competence or intelligence to actually acquire an MBA and apart from the top-rung institutions, not many B-schools offer quality management education. There are, of course, exceptions to that rule, but B-schools, by and large, money-spinners rather than educational institutions.

I think Rashmi is better-qualified to comment on the state of management education in India that I am. My concern for the moment is the plight of that girl who is a first-year B-school student and whose parents want to see her married to a “suitable boy”. As far as the marriage market is concerned, it’s a case of “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.” A girl needs to acquire a decent degree, better still, a post-graduate degree to be considered a “saleable” commodity in the marriage market. After all, every man wants a smart, well-educated and articulate wife. Even better if the said post-graduate degree is a “professional” one! But that’s where we draw the line. A smart, well-educated, articulate, beautiful girl who has a degree or three must however, not be assertive or have a mind of her own. You’re damned if you choose not to study beyond the mandatory first degree because nobody wants a dumb bride! You’re also damned if you make unconventional life choices and study beyond the universally-accepted MBA!

So, the ideal scenario would be that a woman acquire those desirable traits to make herself desirable in the marriage market. And pray, what are those desirable traits? A post-graduate degree (preferably in management) but not more, articulate speech, beauty (a.k.a a bleached “fair and lovely” fairness), and a desire to be a doormat for the rest of her life! What have you? Do they even make women this way any more? More and more women I know are working not because they have to, but because they want to. More and more women are choosing to make careers and not just get jobs. But, the attitude of the men doesn’t seem to be changing. Ok! Perhaps I am being a bit harsh here. Men are changing, they are beginning to accept and even appreciate brains in a woman. But their parents still seem stuck in the 13th Century!

When will we, as a society get over this dual obsession: of acquiring pointless “professional” degrees nobody ever uses and of finding our children “suitable” boys and girls? When will we understand that the number of degrees you possess is no indicator of just how intelligent you are? When will we manage to figure out that intelligent is an asset and not a liability? If ever!

Children and “traditional values”

I have been meaning to write this since Sunday when I first came across this article in The Hindu via @calamur. Something kept coming up and I kept postponing the post, until I saw this blogpost, which addresses pretty much the same issue. Our children seem to be bombarded every single day with television soaps, cartoons, and even ads that reinforce age-old stereotypes.

Take the first article for instance. Latika Gupta cites three television soaps that reinforce the idea of the docile and obedient bride. I have personally never seen any of the three soaps mentioned, but let me tell you; any soap that reinforces and promotes unconditional and blind obedience is bad. When Latika Gupta talks about the little girl refusing to meet her eye and behaving like a conventional “nayee bahu”, it’s deeply saddening. This might be a one-off incident, certainly. But, it is still distressing to see little girls wrapped up in “ghunghats” and veils, pretending to be coy and docile.

I remember protesting at D calling me innocent. But, you know what’s worse than innocent? Being obedient. Why is obedience such a virtue? IHM mentioned in a comment to an earlier post that she hated the word obedience. I totally get her point. Why are we, living in the 21st Century, teaching our girls to be submissive and docile? Why are we insisting on blind obedience even in this day and age? Would it not be more advisable to teach a girl to think for herself and take the best possible decision, given the circumstances? Would it not be better if we could teach our daughters to be courageous rather than docile? Who knows what challenges lie ahead? Aren’t boldness and courage desirable attributes in a human being, irrespective of gender?

Soaps like “Baalika Vadhu” and “Sajan Ghar Jana Hai” make me want to puke. What values are we teaching our children by not only allowing them to watch soaps that reinforce and perpetrate archaic and completely unacceptable ideals of “Patni Dharma”, but also actively encouraging them to emulate those examples? I simply cannot ignore the gender perspective in this issue. While, as Latika Gupta puts it, little boys grow up wanting to become doctors, engineers, pilots and lawyers, little girls grow up wanting to be nothing more than perfectly traditional, docile, obedient wives? What is wrong with us? Why are approving of this?

