Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Engineering and Liberal Arts!

What a combination. Isn’t it something like having sambar rice with paneer makhanwala. Something like attending a lecture of lecture of Switchgear and Protection followed by European History…..Absolute misfits right! The only courses that are relevant for engineering students are those related to Physics/Chem/Maths. Why the hell should engineers study history? or music or English literature for that matter! Isn’t it a pure waste of time? Engineers are supposed to be “quanti” types and are well advised to focus only on the core courses.
Well, that’s what our education system seems to think so. That is what I also thought until a couple of years ago. How incorrect we were! Liberal arts have a major role to play in shaping our thought process – provided it is taught in the perfect way.

The article below written by a Harvard School graduate in the recent issue of Financial Express explains this point beautifully
The famous author VS Naipaul remarked, “it’s a calamity” that India has “more than a billion people but no thinkers”. While, of course, he was being characteristically provocative, his remarks have more than a grain of truth. Although every year, India’s universities and colleges produce 2.5 million graduates, including 3,50,000 from engineering schools, Indian industry openly laments the fact that a very large percentage of Indian graduates have poor communication skills and lack analytical and problem-solving skills. According to a report presented to government by the National Knowledge Commission: “There is a quiet crisis in higher education in India that runs deep.” This report too identified communication and problem-solving skills among those that Indian education fails to develop.
These are the very skills imparted by a liberal education, which has the potential to “open the mind, correct it, refine it, enable it to know, and digest, master, rule and use its knowledge,” says Cardinal Newman, the 19th century thinker whose ideas have greatly influenced liberal education in the West. These are the habits Indian education has failed to cultivate en masse among its college students. A liberal education promotes breadth of awareness and appreciation, clarity and precision of thought and communication, critical analysis and the honing of moral and ethical sensibilities. Although one could receive a liberal education through any subject so long as it is taught with the objective of promoting some of the skills above, it is usually associated with the humanities, subjects such as history, language, literature, art, religion, political science etc.
Opening pure humanities/liberal arts colleges alone would not solve the problem. Even in the US, only 4% of college students attend liberal arts colleges. A more effective solution would be, as also stated in a recent report to the ministry of human resources development by the Yash Pal Committee, to integrate liberal arts subjects into engineering colleges, business schools, vocational and other professional schools as well. Given the demand for technical skills, engineering and science colleges and programmes will and should take priority. Rather than compete with the economic imperatives that call for the continued priority of technical education, to infuse liberal arts coursework into the curriculum at professional or engineering colleges seems to be the way to go. This will not only enrich students’ education and create well-rounded graduates, but also placate their practical concerns when they see how liberal arts coursework can lead to wider... and more interesting career options. For example, a combination of courses in electrical engineering and design could lead to a career in new product development at a growing breed of companies like Apple; a combination of mechanical engineering and art could lead to a career in film set design in Bollywood; computer science combined with history could lead to a career in educational software production and a computer science degree combined with Asian studies makes it much easier to land a job in Singapore. Additionally, for most engineers, to move up the career ladder and into management, the leadership, analytical and communication skills needed could be honed by liberal arts courses.
Author David Perkins in his book, Making Learning Whole, argues that while engineering courses equip engineers to “solve problems” they typically don’t teach them to “find problems”. This is a skill gained by a study of the humanities, where “problem finding is quite routine”. Perkins adds that “problem finding” concerns figuring out what the problems are in the first place. “It also involves coming to good formulations of problems, formulations that make them approachable”.
In a country like India, where problems seem so insurmountable so as to paralyse even the most well meaning individuals, there is a real need for individuals who can accurately identify the problems that we face and break these down in a way that make them more manageable and “approachable”. Other academics state that a liberal education prepares students to respond to and address human dilemmas. Indian education clearly hasn’t prepared students to resolve the glaring human dilemmas around us. Of course, there are other reasons too for promoting a liberal education in India. India needs home grown historians, linguists, theologians, political analysts, environmentalists and intellectuals who are experts both in their disciplines and in the communities in which they live and are capable of finding solutions to uniquely Indian problems.
Rather than be content to churn out professionals who simply execute ideas and plans of Western companies, Indian education needs to create its own thought leaders, innovators and creators. This is fitting for a country that in its new found confidence aspires to a greater international stature and continued economic growth. A liberal education, in addition to being personally enriching and potentially transformative for those who pursue it, can greatly help mitigate the weaknesses that plague India’s higher education.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Big v/s Small

One of the greatest fascinations of mankind, especially for those belonging to the upper middle class and living in the urban parts of the country is to buy big homes. To move from a 1 BHK to a 3 BHK to a 3BBHK sea facing, to an individual bungalow coupled with a garden to a ranch and so on… In fact if you list down the “most discussed topics @workplace” you would find that the topic of “buying a new house” would rank very high in the pecking order. It would start with the latest properties being developed in the city to the kind of amenities that each one has – swimming pool, parking space, gym…blah blah….And yes the conversation would never end without a reference to how the EMIs are still high and hence we all should get a good salary raise!

