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Sunday, October 24, 2010

India Inc should look beyond BTech and MBA

By Swapan Dasgupta

The generous $50 million donation to the Harvard Business School by the Tatas has, quite naturally, attracted considerable attention in India. This includes uncharitable suggestions that India's high-profile multinational has got its priorities all mixed up and is suffering from a colonial hangover.

The debate over the ethical validity of corporates directing their philanthropic energies abroad, particularly when Indian education could do with booster shots, is likely to continue. The India versus Harvard tussle is, however, only one emotive aspect of the public interest in private endowments. Equally relevant is the question: what are the donations for? In addressing this issue, it is best to not lump all donations to overseas institutions under the same roof.

The Tata donation to a premier Business School has followed a path well-travelled. In India's prevailing value system, management education is the pinnacle of accomplishment, on par with an IIT degree. An MBA is regarded as a passport to career advancement and explains why business schools have mushroomed all over India. Indian society hasn't paused to ask the question British cartoonist Martin Rowson once posed to me in jest: "Why does a man selling envelopes in Swindon need a management degree?"

Rowson was guilty of caricature. Yet, there is a point to ponder: has India become obsessive about the MBA, at the cost of everything else?

This is why it may be instructive to look at the two other gifts to Harvard that were overshadowed by fat Tata cheque: Anand Mahindra's $10 million donation to the Harvard Humanities Centre and Narayana Murthy's $5 million to the Clay Sanskrit Library.

To the reigning philistines, these endowments were eccentric indulgences. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru injected the promotion of "scientific temper" into the Directive Principles of the Constitution, Indian conventional wisdom has deemed the perusal of the humanities a colossal waste of time and an unaffordable luxury. For conspiratorial post-colonialists, the primacy of the liberal arts during the Raj was Macaulay's plot to create a nation of subordinate clerks. To economic planners concerned with a skilled workforce, classical studies or Indology was another diversion of resources. In the contrived science and technology versus humanities battle, the latter stood no chance.

The institutional devaluation of the humanities was reflected in the modified design of the examinations to the all-important civil services examinations. From the day multiple choice questions became the norm and the essay paper was junked, it became clear that lucidity and articulation—the ability to construct an elegant and internally consistent argument—were no longer regarded as worthwhile attributes.

The stress on applied skills was no doubt a shift away from an elitism that had earlier made the IAS and IFS a wing of the St Stephen's College alumni club. But, have we overdone the anti-elitism bit and, instead, bred a generation lacking lucidity in three languages?

The 'reform' of civil services recruitment was just the tip of the killer iceberg. Since S. Nurul Hasan decided to make education the laboratory for some inspired ideological engineering, the humanities were inexplicably merged into the 'social sciences'. Instead of being an argumentative conversation involving the past and present, "scientific history" resulted in students being force fed dollops of questionable certitudes. Literary criticism became jargon infested and infected with derision of 'dead, white males'. Classical studies were made lifeless by the official disdain for theology and religion. Indeed, had it not been for universities in Britain, Germany and the US, Indology as a discipline would have become extinct. The state of the Asiatic Society is living proof of the ease with which we destroyed institutions that others had so painstakingly built.

It is in the context of the relentless assault on the humanities that we can view Mahindra and Murthy's donations to Harvard as inspired choices. Murthy's gift will help complete and perhaps revive the monumental project sponsored by the philanthropist John Clay to publish the essential works of classical Sanskrit literature. Mahindra's endowment to his alma mater could inspire fellow industrialists to recognise a life beyond technology and business studies. Since India often takes its cue from 'phoren', the two donations may even prompt a larger realisation that a function of education is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Who knows, one of these days we may even be privileged to hear a HRD minister say that education isn't just about the "scientific temper".

Sunday Times of India, October 24, 2010


satyam said...

hmmm..... but i guess with so much nepotism around i guess multiple choice questions atleast give the less CONNECTED a chance... atleast a sense of justice bcoz an essay where you score one or 2 marks less due to someone's CONNECTIONS i guess rankles.. and one or 2 means a lot in indian entrances...

froginthewell said...

Dear Swapan da :

Instead of being an argumentative conversation involving the past and present, "scientific history" resulted in students being force fed dollops of questionable certitudes.

I am afraid that is an un-Swapan-ly major goof up. The purveyors of these "questionable certitudes" are professors in the very "humanities" mould that you endorse here. They try to justify their views not with bullet points, but with long essays. It is their language skills, their rhetoric, that they use to disguise the tenuousness of their arguments.

Indology (even international one, that you seem to not have much complaint about) has done enough damage to Hindus and Indians by focusing more on our defects. A mention of Greece or Rome evokes in the typical international mind imageries related to science, philosophy and sophisticated statecraft (not slavery and such). A mention of India on the contrary only brings up caste system, sati etc. (not Sanskrit literature and such). A Chinese friend told me that the two most prominent subjects they were taught were caste system and Buddha. To the modern westerner, it is probably caste system and the one person Gandhi.

Your British, German and American universities have not shown themselves capable of any more than jaded post-modernist junk rhetoric reinforcing the aforementioned stereotypes. I request you to follow Koenraad Elst and JK Nair's blog for some perspective on how damaging some liberal arts Universities have been. Here are sample posts from varnam :

No Mist said...

you are correct that humanities and social sciences are neglected in india .. but with the kind of people at the helm in these 'sciences' there is nobody else to blame ...

humanities and social sciences have become a byword of time wasting (read waiting for some job - any job - absolutely any damn job!) in indian universities ... this is even more true as one goes higher and higher up at the degree ladder ... BAs are more incompetent than MAs .. MA are more less competent than PhD studnets ... Studenst are more competent than successful PhDs ... PhDs are more competent than faculty members ... and so on ... the more time one spends in humanities in indian universities, the more boorish and more illiterate they come out ... and of course also far less competent ... i am saying this from personal observation ... i too am a PhD student ... thankfully not in humanities ... i love the subject (esp sociology and history) but I dread going anywhere near the students and faculty members of humanities schools/departments in indian universities .. it is just mind boggling that such people can call themselves literates.

i wud have loved some interaction with humanities/social folks and to know more about their fields ... but thanks to internet and wikipedia i do not need to .. such a relief !

given all that, I feel more comfortable if India puts its trust on BTech, MTech, BE, MBA, MBBS, MSc, MCA or even LLM. i am sure most of indians feel the same

Tarun Malaviya said...

