3 Idiots. The toast of the nation. First Hindi movie to gross more than 100 crore rupees in receipts. Let's come to the point. The movie was engrossing and entertaining – no two ways about it. However, it has provoked many to comment on the state of Indian education in general, and our IITs and IIMs in particular and the mad rush by parents to get their wards admitted in these premier institutes, regardless of the costs. The discussions at Suvro Sir’s blog have been further stimulating, and I would encourage readers to read the posts there before reading on here.
Now, I had been thinking about a suitable answer to Sir's post and the comments thereafter, but a logical coherent response has been very difficult to articulate. Having gone through the grind of IIT and then "wasting" it all by taking the CAT and getting into an IIM and landing an investment banking job thereafter, I must fall into the category most vilified in the movie and some of the commentators. However, from a purely emotional point of view, I would never want to distance myself from these so called "centres of excellence", because despite whatever misguided path I've taken in life up to now, the IIT and IIM have not been to blame. If anything, they have been huge positives. Of course, there are negatives as well, which I will point out. Overall, this will be a rather long, rambling and confused post. Please bear with me.
1. Why do some many people take the IITJEE exam despite not knowing what engineering really is? Because many of us just follow our parents' dreams, given the fact that we don't have any dreams ourselves. Because my parents come from a generation where they were not really assured of any financial backing, they wanted us to secure our finances first before thinking about dreams. The glamour of an IIT admission is not always the cause. More children in developed nations can easily think of alternative careers/ dreams/ passions because they can afford to, from childhood. They were brought up in a secure environment, whereas we were not. While that is not enough to kill dreams, the sad part is, at the point of my high school examinations, I had no idea where my dreams lay. Or my passions. All I knew was I found mathematics easy, I found languages interesting, I had an excellent short-term memory, I was speedy, accurate and efficient. I liked Chemistry as much as I did Geography. I had no idea where all this was pointing to. So I took the JEE, because I knew I could crack it. It gave me four more years to figure out what I wanted to do in life. It would give me a platform to pursue my dreams.
2. At this point of time, let me take the opportunity to share my loathing for all those who took one-two years off after their Class XII exams to attend some coaching centre in Delhi or Kota to make the cut. The advent and spread of these coaching institutes is the turning point where the quality of education in IITs took a nosedive. Before them, I believe only those children who consistently scored good marks in Mathematics and Science at school were “pressurized” to take the IITJEE. After Kota came, parents started to believe that two years and 3 lakhs investment could transform anyone into an IIT-ian. Of course, the quality of students does make a difference. I am not defending the Professors here, but why would the Professors take any interest in imparting quality education when the students themselves took no interest? For most students, clearing the entrance exam after two hard years of slogging is enough motivation to let their hair down and not care about academics any more. Thus, most would list their “Top 2 percentile rank in IITJEE” as an academic achievement in their CVs rather than a CGPA in excess of 8/10 in IIT.
3. I still believe the IITs and IIMs are centres of excellence as far as India is concerned. But, by no means are they the only centres of excellence. And it is up to the student to make full use of the facilities and infrastructure available at these institutes. The top IITs may or may not produce the best engineers of the country, but they do well enough on some other fronts. They instill a co-operative camaraderie among students as against the competitive framework that most parents strive to bring up their kids in. They do indeed promote the virtues of hard work, not only in academics, but in creative arts, drama, sports, technical skills, event organization, and even marketing and PR. All these are facets of active IIT life, which I have seen missing in most other institutes, where life is more about malls, motorbikes and women. And if smoking pot is a crime, I’m sure people in my father’s generation did it too, and they turned out to be some of the most dedicated engineers in their lifetime. Also, the fact that you meet people from all corners of the country, brilliant minds – some of whom are wholeheartedly involved in their thermodynamics and artificial intelligence and fuzzy logic, some who can speak in 9 languages and some who can convince Tata to part with 10 lakhs in sponsorship money by their glib talk – does help you broaden your horizons. That is, if you want to. If you don’t want to, you can stick to your South Point Calcutta classmates. But that isn’t the fault of the “centre of excellence”.
4. Are people wasting the Government subsidies by choosing to do an MBA and not using their engineering skills? Firstly, what exactly are the skills of an engineer – if you are saying screws and nuts and bolts, I beg to differ. I think it is the ability to approach a problem, analyse it logically and come to a scientific conclusion is what defines the critical skill for an engineer. And that should not necessarily be restricted to building bridges and assembling cars. In this context, let me also add, that speaking for the students of the Mechanical Engineering department, the first choice of jobs has always been among Tata Motors, Larsen & Toubro, ITC, Maruti Suzuki, Ashok Leyland et al. It is only because I did not qualify for any of these that I was forced to sit for IT companies like Accenture. And it was because I had no intention to pursue a job in the software industry and “waste” my talents that I opted to do an MBA, immediately after completing my graduation. Otherwise, I might have seriously considered honing my skills at any of the above companies. So why were there only 10-15 core sector jobs for the 50 odd students of the department, whereas there was no dearth of IT/ITES jobs for the whole institute? I am very sure I would have done more harm to my engineering degree by doing a coding job than what I am doing right now.
5. So why did I not get a job in an engineering services firm in spite of the fact that I was actually interested and was one of the few students who were able to secure the highest grade in the Comprehensive Viva Voce (the 30 minutes at the end of 4 years in the institute when you are grilled by 5 senior Professors on your cumulative engineering fundamentals)? It was because I was a complete zero as far as my soft skills were concerned. I was not able to communicate to the interviewer that I was passionate enough to do the job. That is where the Indian “centres of excellence” come a cropper, when compared to their international counterparts. The emphasis on grades, right from school, makes you feel that you are defined by your examination marks. Which, in the real world, is far from the truth. Thus, parents do not bother about the marks in “Elocution” in school as long as their kid scores 90+ in Mathematics. The first teacher who showed me the importance of this subject was of course, Suvro Sir, and thus, it was the first time in Class 9 that I got poor marks in Elocution. Unbelievable, but all the other teachers had just given me good marks in the subject because I was a “good student”, despite my all too obvious lack of speaking skills.
6. I have no complains with the underlying message of the movie “3 Idiots”, which is to follow your dreams or passions, if you are lucky enough to identify them early enough. However, I agree with Sir that hard work should not be undermined. And that the “centres of excellence” should not be the Mecca of all school goers and their parents’ ambitions. So, if our kids don’t really like dividing sin(theta) by cos(theta) or think integration is what the politicians of today sorely lack, lets not force them to the slaughter houses of Kota. But, lets not discourage them from a stint in the IITs and IIMs as well, if that’s what they want when they are out of ideas. They are not bad places. Maybe the greatest inventors and entrepreneurs have not emerged from the IITs in hordes yet. But, 4 years in IIT is a humbling experience. It produces good people, with hearts mostly in the right places. In terms of tangible achievements, there’s not much to write home about but I don’t believe that these institutions have been a complete failure, either. Contribution to nation building – ambiguous. Contribution to character building of individuals – definite.
P.S. Thoughts on the matter, anyone?