Cartoons, aimed specifically at children and playing on channels such as Pogo seem no better than these soaps in television. As Aishwarya says on her blogpost (linked above), the show (Chhota Bheem) has only one major female character in Chutki, who is feminine, docile (useful isn’t it?) and does a lot of art work and housework. Indumati is the second character in the cartoon series that Aishwarya doesn’t mention. It is interesting, and infuriating to read the description of the said characters on the series’ official site. While Chutki is homely, docile, feminine, loves to cook and clean and feed Bheem, Indu is the quintessential damsel in distress. Bheem seems to keep saving her from some danger or the other. What’s worse? Chutki and Indu are rivals in their attempts to win over Bheem’s affections! For goodness’ sake, stop it! The two female characters’ lives revolve around our beloved hero. Whatever happened to their lives? Do they even live it? Or does everything depend on our hero’s approval?

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of such social conditioning via the media is the fact that most parents seem to approve. They seem to think these serials teach them traditional values, never mind if those values are actually stuck somewhere in the 17th Century. Will this ever change?

The great science-humanities debate

I was pointed to two articles that contribute to the great science vs. humanities debate, by Abi. The author, Shreesh Chaudhary is a professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT-Madras. He raises some very pertinent, and thought-provoking questions, even as he identifies three basic reasons for the lack of prominence of Humanities and social sciences insitutions in India, compared to the Science and Technology institutions. The most pertinent question is why insitutions of higher education in the humanities and social sciences do not enjoy as much visibility or funding as the IITs or the IISc.

The problems, as Chaudhary points out, may be structural, financial or managerial, but they are not the only ones. There are sociological problems associated with the funding of Humanities and Social Sciences institutions. Science and technology have long occupied pride of place in the collective psyche of the nation. Nehru’s “temples of Modern India” were factories manufacturing iron, steel, coal and every other conceivable product. Never once did he think of producing a world-class institution of humanities, social sciences or philosophy. The earliest IIT, in Kharagpur, was created barely 4 years after independence, aiming to provide technology education to a country where capital alone was not enough for progress. (Source) But, somehow, educational insitutions catering to the humanities and social sciences were always put on the back burner.

The IITs and other such institutions of higher education in science and technology are perceived by the general public as a talent pool. Companies, IT and core industry alike, vie for a slice of the pie. Campus recruitments are at an all-time high in these institutions, and pay packages, especially for IIT/IIM graduates run into crores. Public spending on such intitutions are considered, both by politicians and the tax-payer, as an investment, rather than as expediture. Any improvements to infrastructure, sanctioning of additional funds for these insitutions or radical structural changes are met with immediate approval and are easier to justify from a political perspective.

Now, compare this with institutions like the Jawaharlal Nehru University or the Jamia Millia Islamia. JNU, although prestigious and widely-respected, still suffers from lack of attention and funding in critical sectors. The state of less-prestigious (in comparison with JNU) universities like the EFLU (formerly CIEFL) and Jamia Millia is even more pathetic. Even good universities like the Madras University, Bombay University and even Delhi University are woefully inadequate in imparting quality education. In Madras University for instance, faculty positions remain unfilled for years on end, either due to lack of effort on the part of the administration in finding suitable candidates, or because of the near-total absence of personal growth for the lecturer concerned. These problems need to be addressed if we want our social sciences universities to be as widely recognized as our IITs and IIMs.

But, why must we fund, out of taxpayers’ money, a university teaching the liberal arts or philosophy? The reasons are manifold.

Engineering education alone does not make a nation. While technology might contribute to industrial progress and wealth generation, liberal arts like political science and economics are paramount to ensure just distribution and management of the wealth created. Let the industry generate wealth. But, leave it to the government to distribute it. And we need educated people in government. Or rather, people educated in the humanities and liberal arts.

Deserving and intelligent students who want to pursue the liberal arts, without spending a fortune to go abroad must have somewhere to go. There are no universities comparable to the IITs in status or quality. Although humanities education will not help people make millions, and although a graduate in the arts or social sciences will not get that 7-figure salary an MBA commands today, it can by no means considered lesser in worth. Because, education cannot and must not be judged by the monetary benefit we derive from it.

