Saturday, November 04, 2006

A cruel world.

Close to a three hundred thousand brave soldiers (most still in their teens), enlist, often purely by the encouragement of their parents, in a two (and often three) year long battle. They fight no monster; no dragon. They fight and kill each other. All they do is fight for two years, little else. And why do they do this? To avoid an eternity of suppression and repression.

Only three thousand survive this horribly destructive battle. Others are forced to work in the deepest depths of hell, even if they almost survive the ordeal. Before they have the time to relax and recover from the wounds, the government forces them into another equally destructive battle: where they are split into many sub-groups (such as divers, foot soldiers and pilots). They then proceed to kill each other. Some just don't become good divers, soldiers and pilots. They are eliminated easily, and live reasonably fulfilling lives as shepherds. Some, of course revel in this shepherdry (sic.) . All in all, roughly 20 of the 3000 win their respective battles and find themselves as graduate students in MIT and Stanford and the like. Some of the shepherds will end up in IIMs too - where they enlist to fight an equally savage battle with other shepherds.

The IITs might be the biggest names of all as far as engineering education is concerned in the world. But one must bear in mind that what got them there is the merciless bloodshed of the other (unsuccessful) innocent aspirants. The IITs are, in reality, beasts that prey on the egos of innocent Indians who sacrifice two years of their lives with a desire to rise above the rut of mediocrity that the rest of the country is. Their unofficial motto is "Be cruel, kill the innocent."

And this motto extends to the 3000 successful students who pass the JEE. Usually, most freshers into IIT love their Math, Physics and Chemistry - for it takes a true passion (and a LOT of luck) to crack the JEE. And when they join, they come across some joker teaching them Quantum Mechanics - another joker vomiting a book of thermodynamics on the blackboard (without even contemplating an appeal to intuition). The terrible teaching at IIT made me hate those subjects. While students at Caltech had Feynman teaching them Physics, we had these &^@!#$s!

In my very first semester at IIT we had nine courses. Thermodynamics, Materials Science, Chemistry, Maths, Physics, Basic Electrical Engineering, Engineering Drawing, Workshop and Physics Lab.

Developing an intuitive understanding, of course, was possible only if you were an Einstien-esque genius. And unfortunately, most professors assumed the same. There are three kinds of IITians: the Genius, the pragmatic perseverer (sic) and the idealistic victim. The genius does not work, skips classes and scores among the highest in class. (There's usually more than one genius in class!). The pragmatic perseverer, perhaps, dreams of greener pastures in the US of A from day 1 and works toward that goal by taking regular notes and sacrificing the intuitive understanding if he deems it necessary to do so. The idealistic victim, on the other hand, fails to catch what the professor says in class (for he is not a genius), and just does not have the time to work on developing an intuitive understanding of all 9 courses at once. He screws up miserably.

Professors in IIT are cruel too. Except for a few, all expect student to learn by heart empirical formulae to use in the examination. They do a miserable job of teaching. Some professors can't even talk out clearly. Almost all professors have an attitude problem; they reckon the students are just not interested in working hard. In reality, professors at IIT are a pampered lot. They have not taught anywhere else in the world. As a student, I have realized that students at IITs are way more enthusiastic and easy to teach than the students in the US. The professors can teach without "dumbing the material down", like they have to do here. And I have never heard students ask insightful questions like they did at IIT.

IITs are a cruel institution. We are a nation with absymal poverty and opportunity levels. Cruelty is a national phenomenon. We see how exaggerated it is in the nation's premier institutions.


Srihari said...

Read your post on Casteism. Even in my half-insane state of mind, I could see it as utter hyperbole. You are entitled to your opinions of course. Then, I read the post on Cruelty of the JEE, and realized I probably disagree with you more on this than on Casteism. I would first acknowledge that IITians reek of a strong arrogance and pride. Its nice to want Feynman for a teacher, but its another thing to deserve to be his student. Clearing the JEE doesn't entitle you to anything. To me it is a classic case of naach-na-jaane-aangan-teda.

Akhilesh said...

I probably have not given credit to the good professors back at IIT. Actually, I learnt a lot from more than 60% of the professors at IIT. So calling them names was a little - well, hyperbolic.

What do you mean "deserve to be taught by Feynman?". Do you think the 4000 ranker in Jee (because he/she did not go to Ramiah) is less than the 1000th ranker who has gone to Ramiah?)

