With India having almost miraculously become synonymous with advanced technical skills, the debate frequently erupts on whether this has anything to do with the quality of education that Indians receive. I went to an elite technical school in India, so there is reason to believe that any edge I have in this industry is precisely because of what I was taught there. Yet many of my classmates are not so certain. “Education,” snorted a techie friend recently, “You call what we got an ‘education’?”
Funnily enough, my friends’ ideas are probably at odds with the thought leaders of the very industry that employs them. I’d bet if you asked Bill Gates or Michael Dell or Steve Jobs or Eric Schmidt or any other technology CEO, they’d tell you that things are fine just as they are. They are proud of their immigrant work force and also of the thousands of technical graduates they are hiring in India itself. But to the problem-solving mindset of most of my Indian peers, this is no reasonable argument—with the latest hammer in hand, they are determined to find really tough nails to knock in. I call these people educationists.
“We need to upstream differentiating skills in the education process,” they declare. “Indians must move up the value chain, and mere technical know-how is fast becoming a commodity,” they fret. “You ever notice how in Marketing, they are all white?” they hiss in low tones at Diwali parties.
How can and should we change the system of technical education? In the 2009 Academic Ranking of World Universities an Indian university only placed below three hundred other universities. While all ranking systems have their quirks, it’s a sobering statistic all the same. For all the bouquets thrown at Indian college graduates, and perhaps because of them, the colleges they come from seem complacent without justification.
Not that the system in the United States, which has the distinction of ranking the most universities of any nation in that list, is free from running the risk of being self-satisfied. When I was in graduate school in Texas, the phrase we used for the syndrome of forgetting that there was a world outside our campus was “living inside the hedges.” Because of the large shrubbery that lined the outer boundaries of our campus, people somehow seemed to see nothing but the green leaves that obscured, literally and metaphorically, the view of everything that lay outside it.
The direction that gets Indian technical colleges out of the hedges will be dictated by two forces—one that sees tremendous value in the current traditions, and another, usually younger group, whose armor of ideas bristles with the latest arsenal of techniques and technologies that they have been exposed to outside of academia. The former brigade is best exemplified to me by the a chowkidar in my department building who stopped and rebuked me for wearing shorts to class. When I asked him, as I sweated profusely in the middle of the tropical heat, what the problem was with wanting some ventilation, he protested that it was simply not done—pants were de rigueur, the temperature be damned. This was a pervasive part of the atmosphere in college in India: things were or were not done in certain ways. Even returning professors sometimes confessed that they liked being back in India for precisely this reason: there was less agitation all around to changing procedures, giving them a sense of stability and calm.
The philosophy for the future appears to be to improve things from the point of view of the ends rather than the means themselves. What is misguided about these efforts is the thinking that there must be a better way of educating people so we end up with a better “product.” Analogous to the mythical man-month, we have the mythical course-month: add more courses, the right professors, and a swanky, Westernized, department building and everything will work just fine. With all the air-conditioning that will be put in, the chowkidar doesn’t have to worry about students in shorts any more either.
The piece that is obscured in the dust of these debates is: what would make the student happy? Not what would make the student successful; educationists should learn to satisfy themselves largely, if not entirely, with the first question rather than the second. If there’s one generalization I am comfortable with, it’s that in technical education, this is precisely how the balance works out in the United States.
When I got into college in India, my father’s friends seriously advised me to do nothing but study electronics. They didn’t ask what I’d like to study, or what I enjoyed. I knew that I’d rather stick a diode in my eyes than figure out where to put it in a circuit board. I hated electronics. But it had the best career prospects, my father’s friends assured me. Perhaps the fact that they were all power system engineers had something to do with it.
Where the elders of my family left off, my professors gladly picked up. In my freshman year a professor said that if we didn’t learn to program in FORTRAN, we couldn’t call ourselves engineers. Pshaw, said the teachers a year later, programming theories were so last year, the true panacea was in fact plenty of experimentation in laboratories. By the third year these mantras were replaced by the knotty abstractions of “independent thesis work.” Around that time, most of us got the whiff of money and independence at the end of this tunnel, and stopped paying attention. The professors noticed too and spent our final year bemoaning how utterly wasted our talents would be, for it was patent that we had failed to listen to anything they had said over the previous years. Our salaries and scholarships locked down, we were only too happy to agree.
I could spend many evenings teasing out what learning we had or had not absorbed, but one thing I know I learned for certain: all prescriptions are driven by individual experiences and agendas. Long-time academics bemoan the lack of theoretical skills. CEOs of startups wonder why nobody learns how to find a market for tangible goods made out of the airy abstractions that students are tested over. Professionals—managers, designers, product developers—are concerned that nobody gives thought to such systemic properties as “scale,” “reliability,” and “inter-operability.” The contradictions I heard amongst the opinions of my professors, and hear now amongst the well-meaning and erudite people I meet, has convinced me that there is no fundamental and essential body of knowledge that needs to be enshrined in textbooks and courses. All the basic math and physics one needs is taught in high school—college can and should be a more grand experiment than it is today—of seeing this knowledge play out in the world around us.
Can we trust students to know what’s good for them? A good friend of mine who runs his own business in India was asked in a TV interview what he, as a young Indian, thought were the right solutions to India’s problems. I was gratified to hear his response: he only thought it necessary to articulate the problems, because India’s youth will know what the solutions are. I was reminded of this when I started reading SuperFreakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, in which they show how statistical analysis backs the idea that the most successful people are those who get to do what makes them happy rather than the ones who are directed to think about someone else’s solutions to the world’s problems.
Isn’t it presumptuous to assume that we can, merely by virtue of our age and experience, predict the optimal path for a young, dynamic mind in this complex, globalized world? There’s a limit to what we can know of our own futures, let alone that of a generation that follows us. We must focus on the here and now and let the risk-takers and adventurers in each generation find their own path. Yes, it’s scary to leave such a heavy responsibility in the independent charge of people who think sending each other Facebook pokes is the height of hilarity, but I think the oddest sense of humor is entirely compatible with the most serious desire to change the world.
My cousins who grew up in the States—and what middle-class Indian family doesn’t have a dozen of those?—first introduced me to the deeply philosophical differences in how each culture runs its education systems. The prevalence of electives, the role of career counseling, the greater emphasis on alumni relations, and even the admissions process, with its emphasis on the “college essay” where individualistic emphasis on personal statements of purpose give young people faith in their sense of identity that would be entirely out of place in India.
Technical education in India, on the other hand, is about selecting students that are most suitable raw material for employability in certain capacities. Colleges do not evolve personalities of their own that they attempt to find in the students who aspire to join them. Such a match is a superfluity when the success of the relationship between the college and the student is measured not in terms of what happens in college, but what happens after it. No wonder then that Gates and his ilk would be happy to continue picking up these graduates as they are, because they have been perfectly groomed to find fulfillment in what they engage in after they have graduated.
I’ll not offer my own prescriptions—after all, that attitude is what I’ve been railing against in most of this article. All I will offer is the idea that in any technical discipline, the greatest challenge is not learning the principles underlying the study itself, but in knowing when and where to apply the right ones. India is exploding with technologies of all kinds and it is perhaps easier there than in most parts of the world to give college students avenues to explore how technology is shaping our lives. College should be a chance to pretend that you have many jobs all at once, and to try as many of them out as you want, risk-free. Each course should be a challenge in understanding, not how to work through a problem set, but in seeing how these problems represent issues that people grapple with on a daily basis, once you’ve decided what you will be when you grow up.
The author is a software consultant in the United States.