The liberal arts and humanities cultivate a wider world view. This wider world view is necessary for anyone who wishes to be really successful. Because the best entrepreneurs and the most successful professionals are those who look beyond their chosen fields and take unconventional decisions.

This bias against humanities and the social sciences needs to go. Philosophy, politics, economics, and history may not fetch money, but they still deserve attention and funding. This is simply because no field of knowledge, however obscure, is useless. Let’s not lose track of humanities completely, in our zeal to create new IITs and NITs. Let’s at least make the effort to upgrade our JNUs and EFLUs to meet international standards.

Higher education and Budget 2009

In the Finance Bill 2009, nearly 9 billion INR (approx. $189 million) has been allocated to spending on higher education. This is a 36% hike on spending for higher education over the previous financial year. Let’s first look at the actual provisions of the budget. All information below has been taken from the official budget site (PDF link) of the Government of India.

  1. Student loans for the economically weaker sections of society: Full interest subsidy for the moratorium period for loans taken from scheduled banks to study any approved course in any recognized institution in India. This basically translates as an exemption from payment of interest for any loan taken, until one year (usually) after the end of studies. In other words, if I take a loan for pursuing an MBA degree, I don’t pay it back until I get a job, or for one year after the end of my studies (whichever is earlier.)
  2. INR 900 crores (INR 9 billion) for education and INR 495 crores (4.9 billion) to set up and upgrade polytechnics.
  3. About 9 billion to set-up Central Universities in states that don’t have any.
  4. About 20 billion for IITs and NITs of which 4.5 billion is for setting up of new IITs and NITs.

That’s the only information we have about proposed budgetary spending for education in India. This table (PDF link) details the total expenditure by department/ministry. Here is the summary of the department relevant to this post.

education-expenditure
As you can see, total expenditure on school education and literacy is around 20,000 crores (200 billion), in 2007-08. It increased to about 260 billion in 2008-09. Total planned expenditure for 2009-10 is around 290 billion. In comparison, spending on higher education has gone up from 62 billion in 2007-08 to around 159 billion in 2009-10. In other words, there has been a 130% increase in total spending on higher education over the last 3 years, compared to a mere 40% for school education and literacy.

Now, there seems to be a basic problem in this spending pattern. Although, in absolute terms, spending on primary education exceeds spending on higher education, it still works out to very less. Consider this, in 2001, roughly 35 percent of India’s billion-strong population was less than 15 years of age. (Source) This is the section of the population that is concerned with primary education. The total number of persons concerned is thus about 350 million. A total expenditure of about 30 billion for 350 million persons is about 85 rupees per person. This amount is negligible by almost all standards. Considering the abnormally high drop-out rates in India, the challenge of achieving total literacy is even higher.

Now, it’s not as if spending on higher education must be cut. However, it is important to remember that primary education is the stepping stone to progress. Unless children go to school and get educated, spending on higher education will be meaningless. Also, subsidizing higher education makes no sense to me. Giving fee concessions for students in universities does not solve the problem. This is especially true with the IITs and NITs. Making credit freely available and encouraging banks to check only the capacity of the student to get a job and pay the money back will go a long way in getting students from underprivileged families into college. It is not important to give free education. It is more important to impart quality education, especially in the tertiary education sector.

Facilitating access to centres of excellence in higher education, especially for economically backward sections of society can be done simply by removing the financial hurdles that exist today. The IITs are a case in point. It is extremely difficult to gain access to any of the IITs. The creation of new IITs and NITs will only solve this problem to a certain extent. It is more important to ensure that the existing IITs and NITs do not lose their relevance and quality in the endeavour to create new ones. In other words, an increase in the number of such institutions must not compromise quality. To ensure this, spending on upgradation and maintenance of infrastructure is essential. What is neither required nor advisable is subsidising the tuition fee, or lowering the entry barrier by relaxing the norms for reserved categories.