Well, at IITm, we do have Bala-Ki, who is as close to Feynman as you can get in India. But what of people like me who never got to see him, but got some other guy who just could not teach?

I suffered at IIT for a couple of years. I thought I was stupid. But gradually, I have realized, I did try to work .... I was overburdened - and I don't respond well to overburdening, unlike most other IITians.

India (with its lack of per capita opportunities) appears as a cruel country to the average person - especially in comparison with the US. Lots of people who work really hard cannot make it to IIT - and they end up in some mediocre college. There's a quantum jump in education quality at IIT and at other places.

Possibly one of the best things about IIT was the competence level of the people around. I shall treasure those memories forever. I don't expect I shall ever come across such a mind-bogglingly talented set of people ever again.

Get me straight here: I don't think IITs cannot be cruel. Cruelty is axiomatic in a country like India where there are so many people all trying for the same position.

My position in this post is not that of a reformer, or an educated intellectual. I am more like the person who writes a letter to the editor of any newspaper - irrelevant, loudmouthed and perhaps even pompous.

It's just that I am trying to clear out my thought process regarding the differences between the prosperous US and the poor India.

Srihari said...

Rap, dont get me wrong here. When I say clearing the JEE doesnt necessarily mean one deserves to be taught by a professor of Feynman's calibre, I am not comparing the 4000 ranker or the the guy who did not qualify with the guy who is AIR 100 or even AIR 1 for that matter. My point is this: to be taught by Feynman, one must first possess/display a strong interest/aptitude in physics. And that JEE physics is no qualification for it.

Yes, there are some at IIT who are good, and are committed enough to their subject enough to eventually meet their respective Feynmans (Feynmen?).

I too believe that some of the (Maths and Physics for instance ) professors at IIT were far from the right people for the job.It would be nice if India had an abundance of great opportunities. Sadly, perhaps, there are very few good opportunities. There were some good profs for sure. Did we make the experience of interacting with them count? I would be the first to confess I really didnt. Someone else in an engineering college in Ongole was probably a much better student of Civil engineering than I was. Its a shame he couldnt come to IIT to learn from some good profs in my department. You can call that cruel too, but we get nowhere with that. Its just life. What you think is a cruel stroke of fate is actually possibly someone (less fortunate) else's great dream?

Forget education, even the most basic resources are fought for in India. A street fight between two women in Chennai's slums on a summer morning for a bucket of water!

I think its probably sounds nice and optimistic to say that eventually everyone gets a good share of everything.

In the US, there is an abundance of opportunities and facilities. Are Americans making the best use of it? Maybe not, and that's their sob story.

Cruel though it may seem, competition in education(but how much?) is good on the whole, not because I think I belong to an elite group, but only because it teaches us that no success comes easy in life. Life, I think, teaches different people the same lesson at different points in time.

Akhilesh said...


I guess we both more or less are thinking on the same lines. Of course, I tend to exaggerate a tad bit.

As a matter of fact, I do believe people here make most of their opportunities. This is a land where the mediocre can succeed, whereas India is a land where even the best can fail.

What the IITs do, is essentially create (with Indian Taxpayer rupees) a very competent elite. If you want to be so selective on merit (like the IITs have to be, to be called elite), then you have to be cruel. It is this cruelty that brings about their brand equity. And that's why I say, whenever I market myself as an IITian, I am doing so at the cost of thousands of other crushed egos. I feel like a sinner, already.

I was not really trying to change anything with my post. I was merely ruing some of the inherent injustices of nature. Most of the 300,000 who prepare for engineering in India would each probably be able to earn six digit incomes in this country.

In a developed India, I am sure, the IIT Brand will take a beating. The only way India can actually develop (at least in the research arena) is if many universities with competent research plans pop up in India, here there and everywhere. That means, doing research (Industry Funded) is a profitable venture. And when there's many such opportunities available to the Indian student, the IITs will cease to have a Talent Monopoly (like they do have now). Of course, this can happen only with consistent economic growth and intelligent policies. Dr. Singh seems to be doing a good job - balancing right in the center.

I believe IITs are a monopoly. And that's why they can rape the student - it's either IIT or probable life of mediocrity. And you know what happens when there's a monopoly! (That "loss to society" triangle in the demand/supply curve.....)

Here's my point in a nutshell: IITs are a monopoly of sorts. Monopolies are cruel. IITs are therefore cruel.

The only thing that will reform IITs, is when other good colleges pop up. I hope that day comes soon.