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November 05, 2006


Great! Now that you have opened the can of worms, I will sit back and enjoy.:-)

Well shunya, whenever I see the term "code coolies" or the new-and-still-studiously-insulting slur "glorified plumbers", I tend to dismiss it as a peculiar form of envy, aimed conveniently at a shapeless mass rather than keeping it personal & specific. However, I'm sure there are compelling reasons, known only to yourself.

Is it because their education lacked a "humanities" component or wasn't quite holistic enough? or is it because they were born in a middle class household? or have a marwari last name?

Reacting to the mere sight of terms is usually a sign of knee-jerk defensiveness, which makes reasoned debate difficult. Closer attention to the text might have revealed it as both personal and specific. It addresses the deep malaise in our education system and critiques our middleclass ideas of learning and achievement, via the one institution I know from experience: the IITs.

Are coolie and plumber insulting because they are blue collar professions? No dignity of labor, eh? When I look at the relationship of the average IITian to his work and his life and times (nothing “wrong” with it per se, it’s simply not laudable), the average plumber doesn't seem that different. In the US, they both even make lots of money. Based on the context of use, code coolies, too, can be an apt and brilliant metaphor.


We both know that most IITians are neither coolies nor plumbers and I'm yet to be convinced that the metaphorical use of these terms is meant to signify blue collar "dignity of labour". More like objects of "pity and regret" perhaps.

Over the past 15 years, in virtually every organization, work that used to be done manually has now become automated. Knowledge of how, when, where and why a particular piece of work was done used to reside in people's brains. Not any more. Now this same knowledge is contained, captured and hidden in billions of lines of code. If anyone wants to know what line 5000001 of code really means to the organization, what work it is performing and which function it is supporting, it will more than likely be an Indian that increasingly has this knowledge. Slowly but surely, every possible job function of an organization is being automated. The typical process of automation involves extracting all the relevant information out of people's brains and eventually turning it into numerous lines of code. Like a puppeteer controls the functioning of a limb by skillful manipulation of levers, strings etc, so also a given function of an organization by changing line 1 million of code. Terms like coolie etc do not begin to even capture this aspect of control.

Be that as it may, I'm interested in hearing your views on what may be wrong with India's educational system. At my niece's request, I remember surfing the Harvard site for the entrance requirements of a technology program and was taken aback to see things like American History and extracurricular activities (i.e. working with non profits and charitable orgnizations) as one of the "needs to have". I felt very uneasy by this and told her to push harvard down on her list.

Just wondering: is this the humanities you have in mind? if yes, what would it look like in India?

Let me summarize your large middle paragraph thus: IITians serve a useful function. I agree. Coolies and plumbers too serve a useful function—you say they can’t match the complexity of the functions IITians do. I agree again, but my point is not about the complexity, rather about creativity, attitude to their work and environment, and independence of mind. And how can the IITians excel here? The great Indian middleclass they come from doesn't care about learning for its own sake, equating achievement with test scores, degrees, salaries, titles, and professional awards.

Kids are herded into "safe" professions from early on. Anyone opting for history or art is considered a loser. There's no respect for such pursuits. There's relentless pressure on kids to get into "stable careers" (bete ne line pakad li) and to perform on exams, through rote if necessary; failure leads to severe self-esteem issues, crushing their spirit for ever. Parents will then pay enormous "capitation fee" for an engineer/etc. stamp from a faraway shady institute, which is then valued in matrimonial markets as a stamp of human worth. I can go on and on. There are good reasons why this is so, but it is lamentable all the same. Barring exceptions, the products of this education system are shoddy by global standards. Like plumbers, they are most useful when uncreative labor is called for (however complex).

The IITs specialize in churning out students trained in narrow disciplines with little awareness of their social milieu, or the unique challenges of technology development in India, or the history of global/Indian science and technology, or thinking out of the box in general. The IITs have historically operated in a rarefied milieu, oblivious to the local market, always looking to the West for inspiration but making a sad parody of it. My point is that if the instruction is leavened by the humanities (Harvard is on the right track here IMO), it not only makes better engineers but better individuals.

I find it revealing that you should invoke the "service to the nation" aspect in your large middle paragraph. With this impoverished, utilitarian view of education, you might as well work with robots. What’s missing in your case is the human individual and her need for personal growth and fulfillment through a well-rounded education. The goal of education is not just to train people to do automation, but to also help raise young men and women who can think for themselves.


I said nothing about complexity, only about control. Modern societies are composed of institutions and the reality is that IIT'ans today understand and control an increasing number of the key functions of virtually every major institution in a large part of the world. With intimate knowledge & control of functions will come control of the institutions themselves. Inevitably. Something that can never be imagined by coolies or plumbers, even in their most creative, wildest dreams.

I'm not sure that it is the IITs producing uncreative, unthinking, shoddy people, rather it was the milieu in which they were forced to work. Just because Africans were used as slaves by the dominant system of the day does not mean that Africa produces only slaves. There was an older mindset that saw a unit of code as something that faithfully executed a set of written instructions. And this is how coders were seen too i.e. as people that faithfully coded to pre-set instructions. They were hired, evaluated & compensated based on their ability to always stay in the box. I guess you get what you incent. However, this old coding paradigm is now being replaced with something that represents a massive ontological shift taking place - inside out - within all institutions.

Having said this, I have an even more fundamental disconnect with your position. I'm not at all sure that real creativity is something that can be taught in schools or classrooms. Certainly not with the excessive focus on theoretical, "left brain" (for lack of a better term) learning. How does learning history make one creative? Is creativity spontaneous or learned from a book?

If I'm right that creativity cannot be taught, then the conclusion is inescapable. The IITs actually have it right i.e. why not minimize the subjects that are forced down your left brain? just focus on the need-to-learn. I guess that would also mean that Harvard has it wrong. As far as learning for its own sake, I stopped believing in that a long time ago in this era of mass marketing, mass production and aggregate demand.

Finally, I've been puzzling over the comment in your last paragraph and its connection to anything I might have posted. I still have no clue. Please clarify.


Are you honestly asking the question, "what is wrong with India's educational system?" If you are, then the lack of critical thinking and introspection that your question signifies is the purest indictment of the Indian educational system!

And if you are being disingenous, well, then there is nothing to say.