Much can be done for higher education within the existing framework. Primary education, on the other hand, requires a complete overhaul. The National Literacy Missions don’t seem to be working too well. The school dropout rates are still alarmingly high, and show no signs of dropping. Female literacy is abysmal, especially in rural areas and in the BIMARU states. Correcting these anomalies require, not just money, but also political will. Sadly, for our government, it seems to be taking a back seat. Catering to the IT and ITeS sectors seem to take priority, with the government going out of its way to provide engineering education and training at the cost of basic literacy programmes.

The need of the hour is to address basic concerns regarding primary education. Ensuring that primary schools exist and function in rural areas (at least one in every village) is essential. Even the one-room schools that do exist suffer from lack of amenities and even teachers. Providing of drinking water, sanitation and a comfortable learning environment will also greatly help. Of these, sanitation is especially important if we want to keep girls in schools at least until they are 14. Many girls drop out of schools due to the complete absence of toilets in the schools. The noon-meal scheme that worked so well in some Indian states needs to be properly implemented, ensuring that the children get a nutritious and well-cooked meal, at least once a day. These measures are already in place. It just requires budgetary allocation, and more importantly, political will to function properly. Whether it will actually happen is the million-dollar question.

Of percentages and related things…

I just discovered maidinmalaysia’s blog. And man! It’s awesome. And this post in particular reminded me that I haven’t blogged for a while. I so totally agree with everything she says, that I don’t really know where to start. She says she has three problems with this percentage business. I have many, many more.

  1. As MIM says, it doesn’t show a thing about you. Zilch. Zero. You may get an astronomical percentage in your exams, but that doesn’t mean you are intelligent. You may barely touch sixty, and it doesn’t show you are stupid. It merely shows how much you can mug up and vomit during the three hours you are forced to sit in an exam hall.
  2. How much you score in an exam, has absolutely nothing to do with what you in life post-school. Your marks should not determine your fate. Unfortunately for us, that’s exactly what it does. A person must be judged on aptitude and not rote memory. Our present educational system puts absolutely no emphasis on creativity, aptitude or intelligence.
  3. Marks are not, and can never be, a judge of character. People who score less than average marks are not necessarily inferior to toppers. They deserve no less than those who score high in examinations. I will never understand the air of superiority with which high scorers strut around, especially in academic and scholastic circles.
  4. MIM got me started on the whole science vs. humanities debate. Now, I will never shut up. It galls me when people give me looks of derision when I say I am a History graduate. Or when they say that someone with a 50 percent in the final exam can only get a seat in the History department. I am angry that History, Politics, Fine Arts and other social sciences are somehow considered inferior to the natural and physical sciences. I get extremely pissed off when people tell me that any fool can get a degree in the Arts. I feel like telling them to try. I feel like challenging them that it’s impossible to do.

Society plays a major role in influencing a person’s options. While the mind acknowledges this fact and sees the logic behind people sticking to Engineering or Medicine as a career choice, my heart still pleads for sanity sometimes. The problem does not lie with the subjects per se, but with the perception that only people who do Engineering and medicine can be successful. One comment on MIM’s post made me realise this harsh reality. Ultimately, for most people, education is not about acquisition of knowledge. It’s about acquiring a passport to a better life. I beg your pardon. A richer life. Period. Whether you like studying what you study is immaterial. What is important is whether it gets you the moolah. Maybe I am getting a bit cynical. But sadly, that’s the way the world works. I wonder if this attitude will ever change. If we, as a people, as a society and a culture, will ever get around to accepting that other subjects (read the soft options) are as good as the hard sciences. I can only hope it changes by the time my children get to college. At least.

The spirit of debate

There was an excellent article in the Times of India today, on how children are actively discouraged from asking questions by educational institutions. First, check it out here. We pride ourselves on our intelligence; we wax eloquent about how good we are in the sciences, how we excel in everything we do, and on how India is the destination for tomorrow’s world. But, we cannot answer one single unexpected question. Most Indians cannot think outside the box. What else can explain the appalling lack of innovation in Indian industry?

Take for example the question of patents. Statistics show that India is approximately ten years behind India as far as patent-filing and innovation go. The WIPO Patent Statistics Report 2008 (PDF) presents an even more depressing picture. Consider this, The United States is the world’s largest seeker of international patents. India does not even figure prominently. It is relegated to the dungeons of statistical tools under the catch-all phrase "other". Given below is the graph illustrating this statistic.

