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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 31 New Delhi July 20, 2019

What Ails our IITs?

Saturday 20 July 2019

by Ashok Celly

There must be something terribly wrong with our IITs. For after four or five years of seemingly intense engagement with a certain branch of engineering a fairly large number of IIT students simply turn their back on it and switch to management, finance etc. without the slightest pang of conscience and assume a brand new identity as financial wizards. Thus the ‘intense’ pursuit of a scientific career ends in a wizardry of sorts. A somewhat retrograde finale! Well, that seems like a colossal failure on the part of India’s most prestigious engineering institutes. What has gone wrong?

It seems to me that the primary cause of this educational tragedy is not narrowly professional or academic. It is something broader and basic, that is, scientific and engineering studies are pursued in a social and cultural vacuum. Unless science and engineering studies are integrally and vitally related to humanities and social sciences, our students will remain prisoners of a micro-vision and wander in a blind alley.

I am aware of the fact that departments of humanities and social sciences have been in existence for quite some time now, but they don’t form an integral part of the total academic programme or design. They are largely decorative or cosmetic, at best an intellectual pastime. For the liberal-humanistic vision, which these disciplines are supposed to impart, seems to have had no impact on the minds of the IIT students. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so easily seduced by the lure of mega bucks and prostate themselves at the altar of Mammon.

The business of humanities and social sciences is to acquaint us with our self and the socio-cultural matrix in which we have our roots just as the business of physical sciences is to impart knowledge of the world that surrounds us. Now an understanding of the self is as important, if not more, as that of the external world because living is about one’s relationship with the objective world. ’Know Thyself’ can be said to be the governing principle of the entire corpus of humanities and social sciences. They deal with man in all his depth and complexity. Shakespeare’s tribute to man in Hamlet—“What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty!”—could well serve as the motto for humanities. (It seems humanities came into their own with the Renaissance, for they too deal with a man-centred universe.)

Now if our engineering and science students—for what applies to engineering applies in equal measure to science—had a proper, not decorative, grounding in humanities and social sciences, if they had been exposed to its rich sub-culture, they would be aware of the romance of scientific inventions (surprisingly the eureka factor is largely absent in our scientific studies) and artistic creations, say, Ajanta and Ellora. They would also encounter the heroism of not only an Alexander but also the greater heroism of an Ashoka and even still greater heroism of a Ramakrishna. All this would have percolated into their consciousness and they would aspire to live a richer and fuller life than the somewhat mundane one of acquiring money. They would look for something finer and deeper—professional excellence, emotional fulfilment and even social commitment.

There is no doubt about the intellectual ability of our IIT students. Also they have a tremendous capacity for hard work. Only they are prisoners of a micro-vision. Hopefully, humanities seriously pursued will liberate them from this micro-vision, for holistic perspective is supposed to be their forte.

For instance, an understanding of the caste system—and here a short story like Premchand’s Sadgati (or Ray’s film with the same title) would help them more than a sociological tract—would broaden their social horizon and make them empathise with the most oppressed section of our society. They would come to understand that caste is not simply economic domination but also socio-cultural enslavement, for the ‘superiority’ of the Brahmins and their own ‘inferiority’ has gone deep in their system, has become a part of their consciousness. Hence sustained affirmative action (among other things) is absolutely necessary to bring them at par with the caste Hindus and to enable them to live a life of freedom and dignity.

Similarly, disciplines like history and philosophy should enable them to have a saner perspective on money (and wealth). For no other civilisation—neither the Hindu nor the Greek nor the Chinese—has attached so much importance to wealth as the modern civilisation. Mammon has become the big daddy of the modern age. Money is viewed as the supreme end of human existence. Our interest in money would have appeared somewhat pathological to our ancestors. Perhaps the wisdom of the past can be employed to correct the excesses of the present. Armed with the wisdom of the past, we shall see that there is more to life than the mere acquisition of wealth, that money cannot be a substitute for emotional relationships or creative fulfilment, that it is probably the modern man’s loneliness that impels him to seek solace in accumulating money. We may recall here Karl Marx’s insightful observation that “money is the alienated ability of mankind”.

Finally, a serious engagement with humanities and social sciences could enable our engineering students to ask the big, basic questions and quite possibly find answers to them. For instance, what should be the appropriate technology for a country like India—a country with a huge population and enormous unemployment? Also, can we afford the somewhat outlandish pheno-menon of jobless growth? Or shall we exclusively focus on economic growth that generates jobs in a big way? A related issue tht our bright young friends could debate: “Are bullet trains the right thing for India?” I know our Prime Minister is quite enamoured of them. But even the Prime Minister cannot always be right.

The author retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He is now a freelancer.

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