Nice article. Here are some additional ideas

1. I think there is a need for both. It is not a case of either this or that, it is that we need both science and humanities.

2. More than just MBA and Btech, we need vocational training. We need more plumbers, electricians, carpenters...than tie wielding MBAs.

Essentially there is at the moment disproportionate emphasis on MBA & BTech kind of education. My guess is that like any other excesses this one is reaching its limits in providing the desired benefits. An excess supply of people with such qualifications will result in lowering of the benefits derived. Forcing people to look for alternatives.
But then we may not have the institutions ready to impart such education.
Swapna Da's observations are timely and we must pay heed to them.


Rajiv said...

Mr Dasgupta

Certain things are SYMBOLIC, and having an education hall named after an Indian company in the world's best ever institute is HUGELY symbolic .. By this act, Tata's name going to remain in Harwards 'forever'.

Besides the point that world's best talented minds studying in Harward will get aware about this Indian company in their early days (and may probably get inspired to work with them), it is also a good public gesture in the eyes of common american citizens to have this kind of educational donation from an Indian company, who otherwise gets business worth biillions from the American soil every year.

Allow me to be little cynical ... problems in India, be it in education or otherwise, are part of parcel of our system and are not going to go away easily, but at times you also have to look beyond .. and perform your duty outside if required ... and so I don't think there's anything wrong in what Tatas have done.


Meghana said...

The Mahindra gift of $10 million to Harvard Humanities is just pathetic!

Anonymous said...

Parents are at fault too for ignoring Humanities. The moment a child shows above average intelligence, parents start to push him/her towards engg/med/mba so humanities are only for who are left behind hence such an abysmal state of arts and humanities in country with very few exceptions.

Anonymous said...

The IIMs and IITs are nothing more than gravy train institutes being wrongly portrayed as centres of excellence. These institutes were meant to produce employable graduates who would work in their fields of specialisation for decent salaries and provide vital inputs for the needs of a newly emergent nation. They were not meant to produce high net worth designer graduates who would work as merchant bankers, marketing gurus, bankers etc riding the corporate gravy train.

Ankit said...

For whatever it is worth, here is one more perspective. While I was doing my B. Tech and thereafter Ph.D., I used to be a sucker for logic and facts. With age and more reading, I have understood and appreciated humanities more and more. Writings on anthropology and history greatly fascinate me and makes me understand the society much better than physics or mathematics does. To this extent, I do agree with your thoughts on giving liberal arts its due in the field of scholarly enquiry. The fact that there has been a "battle" between science and humanities is unfortunate. History tells us that both technological advancements and churning of humanitarian ideas have contributed to advancement of the society; science and humanities are therefore complimentary.

Having said this, I tend to agree with NoMist to a large extent. The quality of discourse in humanities, particularly in India, does not excite most people. In fact, I have had more stimulating discussions on topics of humanities with engineers and scientists than with people of the field themselves (most of whom, with due respect, seem to be intellectually limited).

Thanks for writing on this topic in a thoughtful way.

Ayan said...

Swapanbabu, it seems you are a man after my own heart!

I agree with you up to a point when you say "a function of education is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake". However, lack of quality humanities education (or relative lack of its perceived importance in schools) is important perhaps for another more practical reason.

I work in a"scientific" field outside India. We Indians ridicule local professionals for their 'lack of knowledge'. I agree that we Indians remember facts more easily. We also seem to analyse and apply the pre-existing knowledge well.These values (commit to memory and vomit at the exams)are systematically inculcated in India. However, we fail to appreciate that this ability comes at a cost. Beyond business process applications we do not think independently, we are simply poor innovators or sources of original ideas. Look at reputed 'scientific' journals for evidence and see how many authors have worked throughout in India. Or count the Noble prize recipients or any similar top awards recipients.

I believe poor value attached to humanities education is a prime reason, for as a school children only true opportunity at innovation comes through original thinking in literature or perhaps mathematics. If these are systematically neglected we will continue to have difficulties in the area of true original thinking, even in scientific fields.

Siddhartha Prakash said...

It is not the government which was against the humanities. It was just the time and advent of technology which blew the baloon.

You can't have political science students building bridges and writing software which is what became most in demand thing.

In fact still today, I think more arts students are produced by indian universities than science graduates.

Anonymous said...

Great article. People slagging off the humanities are the typical loony internet Bajrangis (35 year old IT coolies working abroad for lower wages).

As for people saying that foreigners only highlight caste, well caste was and is a reality. Even Dayanand Saraswati said that the Shastras should be burnt. The people who rescued Hinduism, e.g. Vivekanand and Rammohan Roy, were influenced by Western philosophers lieke Rousseau, bentham etc. Swapan recently used a phrase "Hindusim of clerks and class IV staff"--- that about sums up some of you people.

And a lot of Europeans I have met abroad know more about us than we know about them. How many Indians know about European or Japanese history?

Swapan, please join the Swatantra party. Ei shob internet Bajrangi-der haath theke paaliye jao.