Did you actually recommend to your niece that she not apply to Harvard *because* they value the study of History and encourage working with non-profits? I feel sorry for her!

It is one thing to be in India and not have choices and make the best of what is available. But to be here, at the shores of a virtual emporium of choices and to spurn those choices is tragic.

You have a severely exaggerated sense of what IITians control and of its virtues and benefits. What is the source of such a megalomaniacal delusion? Indians in IT remind me of Mexican-Americans in California, who are said to control some major aspects of “running” California. They do, but I wouldn’t go about envying their lot, or attributing any great power to them as a group. But even if the IITians control what you say and your predictions come true, why is it good? It is something to fear and worth fighting to avoid. I don’t want IITians controlling any more than what I trust them with.

The IITs (and countless other urban Indian schools and colleges) and their milieu are one of a piece. They reflect and reinforce each other’s shoddy standards. I’ll agree that there is an ontological shift happening in urban Indian education. But it’s starting from a poor base and may well take generations to make an appreciable dent.

Creativity cannot be taught you say. I say that it can be killed off by the system. I also say that the substrate for it can be made fertile. By offering a broad diversity of knowledge, higher self-awareness and wonder can be encouraged in more kids, a prerequisite for all lucid creativity. Good teaching in school, alongside a more evolved middleclass mindset, can expose students to some of the perennial human questions and thereby open up new vistas in their imagination. Creativity feeds off on stuff that can indeed be taught. My observation tells me that, on average, middleclass kids in the US are more self-aware and creative than middleclass kids in India. I attribute this not so much to gaps in economic resources than to a better cultural substrate for learning and a more holistic idea of education in the US (note that I'm only invoking urban Indian middleclass education for comparison).

Let me clarify that I am also making a case for teaching science and technology well (which the IITs don’t do either, for reasons I outlined in my article). Science education in India is a disaster. I ask a results oriented person like you: What has India got to show in science that befits a sixth of the world population? The results make sense, given how unimaginative science teaching is in India, so devoid of the awareness of its wonder and grandeur and relevance in daily life. In India, science came as an imported pursuit and is largely still done as a career. It is no more than a job even to most university teachers of science. What quality do you expect from this system?

The last paragraph was motivated by what I saw as a pattern in your argument. IITians may control all sorts of things via automation, but you spared no thought to them as individuals. You thought of the utility of their skills to socioeconomic ends, but not of their inner lives and ‘human material’. It is apparent now that you've stopped believing in learning for its own sake. It may be a valid survival strategy today but don’t you confuse that with education. Like PIAW, I too feel sorry for your niece.

As someone who went to another IIT (Kanpur) during the same years, I must say that some of the facts presented by Shunya are KGP specific. (However, that is not to say the his conclusions are not valid IIT-system-wide.)

For example, in my first semester studying engineering at Kanpur we had 5 courses -- Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering Drawing, and one elective. My transcripts show I chose Introduction to Psychology as my elective. I enjoyed it immensely -- learning about perceptual constancies, group-think, Freud, classical and apparent conditioning (Pavlov's dog), IQ tests and what they measure, and much more -- the course gave me a formal framework for approaching many kinds of complex social behavior in this world.

I think I ended up electing to take a non-engineering course every subsequent semester -- the rolling transcript shows Introduction to Philosophy; Industrial and Social Psychology; The History of Scientific Ideas; Management of Production Systems; Conversational French; Solar Energy and Appropriate Technology (this last a peculiar Indianism for innovating for rural societies; I remember my own semester project as being a smokeless 'chulha' or village oven); and so on.

IIT Kanpur was set up around 1961 under the auspices of the Kanpur Indo-American Program (KIAP), an effort to graft MIT into the doab between the Ganga and the Yamuna by Kennedy and Nehru. The liberal electives represented the 60s cultural environment in the US rather than any specific impulse or conviction in Indian society. The engineering faculty, mostly educated in the US, was tolerant of the few humanities crackpots in its midst. The other bequest of the KIAP was a splendid library, with acres of shelves from aardvark to zymurgy. I skipped most of my Strengths of Materials lectures to read The Origin of Species, Incident at Oglala, The Idiot, and Brideshead Revisited. Paid for it with a C, too.

But for most of my contemporaries life at Kanpur centered around scoring As, which would surely lead to 'schols' (scholarships in US universities), thereafter assuring a suitable career. The KIAP seeds languished in the doab; in many ways America herself changed and the values of my fellows were tugged at by her unprincipled ambition and greed. Today I struggle to see any difference between them and the benighted one-dimensional graduates of Kharagpur (or for that matter CalTech).


Thanks for the sound bytes and for caring so deeply for my niece. Unfortunately, neither addresses any of the substantive questions I had raised.

Good post. How about going a step further and questioning the very existence of instituitions like the IITs and other collges- good or bad? (I am not being sarcastic.)

Hmm.. I would add an 'almost' before the phrase "total lack of liberal education"

I think comparing the IITs with the Stanfords or the Harvards isnt fair because the IITs have always been a "technical institute" concentrating on technical and science education, and the others are universities with wide range of other pursuits. I suppose IITs need to be compared with institutes like Caltech. Wonder how much liberal education Caltech provides.

A friend of mine, when we were discussing the IITs, said that they are "glorified polytechnic institutes" and I tend to agree with him. IITs are perceived as job-guranteed-degree-givers.


Your own comment "what's wrong with Indian education" and your mention about the advice you gave your niece are refelective of the thrust of your argument. After all, YOU are the one who brought them up.

I find your rationale too preposterous to merit deeper engagement.

Unlike the IITs, Caltech has a full-fledged humanities and social sciences (HSS) department, and is better known for its PG program (with 30 Nobel Laureates!).

FYI, in every UG program at Caltech, at least 25% of the curriculum is HSS (6% at KGP; I've changed my text to say "near total lack of..."). It has had some legendary teachers (e.g., Feynman). And if my reading is correct, it teaches 33% fewer professional courses than IIT KGP.

A few points that occur to me, some disconnected, others perhaps less so:

* I went to IT-BHU from 1985 to 1989. I know that IT-BHU was not quite an IIT ( a chip that I was able to unload from my shoulder after a few years), but the entrance exam, the syllabi and the profiles and ambitions of the student body were very similar. The situation at IT-BHU was worse than that described here. I was told that the courses were modeled after those at IIT Kanpur, but we were generously allowed one elective in 4 years. We had mind-numbingly poor teachers, 9 courses each semester (including labs) and the whole thing was one miserable blur.

