My Travel Map

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Of idiots and their dreams

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?


Krishanu said...

Dear Suvro-da,
I think the last two lines of your post more or less sums up the entire thing.If building one's character, or at least trying to do so, is a crime, most of the students passing out from any institution would be incriminated equally. However, it is indeed magnanimous of you to actually understand, and then say out loud and clear, that you were not cut out for a certain domain, or a certain job. Most of the people we know would be too bound by their state-of-denial, or their testosterone, to actually come to terms with themselves. I think the film has shed some light on these issues, albeit in a most melodramatic and hackneyed fashion.

Now that we have identified the problems-I know you have- are we any better off than we were previously? Do we have any solutions for these issues? Merely raising our voices, and forcing people to listen, is a rather small step. We have to take a stand.

On a more personal note, you need not worry about your posts being rambling or incoherent; in this reader's opinion, you have articulated effortlessly what you were trying to say.And smoking pot on the fields surrounding Joydeb Boys' School has more merits to it's credit than even you would believe. I know it, because I had the opportunity to meet your austere, stoned self, in person.

Keep up the good work.
Yours' faithfully,
Krishanu Chatterjee (Chatu)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thank you and congratulations, Suvro, for being both so articulate and so honest - not merely about the IIT situation, but about yourself. If all my old boys had been like you, India would already have been in much better shape! As I keep telling you, write more frequently: who knows that there's another, better version of Chetan Bhagat lurking inside you...

As far as your other remarks are concerned, I shall only demur about the character-building claim: I know all about the odd Satyendra Dubey types, but I have had to deal with IITians all my life, including people who graduated two or three decades ago, and as a rule, they have left me unimpressed, if not always disgusted. Much worse than they, of course, are their parents and their wives - but that is another story. And very few of the characters I most admire in contemporary India are IITians, as you know, too.

I wish you had written a little more about the movie as a movie, though.

As for smoking pot and suchlike, I am entirely in agreement that there are far worse things that 'nice' people do, and I should know!

Suvro Chatterjee said...

And I am amused to see that you have enabled comment moderation. Obviously you too have gotten sick of too much pointless garbage pouring in...

ScrewDriver said...

I saw the movie... I liked it .period. Somehow I am not able to relate to it that much.
Like you i would not seek to distance myself from the "centres of excellence". Havent been to IIMs so cant say much about it but I do strongly believe that IIT did educate me in a long way, and perhaps that had least to do with so called text bookish education.
The problem is by the time most of us do realize what we do want to do with our lives we are halfway through doing something else. From there to change and go somewhere is requires courage dedication and opportunity. I was in the same situation as you were in class 12 absolutely clueless what i would like to do in the future.
Most of the children in India see the future through their parents eyes. is that wrong ? I dont think so? In India as you pointed out financial security is a burning factor which is not present atleast in Europe. To change this even the economy needs an upheavel .. something which i am completely unsure of.
Finally saying that centres of excellence do not give out people who are passionate about their work is complete bullshit. I see around me people loving the thing they do and command a lot of respect for that.

kb said...

Suvro, nice post. The movie was good, well, except for a few overdramatic incidents. I very much agree with your points and was thinking of blogging on a similar note. May be now I can just put a link to your post :)

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Here's a quote from Bertrand Russell that might interest Ayananghsha (who doesn't think it worth his while to keep in touch with me...):

"If all of us had listened to our parents, we would still have been swinging from the trees".

And by the way, I speak from a lifetime of experience that all those adult males who pee unashamedly by the roadside were taught by their 'good' mothers to do it when they were tiny tots.

Finally, financial hardship never stopped any man from doing what he truly wanted to do. I don't need to cite historical examples of the good and the great: I have proved it to my own satisfaction with my own life that it is greed and love of ease and security and social approbation and the refusal to think for oneself that stops people from shaping up their dreams and following them up - never financial insecurity.

No offence intended: just some food for thought.

Nishant said...

Suvro Da,
Thanks for your article. I read most of it on Suvro Sir's blog and then was directed here for the whole article. You have been quite coherent and might have spoken for a lot of us.
I seem to have offended everyone by my reference to 'pot'. Having been in Durgapur and in a rather controlled (and confined) environment, I had been led to believe that pot and such other things were bad. But now, a very good friend of mine (whom I befriended at IIT), does pot and what not and I don't let that bother me (as long as he doesn't spoil his health by overindulging).
Once again, thanks for your aticle. It, and Shilpi di's last comment on Sir's post have helped me organize my thoughts better.

ScrewDriver said...

@ Sir
With due respect to Bertrand Russell I beg to differ slightly and say that its not entirely true. However it is a just an opinion of mine (might be conceited).
Regarding the financial security part, I agree that greed and love of ease are major contributors. For some people like me i would say courage or the lack of it is a factor. The culprit for this lack of courage may be the society in general. My experience is too limited for me to comment.
Lastly about not keeping in touch I offer no excuses. However I am sincerely humbled at the fact that you remember me.

arijit said...

well... i am from a completely different world and so may be not credible enough to comment on ur post ,since i neither tried for IIT or IIM's, but one thing i must say tht am proud of you for such a wonderful and honest post, and I do agree with the fact tht whatever it is, the IIT's and IIM's are definitely the centres of excellence.I dont know how much the IIm's contribute to nation building,but IIT's definitely do.But yes they are not the only centres of excellence as percieved by most parents in the country.
To sum up, I really think u should start thinking of a career switch ;) ,.. truly proud of you brother.

Avik said...

ei comment moderation ta ki amar comment filter out korar jonno

Indranath said...

None the less another thought provoking and straight from the heart piece.

mark the arrow said...

Thank you for writing. I am learning so much from your perspective - even on seemingly trivial topics like rain and wind. Being an American I am intrigued as much by what is not said and I enjoy the difference. Perfect English wrapped around a completely different set of cultural assumptions. Took me a bit to get the bug out of my mind when you mentioned cricket. One thing I noticed. There is a lot more driving from the rear view mirror, and that may be because blogs are retrospective but it seems on the whole history matters more there then here. Personal history seems like it can be a challenge if you did not make all of your plays perfectly. Not much forgiveness in the system. The Hindi dream and the American dream have a much different set of roots it seems. Here if you mess up get up. That's our general rule. Where you came from isn't the leadership key nearly as much as having a vision about where you are going. The dream dominates. We try to keep the attetnion on the dream and not the idiot.

On the negative side for usa we are suckers for a bargain and will drive any bubble to explode if given the opportunity. Sorry bout that. But leveraged economies would not have been sensative to our spat of overspeculation so we can take it for being the spark but not for being kindling soaked in gasolene. Not our bad.

It is increasingly more difficult to expect sanity in the public sectors, at least here in usa. Perhaps all that means is that I am getting older. Left all the simple problems and answers in my youth.

The stories about hooking up in India are killing me. Been married for 15 years so maybe its like that everywhere but ouch! One of those impossible to imagine for me things. You have my prayers. There is nothing like having a family, though you are broke most of the time. Ravi Zechariah, a Bombay born evangelist was advised by his brother who wanted his parents to arrange a bride for him said (he was a Dr. and didn't have time to find someone), "Love is an act of will". It is something you do. The feelings come later. This is the closest I can get to where you live. Maybe its a stupid thing for me to say. Its true for other people or institutions or cultures or even sports, except I can't stand baseball. I don't care now many bottles of golden sparkling beverage you buy me. Hope cricket is different. Never watched more then one or two "Pitches?". I think I am ADD. Ravi says India has gone nuts on cricket. Better then going "nuts" on mortgage backed derivatives.

Thanks for sharing.