Image5

What this statistic illustrates is more important than the statistic itself. India is the world’s second most-populous country. We have a population that equals one-sixth of humanity. We have the world’s largest number of English-speaking people. We pat ourselves on the back for being a fully-functional and vibrant democracy. But, we cannot manage to obtain even a minuscule fraction of the world’s intellectual property. To me, this is a damning evidence of the gross failure of the country’s educational system. I have written about this before. But, nothing seems to change. In the mad race for marks and grades, we seem to be losing focus of the very objective of education: to educate. We are so obsessed with being the best that we forget that all this to actually learn something.

A student in India’s schools and universities are banned from asking questions. We fear that questioning will lead to indiscipline. We look upon contradiction as a lack of respect. Personally, I have never felt any respect or sympathy towards teachers who stop students from asking questions. Only a teacher who lacks confidence and self-esteem will fear a student’s questions. As the TOI article so aptly points out, it is Indian tradition to question, critique and argue. Why then, are we suppressing this basic instinct in the name of discipline and respect?

I am a debater. I do not participate in debates any more, but I deliberately use the present tense because I still debate in everyday life. I debate the crashing economy with my father, the reasons behind the fall of the stock market with Anand, the necessity to translate every word from French to English with my students, the price of a kilo of tomatoes with the local vendor. It is in my nature. Why then should I, or anyone else for that matter, not be allowed to question a rule, demand an explanation, argue a point or even prove a teacher wrong in our schools and colleges? I fail to see the logic. Dissent is healthy. In fact, it is life. Tell me if I am wrong.

Globalisation and higher education

I attended a CSA conference on Globalisation and its Impact on higher education this morning. I came away feeling that the speakers were tilting a little too much towards the left for my taste. I also found that one particular speaker was stuck somewhere in the 19th century for his attitude towards globalisation in the education sector. The speaker in question, Dr. Loganathan, is from the Department of Economics at Sir Thyagaraya College in Chennai. So far so good. The problem starts when he opened his mouth to talk economics. Let me explain. He has a problem with the private sector in education. He also has a problem with foreign participation in education. That is fine, as long as you can substantiate the belief, especially in a panel discussion, with decent arguments. That is where the core problem lies. I wanted to rebut him point by point right there, but not wanting to hijack the discussion, I am limiting myself to this blog. His arguments are given in bold. They are summarised from my notes and are not quoted verbatim. My rebuttals in normal font. So, here we go!

Private participation in education has resulted in too many private engineering and arts and science colleges. Since these colleges charge very high fees, the weaker sections of the population are denied access to education.

Right! I agree. But, these private colleges exist to supplement supply of education on the government’s side, and not to replace it.These "weaker sections" have access to public institutions (colleges, universities, schools etc.), which provide highly subsidised, even free education. Now, what about those who are economically backward but cannot access public institutions because of our reservation policy? I admit, that is a problem. But, one that is completely irrelevant to the discussion on globalisation and its impact on education in India. Another theme for another day.

Private institutions will deny the right of the teachers to form unions, and therefore, the right to go on a strike if they so wish. With education being completely public, there is no such danger.

Of course, there is no danger of anyone ever making teachers accountable. Because, every time someone asks questions, they will go on strike, colleges will shut down indefinitely and students will be affected. Let’s get one thing straight here. Going on a strike in not a right. It is a criminal waste of time, and the taxpayers’ money. Will our communists ever get this right? Kerala is stagnating because of this.

With the entry of the private sector, education is increasingly commercialised. This results in the degradation of Indian culture and the disappearance of the Guru-shishya Parampara.

Eh? Of fine. If you insist. But frankly, I don’t see the point at all. I dismissed this one as the rants of an old man.

The entry of the private sector creates competition. This results in private institutions offering sub-standard education.