*BHU is somewhat like a US university, in that it has a self-contained campus with many departments, including all the major humanities disciplines taught and studied in India. That didn't change anything for the IT student body though - they remained the ambitious, cut-throat people that the hyper-competitive atmosphere had changed them into. I remain unconvinced that offering humanities courses at the IITs will change anything.

*Most famous universities in the world are recognized for the quality of their research or the accomplishments of their faculty. The claim to fame of the IITs is the quality of their undergraduates - which is probably attributable to the entrance exam rather than to the education they receive at the institutes themselves.

* If the goals of the IITs were to produce innovators and entrepreneurs then the emphasis on putting a bunch of smart young people through engineering boot camps is misguided, I think.

* I find it interesting that the IT boom has elevated lines of code into exemplars of technology. Any one with any sense of the history of science and technology would find that pathetic.

* I doubt that tinkering with course offerings or teaching methods will really make people pursue education for its own sake. US universities provide a diverse and intellectually stimulating environment, yet US college students are notoriously ignorant and don't seem to care for education per se.

* If you argue that the Indian economic milieu (middle class anxieties and ambitions) are responsible for the distorted view of education, I would urge you to look at the rich countries. Economic security has not led to any clear indication of education being appreciated for its own sake.

I am a cynic as far as education is concerned. I am yet to come across any society where people largely interested in education for broadening their minds. For most people, the economic motive is predominant.

That in indeed an impressive amount of HSS courses in the curriculum of Caltech.
Well, my point was just that IITs need to be compared to Caltech and not Stanford. But needless to say, the IITs perform badly in that comparison too. Because even though there is a HSS dept, the quality of education is not up to the mark.
Education is very utilitarian in India. Anything deemed monetarily unfavourable is treated like the plague.
I see parents discouraging their children from extra-curricular activities with the argument "what is the use of this?"

Thanks to Dukhiram Desi for his valuable perspective. I admit my facts were KGP specific. His note prompted me to explore the websites of some other IITs for the # of humanities and social sciences courses on offer in four years today in their EE depts.

a) IIT Kharagpur: 3 out of 50 courses
b) IIT Kanpur: 4 out of 46 courses
c) IIT Bombay: 7 out of 60 courses
d) IIT Madras: 6 out of 60 courses
e) IIT Delhi: 1 out of 60 courses

Just for the record, the same numbers for Caltech are 12 out of 42 (est) courses.

Thanks for participating. An economic motive behind education is quite reasonable. In fact, it’s usually necessary for survival. However, what’s also essential is a space for learning for its own sake. I’ll argue that this space very much exists in the US (despite its notoriously ignorant students and adults) and almost not at all in India. This has less to do with economic wellbeing than with a different cultural attitude towards learning (which may stem from their historically different notions of the individual).

Many Americans go back to the university in middle-age (often not for career reasons alone); many more attend non-professional continuing education courses, or change vocations. Lots of Americans have a diversity of secular interests and pursuits (many of dubious merit but still) that enable new learning and personal growth. Indeed, curiosity and independence are encouraged right from elementary school. Most US kids will not choose to study engineering unless they are turned on by it in their teens (unlike most IITians, including me). Those who elevate creative passion over money are numerous enough, and are not only accepted in daily life but are often envied, encouraged, and respected—the money/security factor guides these people but it’s not the only one. And it shows. It's why the US is the most innovative and creative society in the world today (ok, the two coasts and a few other spots).

It is a reasonable argument that mere proximity to liberal coursework (as in IT-BHU), or electives offered by the IIT management to look good on paper, would not change much at the IITs. Most incoming students (with rare exceptions like Dukhiram Desi, who I happen to know personally as a happy desi :) are probably too far gone by then, too cut-throat to be drawn to them. But a part of me thinks that a conscious policy can create real benefits. Like an affirmative action program for the liberal arts in the IITs (;-), alongside cutting the number of core courses and raising teaching standards (instituting a public whipping post for the worst faculty is a decent start).

I definitely feel the heat of this a lot, being an History and Elementary Education major myself. It doesn't affect me as much because I live in the US and that my parents have accepted (mostly) that this is what I want to do, but I do indeed get called a loser (they think I don't notice) by my cousins and family in India. I attend an excellent liberal arts college, and I can't imagine what it would be like if I couldn't take the amazing classes they offer and just isolate myself in one particular field.

I would think that the critique of any system has to take into account the conditions in which it operates and though, there is little doubt that IITs fall far behind in the libral component of education when compared to US system, they remain our best hope in the Indian education system. Another thing to notice is that flexibility only works when somebody actually wants to take advantage of it. I will give you an example. It is well known how the various branches offered in IITs have well marked rankings in the minds of those who come in while IITs positively try to discourage it. A lot of poeple end up choosing subjects that they reliaze are not suitable for them after spending a little time in the dept. So the problem was this. The branch change was allowed only after 1st year while any kind of contact started with the dept in the second year. So anybody who found himself in the wrong dept, had no chance of changing his/her major. The branch change just remained as a chance to climb up on the ladder of rankings. To rectify the situation, administration decided to allow branch changes after 2nd year also so that people could move around more freely and it is anybody's guess as to what happened. It became another chance to climb up the ladder without any thought of one's preferences.
So there are problems in the whole thing that are incorrigible at the IIT lavel however that should only make IITs more determined to change the situation by becoming more and more liberal and not rest on such explanations.

Hi Shunya,

you post is just awesome! I agree with you 100% (though I couldn't have articulated it so well). But I wouldn't single out IIT and IIT-KGP. The whole higher education system in India sucks! I wish there was more of a free market economy in education and it wasn't controlled by the government. Yes that would be mean that the fee would go up (though not cost). But we should be willing to pay market price of all products and not expect government subsidies.


P.S. Incidently I too stayed in CTW Nehru Hall (batch of '97 EE)

Great post. Of course this isn't so much a failing of the IITs as it is of the entire system that has everyone believing that there is little value in being taught the humanities.

on an entirely different note, i shudder to think of the dirt if squat toilets are replaced...they rock and in a hostel they are the best thing...