This brings me to the question “How big a home do I need” to live comfortably? If I ask this question to married couples in Mumbai and Delhi I am sure that the responses would be highly contrasting. For people born and brought up in Mumbai, a 700 sq feet house is quite a luxury while for Delhities I guess that’s a decent size for their “servant’s room”. Again the point is not to pass any value judgments but just to highlight how a question on minimum space needed would bring forth totally contrasting responses from people living in these two metros.

Till today I haven’t developed any fascination for big homes. I’m still satisfied with something small but comfortable. I somehow like the smaller ones. You tend to use the space much more constructively. I am reminded of my friends house in Matunga – There was a small attic which was converted into a study – very well done actually. The place was quite small – but he had used it so well. School / college books for 2 were easily arranged along with small tables to study. Mom would pass on stuff to eat from below – something to chew on while studying. I have spent quite sometime at his place and still find that small corner in that small house as very comfortable! - The big houses of today still haven’t been able to leave an impression on my mind……
Schools and All that

Once again writing about my favorite topic – Schools and Education. You tend to think a lot about subjects/areas that fascinate you the most and that naturally reflects in your writing. You cannot write about something that you are not kicked about. So, I can’t sit down and write on topics like “The best way to decorate your home” or “The best car to drive”!

Coming back to school now! Just take a walk every morning at around 7:30 am and you would find school kids all geared up and waiting for their school bus, their mom’s by their side giving some advise or the other. (To be honest not all of them are geared in the literal sense. You still find some young ones extremely sleepy! Now why do primary schools have to start so early in the morning and subject the poor ones to the torture of waking up so early is another topic – which I hope to address sometime later). Just wait there for sometime and check out the types of buses. You would find a marked difference; from the normal vanilla buses to ones that are Air-Conditioned, each catering to different segments of the society. While the former signifies the mere continuation of the type of school/education that existed a couple of decades back the later is the new breed called “International Schools”. These schools with international affiliations help your kids develop into “global citizens”.
To start with the child travels in an A/C bus with very few kids (handful) to the school.
The class size is much smaller; around 15 to 20.
Kids are exposed to “all round” development – along with studies there are a whole host of activities after school like swimming, clay modeling, horse riding and what not…
No tiffin boxes please! Future global citizens need to be exposed to global cuisines from an early age – So the meals would be Chinese one day, Indian the next and Continental the day after.
Kids would go on globe trotting tours as part of their learning process. This would help them to get a better understanding of the global culture.
Birthday parties would be arranged in the nearby mall – It would include watching the latest Harry Potter flick followed by celebrations at the McDonald outlet.

Not all schools offer all of these; but net-net most of these things are on offer and hence the premium fees charged. Fees would go to a couple of lakhs per annum (8 times of what I paid for my engineering!). Now to think of this a decade back was impossible; there was no market for it; atleast in the suburbs. There were only the state schools or the odd CBSE School to which parents living in the suburbs used to send their kids to. Today with the growth in income an increasing number of people feel they can afford these new schools and this segment is actually growing at a very rapid pace. I guess it is more to do with the demand/supply mismatch in the state/central run schools/colleges. With a demand for quality schools increasing at a scorching pace on one hand and absolutely no growth the supply of quality schools/colleges where do people go to?

With this new concept of IB schools there is a definite roadmap. Kids go to these schools till Class XII and then take the SAT or similar tests for education in the US/Europe/Singapore. They then move there, complete their PG and then continue working there or make a transition to India once they have completed their education. Helps them avoid the grind/tension/trauma of having to go through the series of Board Exams/Entrance Exams at various stages. Some might say it is an easy escape route – and that kids from these schools can’t compete in competitive exams like the JEE; but the other argument is why do they need to? When their roadmap is already clear!

Do I prefer the IB Schools to the State/CBSE/ICSE boards? Not sure – Would be handled in a separate discussion. This purpose of this article was to just observe a rising trend in major metros in India and think about the rationale behind it. It wasn’t meant to pass any value judgments on which form of education is better!
The Book Launch

Scene 1: Here I am, fiddling with my remote, browsing various TV channels while having dinner, checking if there is something worthwhile that can be watched. And lo! suddenly I find a “BREAKING NEWS” appear below “Buchanan accuses former great “x” in his latest book “BUKH – A – NAAN”

Scene 2: The next morning, Times of India would carry the same piece of news on the front page with a nice tag line to attract enough eye balls.

Scene 3: By the time I finish reading the TOI and switch on the television I find News channels analyzing the “so-called” controversy generated by the book (which mind you, no one has read till now. In fact the publishers haven’t even released the book – Only certain “excerpts” have been leaked.)with a few cricket experts. Now, the way this news is analyzed also differs from channel to channel.
(a) Some rational ones prefer a discussion and an “in-depth analysis” with cricketing “gurus” like Nikhil Chopra and Saba Karim.