I beg to differ. Competition inspires improvement in quality. Also, all public institutions are not great. Our very own Madras University is a case in point. It is not equipped with the most basic facilities such as a photocopy machine or a fax. It possesses hardly any computers for a university of that size, and a wi-fi zone is perhaps too much to hope for. In brief, lack of quality is a generic problem in education in India. At least in the public sector, they can procure these things from a part of the profits they make (we hope).

IIT graduates quit the country to serve a foreign state. This is a waste of the taxpayers’ money. In effect, we are subsidising education for those studying abroad.

Hmm. What to say to such a dumb argument? Don’t give things away free. Follow the IIM route. Make credit available for students who get admission into premier institutions. That way, you provide access and don’t waste taxpayers’ money. What say?

Foreign universities want to accredit and evaluate Indian universities. This is a loss in national pride and dignity.

It is not. We really need a global yardstick for measuring quality of education. If that must be done by foreign universities, so be it. Why are we unnecessarily making this an issue of national pride? We could insist on the same in other countries. If our universities are willing to go abroad that is.

On the whole, it was impossible to digest the fact that a senior professor from one of Chennai’s oldest colleges was talking as if he belonged to the 19th century. We need this mindset to change. Maybe it will be difficult to change the mindset of that generation. It is after all, the generation that has seen the worst of economic crises in their youth. But, let’s hope that at least the younger generations will see globalisation and liberalisation of trade, not as a threat but as an opportunity. Let’s hope.

Elitist education?

I saw this link via Nanopolitan. And, I must say the author’s arguments hit home rather well. As Abi says, some of them are broad-brush generalisations, but on the whole, he makes a lot of sense. For instance, when he says that people tend to look down upon others simply because they did not go a certain university, he successfully drives home an important point: that, unconsciously, graduates of elite institutions (I like to believe that Sciences Po is elite) look down upon those who do not "belong" there. I am guilty of that myself. I am proud I got into Sciences Po. But sometimes, I too have displayed that annoying arrogance of someone who is among, as Deresiewicz says, is among the "best and brightest." I am probably not. I am probably just very lucky. Or not even. I also agree that graduates of elite schools tend to judge themselves, and others, by numbers: SAT, GRE, GMAT scores.

In the Indian context, the equivalent is probably IIT and IIM. In this regard, I would like to point you to a brilliant post by Nita. (as always). It is a brilliant analysis of what IIM graduates are doing, how much they are getting paid, and what kinds of jobs they prefer. Beyond all this hype about the IITs and the IIMs, I would like to ask one question. What does an IIT graduate have that any good engineer from a decent engineering college does not? This is an honest question. I do not know. Any answers are welcome.

On a related note, I was rather surprised, even shocked to hear that many of my students have no idea how to write a CV. In fact, even those who are working have never written a CV because they were recruited on campus, and they simply had to fill up a form and take some technical tests. I do agree that BITS Pilani, the IITs and other institutions send out brilliant engineers. But, is brilliance a result of the college in which you studied? I know many people who come from nondescript and even unrecognised institutions who are capable of giving an IIT-grad a run for his money. I simply believe that excellence can exist anywhere, even in the slums. We are, as a society, too caught up in the rut of exams, degrees and marks to see that intelligence is unrelated to most or even all of these factors. What’s more? We are refusing to allow our children to exercise their fundamental right to dissent. Any difference of opinion with school, college or teachers is quickly suppressed. "Just write what is in the text book. Otherwise you will not get marks." These are the words I hear from parents of all ages, day in and day out.

This reluctance to question is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that my grandfather tells me I must not question the analysis that appears in newspapers because those writing for the media are obviously better qualified than me to talk. Pray, why must I shut up when I see a journalist talking nonsense? Because the writer is a professor at JNU? No. I will not shut up. As long as I can substantiate my arguments, I have a right to say what I please. What people like my grandfather conveniently forget, is that we, as Indians, have a right to disagree. Even if we are engineers and not social scientists or strategic analysts. In short, we Indians give more respect to a piece of paper than to real intelligence. We must get out of this. If we want to innovate rather than replicate, we must encourage dissent. There is nothing like a good argument to foster new ideas. We must learn this fundamental truth for our own good.