Dear Namit,

I have made similar points to the executive members of the Delhi Chapter of the IIT-KGP Alumni Association. My point has been that why celebrate something like being first in the 'Business Today' ranking of institutions as though it makes us unique as institution? Why perpetuate mediocrity in teaching and quality of education at IITs by celebrating it as the best in India? Nostalgia does not mean that we must remain rooted in the past. We must see things as 'they are' compared to the rest of the world.

IITs are unique in the world in one way. They have some of the best inputs in the world in terms of students but mediocre and below average systems and teachers. I say below average because they do not complement the quality of the students. I give the example of Fluid Dynamics experiments in Chemical Engg. Everything was written out in terms of what to do etc and what was expected as a result. What is the need of doing an experiment which is only going to prove the obvious? However, if I was given a steel ball and some viscous liquid and a list of measuring instruments available to find out the relationship between fluid friction and relevant variables I might have learnt more.

Of course this has been mentioned by several people who have written their comments and is nothing new. However, IMHO it strikes at the very root of knowledge creation and creativity. Even if come from a school education system that is geared to getting high marks in examination by any means the IITs can be different. They can change the way the students think and use their knowledge. Don't forget that one of the reasons why the IITs haven't done any Nobel prize winning research is because students are not thought to really think and apply. They are in turn taught to pass the exams with good grades and go and conquer the world outside.

The quality of life in the hostels today is several degrees worse than what I remember. Housekeeping of the halls of residence is shocking and the attitude of the students apathetic. Thanks to the successive regionalisation of IITs there is less Indianness.

Even in the area of student social activities instead of encouraging students to do their best on their own, they are encouraged to approach alumni for funds for springs festivals and so on.

Part of the lack of fresh thinking in IIT education is because they are
governed by the government. No director would really like to strike out on a radically new path but stick to what the establishment wants.

I was also disappointed during my various visits to IIT over the past 10 years on the super-annuated faculty. It is a great worry that even the quality of teachers we had earlier - a small proportion of whom were truly great, will get much worse. Then, the IITs will hope that their alumni do well and earn some laurels because the Institute will not be able to have any significant achievement from their own research and development. Just an example - Prof YP Singh of Electrical Engg has just been allowed a patent on the use of mobile phones to monitor and control automobiles. He is over 70 years old and not involved in any academics or research for several years now. The mind however keeps working productively if we let it. Alas if we could have more teachers like him.

I have rambled on but the visit note written by you and subsequent discussion got me carried away.

Ashok Singh

I think the IITs are serving a purpose, albeit a tangent-one. IIT-ans get instant "brand-recognition" and are able to achieve wealth and position faster than they would have without the brand tag. Some (granted only a few) are able to break-free from the shackles of a crippling and crippled education system, broaden their minds and use their knowledge, wealth and position to tackle problems of poverty, disease, and dare I say, even education in India and the world

Hehe. this is a more measured tone than my own griping about IIT Bombay!

I am presently studying in IIT Kharagpur and couldn't agree more about the lack of holistic education here (even a holistic science education).... I have myself more than once lamented the lack of a history of science course and the "conventional money based" achievement driven attitutde of most people.... and the way that this place(both the institute and the social structure) seems to be designed to crush out the last vestige of free thinking left in one..... but maybe that's the world and not just Kharagpur

I would also like to add that IMHO unlike most of the people who commented; achievement (monetary, corporate, academic, research or otherwise) is in no way indicative of a successful education system (I would hate to use the phrase "successful" to describe an education system, but there is no better word), that is merely skill imparting... besides how many IITians (or people from other technology schools in India for that matter) have contributed to solving India's problems or even want to. (merely staying in India and saying I didn't emigrate when I could have doesn't count :P )

There is an interesting story in Outlook India today by Rajesh Gajra. He reports on a blunt lecture delivered by an ex-IITian called Dunu Roy. Here is a brief excerpt:

No, it wasn't a frustrated or failed aspirant but a former IITian who said this last week at a lecture while addressing a crowd of nearly a thousand IITians and other college students during the annual Techfest at Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB). But coming from Dunu Roy, who, unlike his colleagues and peers, decided to pursue grassroot integration of technology with local and practical requirements, it shouldn't have been a surprise to anyone who has followed this IITian's career.

But for a first-timer, the 90-minute talk and the subsequent Q&A could well have been an eye-opener. Provoking his audience by calling them "big fools" who know nothing about India and its village life, Roy said the IITians are victims of the politics of education and science. He added that the first lesson he learnt was that technologists and engineers are under an illusion that they get to take the decisions. That was not all. He went on to say that environmental dynamics aren’t understood by engineers who seem to specialise in solving one problem to create another one, thereby creating a "sustainability for the engineering profession—and not for the people".

"How many of you will end up working for the Haliburtons and Microsofts of the world?" he asked. And then proceeded to answer by pointing out that many of the students would do so because "Indian technical education is geared to meet global demands". The collapse of the US education system has led to a shortage of scientists and technologists, he said, which is why the courses they [the IITians] are learning are required for the US". Since Indian engineers are also cheaper than the American counterparts, "it made good sense for the Indian government to promote technical education so that you can provide cheap service to the US." Therefore, he suggested, the curriculum has changed. Earlier, he pointed out, IITs had a more integrated approach and also taught humanities, ethics and logic. But these subjects were removed in order to hasten the production of ‘unreal’ technologists.

Read the full story for more (pasting all of it here would be a violation of copyright). I haven't been able to find the full text or the audio of Mr. Roy's lecture. If someone finds it, please post a link here.

Could not agree more with Shunya. We need to free our young people's minds. Let them think for themselves, give them freedom to create something. Most technical education in India is overly structured and IITs are probably at top of the heap. All these sharp brains going to waste. All for a job at Citibank or wherever. Set them free if you want our society to be creative and vibrant.

