They’re Having Fun at College. Are They Learning Anything?

nytimes college india.jpg

The Times has a piece on a familiar theme: lots of people are getting college educations in India that aren’t especially useful.

India was once divided chiefly by caste. Today, new criteria are creating a different divide: skills. Those with marketable skills are sought by a new economy of call centers and software houses; those without are ensnared in old, drudgelike jobs.

Unlike birthright, which determines caste, the skills in question are teachable: the ability to communicate crisply in clear English, to work with teams and deliver presentations, to use search engines like Google, to tear apart theories rather than memorize them. (link)

I know many readers will wince when the centrality of English is reinforced (especially by a western media outfit). And the idea that caste is now totally irrelevant seems far-fetched given the intensity of the current debate over reservations and the “creamy layer.” But Anand Giridharadas’s point isn’t so much the English language or the eradication of caste as methodology and ethos — and the fact that 17% of India’s college graduates are unemployed even as the top companies are desperate for talent. His examples of how to do it wrong are Hinduja College and Dahanukar College in Mumbai. In Giridharadas’s analysis, the problem at these colleges is the emphasis on things like obedience and punctuality, rote memorization, and the failure to inculcate the confidence amongst students to question authority.

It seems to me these are problems that could be fixed without overhauling the entire system. Leaving space for questions in a lecture is a start; guest-lecturers from industry might be another. If you agree with Girdharadas’s assessment of the problem, can you think of solutions that don’t involve waiting for the government to fix everything?

82 thoughts on “They’re Having Fun at College. Are They Learning Anything?

  1. Its true that graduates from Hinduja and Dahanukar colleges cannot be hired by Infosys. But the reason is not their lack of english skills, but because Infosys hires only engineers. The great divide in India is no longer based on how good your english is, but between those with an engineering degree and those that do not. Indian society was no great friend of the arts/humanties at any time, and if anything this is only getting worse. Its curious that the article focuses on the angrezi issue, when the real reason is something else.

  2. Sakshi,

    No, with the opening of economy in India, the spill over is far and wide. English skills, and savvyness might still be key, as every where in the world

    I have cousins who are working in human resources, designers, etc. and they would have not but for the opportunities generated by IT boom recently in India.

    I am sure St. Stephen’s College folkies (slang for westernized bachas) have no problem find jobs in banks, etc.

  3. I wrote: Its the ‘junta’ from lower rung engineering colleges who are sustaining the IT boom in India. IIT junta usually opts for MS/PhD or MBA. Neale:

    Wow!

    I used the word “junta” in the IITian lingo context.

    ‘Panchhi’ (bird)/Punter = 1 person (usually a freshie) Junta = any number of people, greater than 2 Hajjar junta = usually greater than 4 :)

  4. I am sure St. Stephen’s College folkies (slang for westernized bachas) have no problem find jobs in banks, etc.

    Yes, I am sure graduates from St. Stephen’s are doing fine. But they have always done fine, even before liberalization. But how about the middle rung college art graduates, like the one’s from Dahanukar or Hinduja. Engineering graduates from a similar rung college, OTOH, will not have trouble finding a job.

    Parents in India will pay ridiculous donations to get their kid into any chavanni-chhap engineering college, if they can afford it, rather than have them join a reasonably reputed science or arts programme. Some of this has to do with the usual status/class issues, but a lot of it is also that it is far easier to find a job with an engineering degree than without it.

  5. on a lighter note:

    During high school, our fondly/blandly named school day, was presided over by some govt lackey who started off his speech thus : I am delighted to be the Guest of Honor. This High School has always had a good reputation. Even our CM’s sons passed by the school for many years :-)

  6. The great divide in India is no longer based on how good your english is, but between those with an engineering degree and those that do not. Indian society was no great friend of the arts/humanties at any time, and if anything this is only getting worse. Its curious that the article focuses on the angrezi issue, when the real reason is something else.

    The media explosion in India (Newspapers. magazines, radio, TV, film, web, advertising) provides plenty of good oppurtunites for arts/humanities graduates nowadays.