(b)And then there is another breed of news channels who would have 1 anchor dressed in Aussie uniform (trying to resemble Buchanan) and 2 in Indian Tri-color (one dressed like Bhajji for sure) against a backdrop of animations and graphics and their discussions would make you feel that Indians have just entered into a war with Australia.

Scene 4: A few events would happen the next day

There would be another series of Breaking News “Buchanan denies having ever made such statements” or “Buchanan says his remarks were quoted totally out context and there are clarifications about it in the subsequent chapters, which haven’t been leaked”.

The same clarification story would appear in the newspapers. And by this time a couple of cricketers who have been “accused” in the book would post their comments in their blog!

Television channels would feature interviews of Buchanan, cricketing experts and particularly the cricketers who had blogged their view point. Each of them would air their point of you; clarifications…counter clarifications……

The end result – Everyone ensures that news about the “book release” remains in the public domain for atleast a couple of weeks; long enough for the publishers to actually release the book and make its way in the book shelves.

Its not just the Buchanan case. I have seen it happen so often. Remember Adam Gilchrist auto-biography release last year. The same series of events unfolded (with the Symonds monkey-gate being a dominant part of the leak). If you go back and have a look at various book releases you would find a similar pattern of events.

I guess its all part of the “marketing strategy”. Just imagine – a cricketer decides to write an auto-biography. (Or for that matter any famous personality). He would sign a deal with a major publishing house which would get exclusive rights to print and market the books. Now if the cricketer doesn’t write something even “remotely controversial” – the book won’t sell. It won’t come in the news at all! Thus the publisher + celebrity ensure that some controversial topics are touched. Weeks prior to the actual launch of the book – the publisher, in partnership with a few media channels start “selectively leaking” the controversial aspects of the book. What follows is the exact series of events as described in the Buchanan’s case. The book remains in the limelight for the right/wrong reason for a month – during which it makes its way to the book stores and it all translates into very good sales.

If you still don’t believe this – wait for the next book launch. I am 100% sure it would follow the same pattern. And yes, if the next in line to write a book happens to be Dada then you can imagine what’s in store!
The Role of Economics
Economics! When was the first time that I ever heard this word?.. It dates back a long way…All the way up to 1994 when I was in Class VIII. The “news” doing the rounds in school was that we were heading for a syllabus change! And to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the new syllabus that we had to confront; what compounded the problem was that we would be introduced to a new subject called “Economics”. Economics would get a mere weightage of 30 marks and would be combined with geography. And for 30 marks we were supposed to read the entire text book! All hell was about to break loose….I remember having participated in a signature campaign; the purpose of which was to oppose the introduction of the new syllabus and this new sounding subject called Economics.

The reason why I touched upon this story that occurred sometime in the mid 90s was to contrast it with my “current state” where I absolutely love Economics. Being exposed to it “in the right way” during my PG days coupled with some active reading (newspapers) and watching select TV channels have ensured that the seeds of interest sown during my PG days is slowly blossoming.

Wonder what I would have done had these seeds of interest in Economics been sown during the school days – when the subject was being introduced. Why was I so averse to it during that phase of my life? The reasons are manifold:-

(a) The entire purpose of Class X was to (maximize marks) and the introduction of a new subject was a massive hindrance in achieving that above stated objective. Imagine – No previous year’s question papers, no important questions to refer to..All the extra effort and just for 30 marks.
(b) A new subject means that I had to allocate time from my already packed study time-table to Economics why meant that I could devote lesser amount of time for other subjects.
(c) Again with the objective of marks maximization I studied/mugged up only those questions that were mentioned at the end of each chapter. (I think we were given an assurance that being the first year – questions would be asked only from this section or something). So here I was – mugged up those questions – never bothered to understand the subject in detail or ask probing questions. And ya – I ended up doing a bloody good job of studying those questions – Proof: I ended up scoring 146/150 in my Boards!

In a nut shell – after reading Economics for 2 years – I had no clue what it was or how vitally important it was for our Nation. For me it was another set of questions to be rammed up in order to (maximize marks).

Today I look back and wonder
(a) What if I was introduced to the subject in a very different way in schools?
(b) What if my teacher would have taught me the subject with examples from the real world?
(c) What if we were asked to read the Economic Times and a couple of business magazines to supplement/strengthen the concepts taught in class?
(d) What if we were given projects that would require us to do some additional reading?
(e) What if we were told about how closely linked Mathematics and Economics were?
(f) What if we were made aware of the career options in this amazing field?

All this was never done. I don’t blame anyone. Am happy that atleast now I can reflect back on these points. Having realized that a whole of lot stuff could be done – hopefully I’l get an opportunity to share this wisdom with a few schools…sooner rather than later…..