| The administrative building of IIT Roorkee. Telegraph picture |
Only a few days back, I was at the silver jubilee (November 23-November 25) celebration of the 1987 batch at IIT Roorkee. I hadn’t met many of my classmates since we had left college and it’s hard to describe the feeling of this delightful meeting. All of us became 25 years younger in a flash! It may sound like a cliché, but we really had the time of our lives.
We exchanged notes on our triumphs and successes, our failures and moments of despair. We felt a deep sense of gratitude towards our alma mater which had prepared us well to face the challenges of life. All of us, without exception, had done well in earning a comfortable living, money and social positions among other things. However, none of us, not even a few batches senior or junior from any IITs, had made the impact which all of us had dreamt of as an 18-year-old.
We became aware that in spite of an exceptional intake at the entry level, none of the IIT alumni were in the league of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Henry Ford or Robert Noyce. IITs had produced a few Chaturs (of 3 Idiots fame) , many Farhans and Raju Rastogis but hardly a Rancho. Most of us have become Farhans and Rajus who made a decent living but did not have any significant impact on the world around us. IIT alumni of the likes of N.R. Naryanamurthy and Nandan Nilekani are few.
It is not that some of us did not establish multi-million dollar companies from scratch or were not part of cutting-edge technical teams or did not earn a few patents or did not have our photographs splashed on front covers of leading magazines but somehow we do not match up to alumnus (dropouts included!) of Ivy League universities of the US.
Has the education system in technical institutions of our country focused too long on only engineering and technology and channelled the energy of its students on only that? I feel that is one of the problems.
As engineering students, we hardly had the option of studying literature, art, history, economics or philosophy. Even if one is inclined towards it, a student of technology doesn’t get to read, as part of the curriculum, the poetry of P.B. Shelly, John Keats, discuss Bertrand Russell, Oscar Wilde, Aristotle, Plato or John Locke. So names like Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Carol Ann Duffy, Thom Gunn, Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter are even less heard of in the IIT corridors. Nor are Picasso, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Beatles or Ravi Shankar discussed in classrooms. The present system does not permit taking a course in economics or English literature along with other technical courses. Even simple courses like creative writing are not offered, nor do they earn credits. There is not only a lack of exchange between engineering and arts courses, but hardly any choice for a person to opt for even biology, medicine and technology together. It works in such water-tight compartments, that even biology and technology are hardly allowed to mix together.
This interdisciplinary segregation will have to be done away with if we want the IIT alumni to be at the forefront of technical innovation. In today’s world, an outstanding product, marketing strategy or managerial leadership is increasingly a result of interdisciplinary interaction. These premier institutes should not remain isolated as islands of high technical education but offer courses in arts and other fields of science as well as music and medicine, dance, drama and biology together. Liberal arts are as nourishing for the soul as science is for the mind.
Also, it is not just lack of interdisciplinary courses that is the problem. Part of the problem lies in the way the entire system of evaluation, examination and grades works. Courses are designed and evaluated to see if the students have received sufficient knowledge, but there is no emphasis on evaluating innovation and creativity. We will have to give the same status to “creativity” as to “gathering knowledge” in the IIT scheme of things.
The system of grades and the entire evaluation process discourage students to try out new things. Our system does not tolerate mistakes, making sure creativity is kept at an arm’s length and not encouraged.
A retired teacher, Prof. Sinha, in his address to us at the silver jubilee meet, said: “An institution is not known by its buildings, laboratories and libraries or by its professors but by the students it produces.”
If we want the IITs to match up to the best universities of the world in terms of the students it produces, “creativity”, rather than simply the “assimilation of knowledge”, will have to become the primary focus as part of being centres of excellence. The humanities have to be embraced with as much love and respect as technology and science.
Ultimately, the impact IITs create on the world is determined not by the smart young ones entering the institutes by cracking the toughest screening tests, but by the women and men who eventually come out of these institutes, ready to push the frontier of human knowledge a little further.