  7. These are some excellent points about educational issues in India. I have worked with girls in Bihar from some of the lowest (and most discriminated against) caste groups in a school setting. These girls only chance at education was in a small informal school setting. With little supplies and untrained teachers, the students learned basics but memorization and compliance with the teacher (especially not questioning any of their statements) was always emphasized. Being trained to teach in the US and doing my student teaching in a pilot school, I had generally worked in environments where students are taught to reason, hold up their own opinion and argue and debate, creating new ideas. From other research and surveys I have found that many schools still use the old memorize and regurgitate model of learning- as can be exemplifed by the large value placed on high stakes tests to gain further education- the better at memorizing, the further on you go. A good friend of mine came to study grad school with me from India. She already has one masters and is an extremely intelligent person, but still struggled with writing in the style of creating your own thesis, and backing up your points. In her education in India (including JNU) she had mot written in this style. I think that Universities in India need to start emphasizing students creativity and that their ideas can led to new and important advances, rather than simply memorizing and proving they can do it well on exams. But, my point is that, in the United States, in many schools this begins to be taught at a much younger age, and the idea of trying out your ideas and backing up your own argument is being taught starting as young as second grade in a pilot school I worked at. Obviously there are many problems with getting education to everyone in India, but also, teacher training and curriculum needs to incorporate these concepts from an early age.

    PHEW. That was long-winded

  8. The great divide in India is no longer based on how good your english is, but between those with an engineering degree and those that do not. Indian society was no great friend of the arts/humanties at any time, and if anything this is only getting worse. Its curious that the article focuses on the angrezi issue, when the real reason is something else. The media explosion in India (Newspapers. magazines, radio, TV, film, web, advertising) provides plenty of good oppurtunites for arts/humanities graduates nowadays.

    That may be true, though I really do not know a lot about that. Things are changing really fast in India. If I talk based on how things were three-four years ago, I find I am outdated :) .

    My main problem with the NYTimes article is that it uses students from arts/humanities backgrounds as examples of those unfit for employment in a technology company, and because of their english, or because they can’t use google (!). This of course is absurd, and since this is pretty much the only argument the article makes, I have no idea what to make of it. Sure there is a lack of soft/english skills in arts graduates, but that is not relevant to the software industry. As Microsoft’s Craig Bundy said recently, the problem of the India software industry is lack of good computer engineers with strong technical skills and practical experience.

  9. I think there is a rural / urban divide in getting jobs.. Almost everyone I knew (from a suburb of Chennai) whether they studied engineering / science from top/second/third tier colleges (no one I knew studied arts) ended up in IT and are earning quite a lot.. I think it is high time people stopped using the cliche of adding ‘caste’ and ‘IITs’ to get published on a western newspaper..

    You’d be surprised if you look at the statistics of Indian students in US (last time I checked, it was averaging around 70,000 for the last 4 years) and at the max, IITs’ graduate around 4-5000 per year. This is not to take away anything from the IITs or IITians. I think we have milked their reputation high and dry.. People here in US watch a couple of TV programmes and think every Indian colleague is from IITs.. No complaints there.. :-)

  10. This constant talk about IIT this and IIT that … just shows the deeply heirarchical nature of everything in India. Every goddamn thing has to be put in a caste like system.

  11. This constant talk about IIT this and IIT that … just shows the deeply heirarchical nature of everything in India. Every goddamn thing has to be put in a caste like system.

    LOL.. even you can’t comment without ‘caste’ and ‘IIT’.. looks like we need to award prizes for people who comment without using the above terms..

  12. Sakshi Comment No.52: The great divide in India is no longer based on how good your english is, but between those with an engineering degree and those that do not.

    No, I believe it is partly this and partly whether you can be shrewd and adapt yourself to the environment. From my comment above, the HR guy pointed out that persons coming to Infosys could not apply practicality of solving a problem. It is this skill that they were looking at. Not just being the topper by “mugging” notes and being first. Practical experience is still needed and I am noticing that it is changing in India. It is okay for all those in better colleges getting that opportunity. What about those who aren’t in those colleges? They need the chance and if they get it, some make most of the opportunity and others don’t.

  13. Hot from the oven. I found this diary from MIT Sloan graduate Elizabeth Yin ’07 who just interned @ infosys. She seems quite astute in her observations:

    Happy Summer! I’ve now been in Bangalore for a month, working at Infosys’ headquarters. It has been an incredible experience and really eye-opening. On one hand, there is extreme poverty, marked by hawkers and beggars who wander through the main city just trying to make a living. (My first impression of Bangalore was seeing a man stand amidst a pile of garbage surrounded by stray dogs. He was licking a plate clean — presumably dinner that he had found in the trash.) On the other hand, there is Electronics City, a sector of Bangalore that is comprised of world-renown tech companies. Infosys, for example, is a large, gated, private campus, complete with meticulously groomed gardens, golf holes, a swimming pool, restaurants, workout rooms, shops, and a guesthouse, where I stay. On the weekends, the campus becomes Disneyland, as employees bring their friends and families to spend the day snapping photos and using Infosys’ recreational facilities! Some days I worry that the wealth disparity will drive this society to turmoil, but on other days, I can really see everyone improving his/her lot in life. For better or worse, it is amazing to be able to see a much bigger picture of India than if I were to just visit this country on a holiday. Coupled with soaking in the culture and society, the conversations I have been having with the other Infosys interns is the best part about being here. Coming from all over the world, the other Infosys interns and I spend a lot of time discussing both what we see inside and outside of Infosys. From a business angle, we have had so many good conversations about Infosys’ operations, which are so different from many U.S. firms. We debate the future of outsourcing, global business, and generally what makes a successful management team/company. It has been an unparalleled experience to be able to see the challenges of running a global company seamlessly and take part in such incredible growth.

    Now the question: Are Indian-Americans or South Asian Americans availing such opportunities? Tell us the one who are? The reason I am asking my sister-in-law sister and her husband are in Shanghai now. They are Taiwanese Americans. I guess they saw incredible opportunities and jumped at it.

    I am sure such interactions are also benefitting Indian interns and graduates @ Infosys presently.

  14. This constant talk about IIT this and IIT that … just shows the deeply heirarchical nature of everything in India. Every goddamn thing has to be put in a caste like system.

    Almost every Third World country has a divide between rich and poor which is stark, creating a deep-rooted fear within society that leads to hierarchies

  15. 40 dabba brilliant. I am amazed at how little one does in white collar America. You can spend a good portion of the day chatting with colleagues, IM-ing your honey, surfing the net, having lunch, even in so-called “high intensity” positions. The trick is to 1) suck up to the right person; 2) make whatever litttle you happen to be doing sound important in emails and presentations. I laugh whenever I bill my clients who so willingly pay. This idea that Indians (outside of a tiny 10% elite) can’t do multinational/ professional firm work is ludicrous, probably racist. The truth is they can do any job you can do – for a lot less money.

  16. She … still struggled with writing in the style of creating your own thesis, and backing up your points. In her education in India (including JNU) she had mot written in this style.

    Right on the money.

    On the other hand: (1) India gave me a very good education in mathematics. (2) In life sciences, exams involve committing large amounts of notes to short term memory and regurgitating it in the answer paper. This is true even in the US.

  17. Are Indian-Americans or South Asian Americans availing such opportunities? Tell us the one who are?

    I had a desi friend, an MBA from a top-5 school, who applied for the internship. He was treating it as his safe option, for who else on earth would even think of applying to Infosys, India. He was aghast when they turned him down with a polite letter that his interests did not match theirs.

  18. Dude:

    You’re crazy! Obviously, you have never been educated in India or quiet conveniently forgotten the experience.

  19. Dude: You’re crazy! Obviously, you have never been educated in India or quiet conveniently forgotten the experience.

    which dude?

  20. Weighing in rather late in this discussion! As an IIT Bombay graduate in Electrical Engineering, I will have to say that the success of IIT graduates has very little to do with the quality of education at IIT, but rather on the inherent capabilities of the students themselves. I used to be so frustrated with the system at IIT that I had considered dropping out several times. It was needlessly very hard and quite demeaning in many ways. I did my graduate studies here in the States at a relatively average school in the Southwest, and it was such a refreshing change! I loved just about everything about the US system. From the freedom to select your own courses, to the generally healthy interaction and respect there was between the students and faculty, I felt I could breathe again! And I thrived, not just as a student but also as an individual. Now many years later, I am helping my daughter (a junior in high school) decide which colleges to apply for. I am not worried, for I know she can get a very good education in any of the hundreds of good universities here. Back to the main topic, the education system in India is indeed quite archaic, and needs reform at just about all levels.

  21. I am not worried, for I know she can get a very good education in any of the hundreds of good universities here.

    I wish my parents had been more aware of this back when I was in school!

  22. I think skill-sets and education are not necessarily synonymous in India. Kids/young adults will get a greater sense of self-worth if they are not completely judged by their grades in school. And this means no more 2nd-decimal comparisons of children by aunts, relatives and the ilk. And I hope this will reduce the number of IIT-references that this topic will garner in the future. Amen.

  23. Sashi:

    The strength of the IITs, I think, is not in what happens inside the classrooms but what happens outside them. Bringing reasonably intelligent kids (the genius types were always limited in number) from different parts of India (mimics different countries in a “flat world”), in small class sizes (a real luxury I now realize, having sat through lectures that have had as many as 100 students, here in the US), giving them superior facilities (dorms, libraries, labs etc) which enables them to interact, and bounce off each other at a fairly high intellectual level was (and perhaps still is) the best part of an IIT education – not the academics, not the professors with American PhDs. I, for one, survived my term mainly because the library was truly world class, and had a serious kick-ass literature collection.