Hello shunya....what a surprise....i have always wondered why most 'professional students' have very little awareness of current affairs and the 'arts'..but shunya dont fret and fume ..educate yourself man..read listen to music..watch good films..move around in a 'liberally educated environment' debate in coffee houses...o man no cigarettes now...get boozed once in awhile and split up with friends over an argument about the comparitive merits of a marquez or a rushdie....cheer up...all the best...jose Toronto

An excerpt from Martha Nussbaum's essay, The Robot Corporation, in the current issue of Outlook India:

With the ascendancy of the IITs has arisen a dominant conception of education that is technical, indeed mechanistic, given to force-feeding and regurgitation and suspicious of critical independence of mind. Education, in this picture, is about the implanting of useful skills that will ultimately lead to both personal and national enrichment. It should, therefore, focus on these technical skills and on the rote learning of whatever historical and political information is strictly necessary to deploy them in profitable ways. As Rabindranath Tagore once wrote of schools he knew, "Achievement comes to denote the sort of thing that a well-planned machine can do better than a human being can." He already saw that the globalisation of the economy was leading to an educational imbalance, "obscuring (our) human side under the shadow of soul-less organisation".

Education is not simply a producer of wealth; it is a producer of citizens. Citizens in a democracy need, above all, freedom of mind. They need to be trained to ask tough questions; to analyse what they read for accuracy, logic, and comprehensiveness; to reject specious reasoning and shoddy historical argument; to imagine alternative possibilities; to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from themselves. These skills are crucial for keeping democracy vital, preventing it from degenerating into mindless ideological banner-waving. They are also pivotal in dealing with the pressing issue of ethnic and religious violence, since people who cannot criticise propaganda or imagine the pain of another human being are ripe targets for the rhetoric of hate.

The skills I have just enumerated are associated with the humanities and the arts, and they are utterly neglected, even in the more successful government schools. Rote learning is the method of the hour, the imagination is viewed with suspicion, and the central question that is endlessly debated is what version of history students should memorise and regurgitate. A parent's glory is the admission of a child to one of the IITs. A parent's shame would be a child pursuing literature, or philosophy, or art—and this means that these subjects are despised even as elements in primary and secondary education.

... In many ways, the desperately poor who benefit from NGO programmes are receiving a better education for democratic citizenship than the increasingly prosperous middle classes. The rest of the nation should take note, for a nation of docile engineers and managers will not long remain truly free. It is time for a national focus on pedagogy—on the teaching of critical thinking and imagining—for a national acknowledgment that the humanities and arts are crucial for democracy's future.

At my age of fifty, I have experienced it all. And I regret I dont have a technical degree. I think it was foolhardy of me to have deliberately thrown away any chance of becoming an engineer or a doctor. I did enjoy the creativity of a study in literature and I think, I have a lively mind. But I wish I had the freedom which comes with huge material wherewithals. Dont underestimate the blessings of the IIT branding. After that you can do as much of creativity as you like.

The real problem is the uninspiring quality of the IIT faculty (with exceptions). But dont expect too many great teachers to opt for being an IIT faculty at such lowly material wherewithals. No wonder Bansal Classes at Kota have wave after wave of great faculty because the pay is as high as unheard of anywhere else in the country.

I agree with Shunya completely. Although there was one thing:

There was a huge course in humanities. It was called ragging/orientation/disorientation. That changed the basic outlook of all and sundry. People with serious middle class hangups came and transformed into great, fun loving, testicle scratching fellows. And I can see the distinct difference between those who came from the ragging days and the converyor-belt-techies which are being generated nowadayds.

Coming to faculty, my therapist tells me that I am not yet ready to talk about it.

BTW, IIT reserves the right to revoke the degree of anyone who slanders the institution, upto ten years from graduation. That should be a good indicator too of how we are allowed to think and question the fabric of the cr*p that they were hurling at us.

I was waiting for my ten year anniversary, but just couldn't help it. Look out for Phani's I'm-In-Trouble (IIT) T-Shirts for large scale distribution from my website in 2009.

Thanks so much...this was such a great trip down memory lane. Awesome!
Sridhar Balasubramanian (KGP 89 -- Azad Hall)

Nothing really ever works the way it was planned to be. The same applies to the IITs too. The trick is to learn from reality and change with the times. But this is very difficult even for the exalted IITs as in reality they are rigidly controlled by their political paymasters in Delhi in an almost Stalinist way. It also does not help that the Directors are often chosen for political reasons e,g. to reward states that would help the party ruling in Delhi.

The agenda of IIT Directors thus selected is also very political and they seem to pay only lip service to keeping up with the times or learn from educational systems in other countries - although they are the first to jump at the opportunity to travel overseas at the expense of the Alumni. Fifty + years after the first BTech grads came out of an IIT, very few of the IIT Directors have been TRUE IIT-ans (by that it is understood to mean those with BTechs from IITs). Compared to the other established IITs, Kharagpur seems to have been drawing the short straw in this regard for far too long and now at 55 is an ossified behemoth run by a politically - connected and devious Jungle Bunny who could not (1) get admission to BTech in the first place, (2) even after doing MTech at IIT failed to get a scholarship to do PhD at an University overseas - settling instead for a charity PhD from a Faculty from the same (once backward) state! No wonder then that this person still nurses a grudge and inferiority complex against IIT BTech Alumni - especially those who have done well.

As a Director, instead of making the necessary changes at IIT Kharagpur to keep up with the times he has been more intent on stacking KGP (from Faculty all the way to the Contractors) with people from his own neighboring state !!

The prospects for IIT KGP is grim if this continues. Alumni should mobilize to demand a fair shake for KGP. The change must start at the top and soon.

Excellent post. Even though its been just over 2 years that I left KGP, I felt that nostalgia and the feel to go back to the campus and meet the juniors.
I believe what makes an IITian is not the little bit more grey matter in their brains or more of intution and intelligence, but more importantly, those 4 years spent in the campus. I had landed up in a very good job, one of the best in the campus, but left within 10 months as I couldnt find matching frequencies or aptitude around. Have started my own business, and even though I am less secured for my parents at least, I am happy and enjoying every moment of it. Have 15 employees working for me, but is much better than being in a team of 20 in a company of 2000 people.

