Monday, September 28, 2009

Reflections by IITians

The current controversy about the salaries of IIT faculty has brought the IITs onto the headlines. But Ram Krishnaswamy’s labour of love Reflections by IITians (contact Ram at raises much larger questions about our elite technology institutions.
Every contribution to this volume is by an IITian, predominantly from IIT Madras, but with a sprinkling of contributions from the other IITs thrown in. Almost every IITian who has contributed to this book has struggled to live up to the expectations of himself (except for one, all the contributors are men), his family, and society at large. Some have chosen the domain of research and the creation of knowledge to prove themselves, others entrepreneurship, and a good number are driven by social concerns. Not surprisingly, what does come out is that the IITians are an exceedingly talented bunch and there are few human endeavours in which they would fail to make a mark.
Would they have done just as well without the IIT education? It’s difficult to say. But what is clear is that the IITs taught them to work hard and work long hours, made them confident of solving analytical challenges, and developed leadership capabilities in those who sought out opportunities beyond the realm of academics. The IIT brand helped them gain entry into elite graduate and doctoral programs, and certification as professional engineers. What is equally clear is that most of them entered the IITs not because of any particular aptitude for engineering, but because they were good at Physics and Math and the IITs offered the best platform for their evolution, development, and career prospects.
One interesting takeaway from this book is on the differences between the IITs. In An Eye for Excellence, E.C. Subbarao applauds the science-based engineering curriculum of IIT Kanpur that created engineers with strong fundamental understanding of phenomena and excellent analytical capabilities. He implicitly admits the lack of “practical” engineering skill among IIT Kanpur engineers. Interestingly, according to the authors who studied at IIT Madras, in spite of the strong German influence and the rigorous workshop courses at IIT Madras, most IIT Madras engineers seem to have the same lack of practical engineering skills. It appears that the strong Indian cultural hierarchy that places the mind over the body dominates the Indian work ethic so strongly that there is little that the curriculum can do to overcome this. Of course, there are other interesting social forces that could be responsible for reinforcing this hierarchy, including the preponderance of Brahmins among IIT Madras faculty.

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