    This really gives me hope. It also makes me think that frequently, the ones who do it right (whatever “it” might be) have a distorted idea of why it’s all working. So there’s sometimes an almost superstitious reluctance to change what is seen as a winning formula.

    What you say here resonates with me and reflects my own highschool and college experience here in America. The greatest influences in my own life were (for the most part) not my teachers, but rather fellow students. I learned far far more about intellectual curiousity, about how to learn, about how to take tests, about how to share knowledge, about critical thinking, etc from the kids I went to my classes with. My teachers taught from the front of the room, and I either liked them, or respected them, or was indifferent to them, or despised them. But the kids were my peers, and therefore powerful in a way that the teachers could never even imagine.

  24. Sakshi Comment No.52: The great divide in India is no longer based on how good your english is, but between those with an engineering degree and those that do not. No, I believe it is partly this and partly whether you can be shrewd and adapt yourself to the environment. From my comment above, the HR guy pointed out that persons coming to Infosys could not apply practicality of solving a problem. It is this skill that they were looking at.

    I was simply pointing out the engineering degree as the minimum prerequisite. Yes, I’d agree other skills are important too.

    It is okay for all those in better colleges getting that opportunity. What about those who aren’t in those colleges? They need the chance and if they get it, some make most of the opportunity and others don’t.

    Honestly, I don’t think there are many engineering colleges that have been completely left in the cold by the IT boom. As Ponniyin Selvan pointed out in #60, its not hard to get a job in an IT firm, so long as your degree has ‘engineering’ printed on it somewhere. Why does the NYTimes article restrict its discussion to non-vocational streams? I’d wager its because they had trouble finding an engineering college whose graduates were looking a future selling credit cards.

    I believe the real risk facing Indian IT is not that it will not find people to fill in the regular 9-5 IT jobs. These jobs are quite simply not that hard, and India with its large population has sufficient talent depth to be able to fill in these jobs, though some recruits might require more training than their US counterparts. What worries me is that India may never become a source of technological innovation, that is, the future Microsofts and googles will continue being born in the US, simply because there is not the same level of rigorous practical training and hands-on approach, right at the top.

  25. Honestly, i don’t see what’s so great about American undergraduate education in. It is a large drink- and sex fest puncuated by the inconvenience of classes. If you take a degree in humanities, you merely need master a few buzzwords from whatever happens to be fashionable in critical theory at the moment and sprinkle them in your papers; I contend that practically anyone can learn how to do this. I suspect most of what’s going on here is cultural unfamiliarity, not the innate failure of cram system education.

  26. Last week’s India Today‘s cover article was “What’s wrong with our teaching?”. It focused on primary and secondary education.

    As Amardeep talked of private sector being involved, the study was undertaken by Educational Initiatives and Wipro.

  27. Risible, have you taken non-introductory classes in humanities and the social sciences at an American university?

    I’ve found a significant difference between humanities/social sciences majors and science majors in terms of critical and creative thinking skills among my students, and I think that’s not an insignificant skill to have in any kind of job.

  28. Feynman’s account of his experiences with the education system in Brazil (which he studied as part of a committee) are very interesting. I am copying an excerpt I found online, below:

    Later I attended a lecture at the engineering school. The lecture went like this, translated into English: “Two bodies . . . are considered equivalent . . . if equal torques . . . will produce . . . equal acceleration. Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration.” The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out. I didn’t see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge–nothing! After the lecture, I talked to a student: “You take all those notes–what do you do with them?” “Oh, we study them,” he says. “We’ll have an exam.” “What will the exam be like?” “Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions.” He looks at his notebook and says, “‘When are two bodies equivalent?’ And the answer is, ‘Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.’ So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and “learn” all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.

    Its hard to make a general statement regarding the quality of teaching at the engineering level, given the wide disparities. But the school level system, while perhaps not as bad as this, does come close. IMO this is more a fault of the teachers, and the way the exams are set. The NCERT books, are in fact, quite well-written, readable, and teach by example. But given the brutal competition in India, even at the school level, there is a constant temptation to give in and just prepare for the exam(to hell with learning). This is specially true at the various coaching institutes, where the focus is all on the last year’s paper ‘pattern’, and not on clearing basic ideas or concepts.