Here are my few observations:

I wondered what new marvels 19 year old boys—what with the IIT's sorry gender ratio of 20 boys to every girl—find on the Internet today?
I have to say I agree with your observation here.. the whole idea of the IBM sponsored PCs with internet in every room (which happened after I graduated) seems ridiculous to me. If someone was pumping millions of dollars to improve the computer infrastructure, all they could have done was built labs with more computers. And maybe give internet connections to hostel rooms for those rich enough to buy their own PCs/laptops (like most of the dorms in US have). What else will 17yr olds with raging hormones look for on the internet.. if someone thought it would be research papers, they need their heads reexamined 

Its near total lack of liberal education now seems a deprivation to me..
Where in India, indeed the world, with the exception of US and Europe, would you find a “liberal” education in an engineering college? When I talk to most of my colleagues/friends from grad school etc. most of them are surprised I could elect German, Psychology and Ecology (in the Agri dept) as electives during my third and fourth years of the Civil Engg curriculum. And I was the minority in most of these courses, with most of my fellow undergrads opting for more “lucrative” options like Comp Sc. electives since that would give them more resume value and a better job.

The institute is still run by uninspiring men who cannot intelligently address an alumni gathering to save their lives.
Again, you are talking about India here.. forget professors and directors of IIT.. most of our politicians, leaders, industrialists, journalists and other prominent personalities are inarticulate and stammer or pore over reams of text as speeches. Inarticulateness should however not be taken as a sign of lack of intelligence. Your blog reveals you live in the US.. in general the levels of articulateness in America and other developed countries are far higher than in places like India.. even janitors can speak/argue/get their point across in a better way than most educated folks in India. That’s how the education system is in America.. at the end of their education, they can write reports, give presentations, and describe their work in a more eloquent way than Indians. We, for all our so-called technical/analytical superiority, end up searching for words and faltering. This is something I have found challenging and still keep working to improve myself on.. not the analytical aspects. I find most American engineers failing to grasp the basic mathematical/analytical aspects and sometime even shying away from them. The bottomline.. we have our strengths, they have theirs.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the IITs lack a holistic idea of education.
Sure.. but I repeat at the risk of boredom.. where in India do you get holistic education? I personally feel IIT came much close to holistic education than what many of my peers have got from other schools in India. Rarely have I come across people educated in engineering and other schools who have got as much opportunities as Kgpians to involve themselves in extra-curricular activities like Hall and Mess management etc. In that regard, surely it must be better than others in India.

Most IITians continue their game after graduation. The great Indian middleclass now cheers their adult achievements: job titles, salaries, stock options, tenures, timely marriages and issues, houses and cars, but above all, money.
Again, really.. why single out IITians for this.. aren’t these things that the whole world does? (with a few exceptions, like you perhaps) Expecting an engineering college to be the center point of materialism (or the lack of it) is intriguing.. maybe you are expecting too much.

I agree with many of your points about holistic education. That education should make people think for themselves. What I find missing is that elementary and middle school education is more crucial in this regard, than college education. By the time the students have come to college, the damage has already been done. How can students who have grown up with 10/12 yrs of cramming, and mindless learning by rote, be expected to suddenly switch and engage themselves in lively debate, and out-of-the-box thinking. Most of us do that when we are transported to an atmosphere which is conducive to such behaviour.. like the US for example. In fact, most examples of IIT alumni who have jumped careers and done very successfully (like Sandipan Deb, Raj Kamal Jha and Jag Mundhra) have all been beneficiaries of the American system and its inherent financial securities.

That leads me to my thought.. maybe you wouldn’t be sitting and writing this article about “incurious” people of IIT if you hadn’t got the chance to improve, think, and expand your horizons in the US.. which was possible only because of your IIT education??

Look forward to your rejoinder. Thanks!

You make some of the same points I've made in my comments above (like your statement: "By the time the students have come to college, the damage has already been done"—I agree). I also began by acknowledging that the IITs create professional opportunities from which I too have benefited and for that I feel fortunate. But as for your thought/question near the end, is it ungrateful or rude to call out my degree for what I see it as: training, and not education? That the IIT helped me attain financial security or come to the US does not diminish my critique of it—or my right to critique it—does it? (Here is an absurd example to illustrate my point: if the US had somehow been riddled with land mines, would it not create opportunities for economic migrants trained at, say, the Indian Institutes of Land Mine Removal? And if a small minority of them got off the beaten path later in life, would it be because of their college curriculum or despite it?)

I take your central point to be: "Why single out IITians for this.. aren’t these things that the whole world does?" ... "where [else] in India do you get holistic education?" In other words, am I not being too harsh on the IITs?

Clearly, the IITs are not the worst, nor have I implied that anywhere. However, situated at the apex of India's education system, they are a bellwether for the values and aspirations of its urban middle-class. When we look at corruption, say, don't we focus on the upper echelons of public office, even when corruption may pervade the wider society? Likewise, is it not perfectly legitimate to interrogate the quality of education at these elite institutes, and the human material emanating from them? The IITs are India's top rated professional institutes of engineering. Is it not important to understand the enormous gaps between them and their counterparts in the countries that Indians look up to? One of my goals here was to question the hokey cheerleading for the IITs and to point out some simple truths. If you agree that it is an expression of self-confidence to honestly assess our collective idea of education, what better place to start than the IITs?

Are middle-class attitudes to education and success all the same globally? Yes and no. There are many cultural differences. I've elaborated on Indian attitudes in several comments above: here, here, and here. See also the excerpt from Martha Nussbaum's essay.


Thanks for the reply. I agree to most of your points in the article and the replies later.

I'm very vocal about the ills of the Indian education system, which is full of archaic rules and regulations, focussed on cramming and lacks in vocational training. The only other education system that I have seen and experienced(the US) has not impressed me much either. There is too much flexibility and not enough emphasis on the basics (I've knew a guy dropping out of Computer Science major and joining Political Science, because he found the 1st sem too tough). IMHO, America still survives and flourishes because of the incredible work ethic that is a part of the culture.

Thanks for your insightful article.

Thanks so much for taking time and effort to record your visit. Visiting your website brought back so many fond memories of IIT-KGP. I went back to Goa for my 25th School Reunion in December 2008...had a great time! Hope to do that for KGP as well.

Sridhar Balasubramanian
Azad 89.

What an outstanding article, not to mention a revealing debate that follows. I must say that my experience over 1985-92 at two roughly comparable institutions, BITS Pilani and IIM Calcutta, thoroughly validates what Namit has written. Twenty years on, I would argue that both have been massively implicit in turning some of the more intelligent and creative men & women I've been fortunate to meet into deadly dull practitioners of a single skill -- that of successfully negotiating hierarchical structures, whether in the corporate world or in academia. Most are indeed now smug corporate drones who check all the boxes in Namit's list (re: matrimony, wealth, professional achievement, baby-making et al).
The tragedy of our system is that these effortless masters of every technique they choose to learn still cannot get to new ways of thinking--the philosophical insights for which usually only a quality liberal arts programme _might_ deliver.
The truly rewarding delight, as ever, remains in finding the time to be with the people from such systems who didn't let it addle their minds or motivations. The number may be small, but it is a richly potent minority!

I am surprised at the "total lack of liberal education"; this is not true of all IITs. I "studied" in IIT Kanpur, and did several humanities courses. True, some friends said I should get a B.Tech(Sociology) :-), but the point is: we had a lot of choice; we did 6 humanities courses. Several electives: the physics prof complained i was taking too many of their courses, why dont i keep my dept profs more busy?

That said, I think all IITs should add more non-tech courses. Over 7 courses is too tough... we end up building less depth.

I remember great profs, initial confusion but lots of joy and learning.
Faculty had wide-ranging freedom on course design.

Pakistan and Indian elite education system are so much similar. And the students, just read the article..

What Are Pakistani College Students All About?



I think all sane people would agree with you hundred percent but I feel that IITs are not alone in this. The leaders in India who thought Universities should be moved in the direction of IITs and not IITs in the direction of Universities are great fools. Destruction of the country is going on since then at an unbelievably fast pace. I don't know whether India can ever recover from this onslaught. That India which survived the onslaught of Scythians, Huns, Turko-Afghans, Mongols and indeed transformed them, that India which got heavily mutilated in colonial times, yet was not dead seems to be dying from this onslaught of technology. Something needs to be done!! Not just talk! I have one doubt though! The developed countries are certainly better than us, but aren't they also suffering largely from the all-pervading "technology and business management only" syndrome?

There is only one criticism I would make. I am a Bengali from Calcutta, naturally in our community, not always good things would be spoken about Marwaris in general, though the fact is that these days you may find a Marwari in India (though not perhaps in Calcutta) with a proper outlook on things and a good taste and education than you would find a Bengali of similar type in Calcutta. Had it not been the case also, I must say, that in your otherwise serious writing this use of the word Marwaris is very much below the general dignity that you show in your writings. I feel that most IITans or for that matter most techies and managers cannot express themselves in proper English suitable for a serious topic of discussion. Just look at the kind of comments you have received! But is it that while you remembered you college days, you could not help feel that in those dark days the only light was a little vulgarity and that's why in that memory you also became vulgar momentarily in using the word 'Marwari'? Even though vulgarity in an intelligent and controlled way may be enjoyable, the ubiquity of vulgarity in Engineering Colleges, IITs and Engineering Faculties of Universities in India is very painful, but I can very well see that in a place and in a curriculum where all traces of life are absent, this reaction from the unfortunate fellows who are being slowly slaughtered mentally is very human, and therefore if your sudden change of tone towards the end of your article to vulgar is a tribute to this very humanness of the vulgar reaction seen in these young technology students, I have nothing to say!


Thanks for the comments. Yes, the IITs are not alone in this, as I wrote to Dibyendu on Oct 26. I also agree that the developed countries are also feeling the pain of a corporate-led dumbing down of the university system. They have some ways to go though.

Your point about the Marwaris is curious. Privately, I got different kind of flak for it from a couple of IITians who simply objected to being compared to the Marwaris. How could I pull them down so much? :-) Your objection is very different. But even back then, I chose my words carefully, "As immigrants in the US ... [the IITians] seem to embody some of the most unflattering stereotypes of the Marwaris of Calcutta." I'm not making claims about how Marwaris actually are, only referring to the unflattering stereotypes that exist about them. I'm saying that most migrant IITians tend to embody such stereotypical qualities ... hope the distinction makes sense. :)

There are two similar sayings in Sanskrit and Bengali. These both tell the fact that when greats cease to exist, the mediocre come to be regarded as great since people lose the sense of what is greatness. The Sanskrit proverb is "nirastapaadape deshe eraNDo'pi drumaayate" (in a land where all the giant trees have long fallen or disappeared, a small eraNDa shrub also is considered a tree). The Bengali proverb is "chandra suurja asta gelo jonaak j(w)aale baati / mogol paaThaan haddo holo phaarshi paRe taanti" (The moon and the sun have set, now the firefly has come to shed light. The Mughals and Pathans have failed, it is now the weaver's turn to read Persian.) Now which of these two do you think is good for serious talk and which one, though more juicy, is good for a group of jobless polemicists! Which one cannot be found objectionable by any, irrespective of the person's -isms?

I think the use of 'Marwari' makes your article juicier for polemicists like the use of the word 'taanti' (i.e. 'tantuvaaya' or weaver). And it is not that I dislike polemics, but our current social and educational issues are so obviously gross and crude and over-debated that resorting to polemics while we discuss about these would make us lose our creativity. We can use polemics on something which is a little less crude. It is only when we seriously want to solve these problems that we should write on these topics, we should not write for 'timepass' (to use an Indianized English word). I hope you have understood that I do not consider your desire to use the word 'Marwari' to get justified through softening with the use of the qualifier 'the most unflattering stereotype'. :) Anyway, it is becoming much-a-do about nothing, so I would end here.

As a current student at IIT KGP, this is what I have to say http://partha-the-prof.blogspot.com/2011/04/lament-of-student.html

Creativity always carries some risk with it. And before the economic reforms of India, the penalty for a risky decision was harsh indeeed. Compared to our previous generation, I have seen people taking far more diverse paths than ever before. Programs like Teach for India, LAMP are highly succesful, and many IITians do join them now. Simply put, an average Indian during the seventies or eighties had very few choices before him, and a lot of dependents to think about. Creativity is all right and fine, but today's generation faces far fewer responsibilities.

Secondly, the internet has been a massive game changer. Someone in the comments section criticised the decision to give computers to student rooms, and as a guinea pig in that social experiment, and after interacting with several US undergrads, IITians have uniformly come across to me as more well informed, and better thinkers of the two. What the course cannot give you today, the internet, with free lecture videos from top universities can give you readily.

But some inherent problems remain. Funding for research has increased massively at all IITs, but bureacracy and red tapes still make free access of those facilities a hurdle. Increased exposure of undergrads towards research, a tolerance for rebellion (yes creativity and freedom always go hand in hand), and most importantly flexibility in the curriculum will go a long way towards correcting these wrongs. And please abolish the counselling system. Let the students decide on which IIT they want to join, and then let them choose/change their major there.

And finally the elephant in the room - parents. Many lament that the present generation is not so deferent towards parents any more; some decry it as the loss of Indian culture/westernization among the youth. I have mostly seen that rather than students, its parents themselves who are the root of the problem. This over-reliance on jobs/'settled life' stems from them. While in US it will be unheard of a parent forcing a 22 yr old adult to force to decide on a job path according to parental wishes, it is the norm in India. Over the years on some this influence decreases, and they rediscover their spark, while the ones who never had a spine to start with are the embodiment of whats wrong with IITs.

Dear Namit,
I happened to run into this blog while searching for the holiday schedule for IIT KGP for 2012. Glad to see that the horror of what I feel every time I visit my daughter's campus has seeped through to some one of almost my age. I graduated with Masters in General Surgery from Calcutta Medical College in 1990 & was so fed up with the backbreaking grind of dealing with human misery 24 x 7, that the notion of my child being free free free after 4 years was oh so appealing. But with the kind of input needed to get in - the regret is that it could well have been AIIMS !!

The hostels are absolute ghettos with two beds crammed into a 8ft by 8 ft room, the single fan (of the original single & now double seater) placed eccentrically becoz they continue increasing the intake to accomodate all our historically wronged social classes from the times of Manu, without adding at all to the infrastructure. Even in 3rd year,instead of a single room, she is still holed up with a roomie who thinks nothing of caterwauling her resentment at the world in general & her parents in particular, at all odd hours of the day & night !! I think all the girls suffer from urinary tract infections because it is better to reduce your water intake inspite of sweating like pigs & on top of that to hold than to use those unventilated holes in the grounds. The newer girls hostels have better washrooms but the rooms are even worse - 3 to a room & climbing !! I took some photographs to mail to Kapil Sibal & she all but collapsed out of sheer fright. Fright of her wingie representatives, her Hall seniors, her wardens, the Institute Hall Management Committee, the unwelcome presence of her pushy mom spouting Bengali learnt at Cal Med, of not conforming ...... The list was simply endless !! Where is the concrete in your spine, girl ?? The Scholars Avenue and some of the buildings ARE impressive !! But the enormous amounts of funds received by the institute should be utilised for giving good hostel facilities rather than paving and unpaving the sidewalks of Scholars Avenue for kingdom come !! (Manmohan Singh seems to have discreetly averted his eyes from such piddly goings on considering the coal seams burning bright all the way to Delhi). Seems like the girls are being given a first class "away from home" lesson in the great Indian female virtue of "silent accomodation" which is such a valued commodity in the Indian marriage market (by who else but the greatest enemies of girls - girls themselves! If I have suffered – how dare you escape ? Saas Bahu’s in the making, ad nauseum !!). Very disappointing, that even after reaching the so called top of the academic pyramid - the sweat & humidity & institutionalised apathy beats you into collective submission to the most horrendous living conditions in the so called premier institutes of India. Kolkata was rattled by a mild earthquake recently & she rang up excitedly that we are plunged in darkness wondering what to do. I said – Dodos - how about getting under the bed ? How could she ? In a 8 ft x 8 ft room - the space underneath beds is strictly for trunks & suitcases & certainly not for brain dead spineless engineers !! There is only one table in the room loaded with everything on earth. All activities including studies are strictly on the holy bed. I actually feel guilty enjoying the fresh air spinning down from my centrally placed fan in my spartan bed room at home !!

Living conditions ko theek karke nahin nikle, toh wahan reh ke kya kiya ?? Sirf padhte rahe ?? The apathy at all levels is absolutely mind boggling. This is all I have been exposed to in my mercifully short trips to KGP. If the hostels are any indication, I can just imagine what it must be like in the classrooms, their departments & what have you.



I am not an IIT'ian, but was born and raised in the campus as my father works there. So, I guess the attachment I have for IIT KGP is more or less the same as any student who spent 4 years of their youth (I spent 22 of 'em), if not more.

'The grass always looks greener on the other side' is what I would say to your article. Having been a part of the system, you have quite correctly pointed out some of the fallacies in the IIT's especially KGP. But I do object to your questioning the skills of the faculty. Although your experience might have been different, I must say they are usually very knowledgeable and skilled as teachers. They genuinely make an effort to make us understand and yes, their teaching methods although different, prove to be very effective in the long run. If I can say this after seeing them in NPTEL video lectures, then I am sure they would be a lo more effective when they are teaching in person. Yes, you get some dodos in every organisation but lets not start making generalisations here.

Your article apparently suggested that the IIT's are merely something of an 'engineering finishing school' and that it needs to change. Unfortunately, that is what students of this generation want. Out of a class of 180 (yes, 180 guys being taught by a single faculty!!!!) only 10-12 guys have complaints akin to yours. How will the IIT system change if its body (aka the students) don't want it to change ?? They still are the sharpest brains in the country, surely they know what is good for 'em.

Lastly, I really don't think comparisons with CalTech and Cornell should be done here mainly because some the reasons why IIT's are not amongst them are not exactly in their hands. To begin with, foreign univs. of that calibre have an excellent relationship with industrial org. who are really foresighted in nature. Unfortunately, we dont have indigenous companies having that sort of foresight excepting very few. Most of them still rely on technology that is obsolete but reliable. You must admit that a lot of reasearch output actually is result of private projects. Secondly, there is no comparison beween them financially. IIT's get a lot of money...yes LOTS. But you really can't compare USD and INR.


Sourabh Paul

As an outsider, I do not have much idea about the courses offered but I have always regarded them as one of the most premier institutes of India. This impression was also reinforced by the cousins, friends and neighbors who have passed from IITs changing into proud individuals with an attitude which howls, "we are elite, you are mediocre." If this kind of attitude emanates after graduating from one of the most premier institutes than I think, the entire purpose of education is defeated.
More courses from other streams must be introduced so that students realize and recognize that other subjects also have wisdom and they are meant for greater good too.
This article has helped me see IITs as educational institutions with their own drawbacks and a scope for improvement though generalizations like teachers are not up to the mark or they produce plumbers for west seems more of metaphor rather than facts.

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