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Sat, 04 Jun 2011

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Escaping Mediocrity

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The remarks by the Hon'ble Minister Jairam Ramesh that IITs (and IIMs) do little worthwhile research and that their brand is derived from the quality of their students struck a dissonant chord amongst the chattering classes in India.

The Hon'ble minister, who is himself an alumnus of an IIT, said nothing new (at least to IITans). In the proto-typical IIT pecking order, the top of the heap is the BTech students (themselves ordered by branch chosen), they are followed by 5-Year integrated students or 2-Year MTech students (depending on who you ask), then by the 2-Year MSc students and then the PhD students. The faculty occupies a variety of slots; mostly below the BTech "kings" with a few exceptional "fundoos".

There were a number of rejoinders to the Hon'ble Minister's remarks:

This post tries to take a different tack.

Have the IIT BTech alumnus made contributions to science and engineering research which justifies the enourmous expense of human resource (not to speak of financial and other resources) that they represent? To me it seems that the answer is "No!" (If IIT had delivered sufficiently many creative scientists and engineers, we could have seen the undoubted success of venture capitalists like Mr. Vinod Khosla, Fortune 500 company creators like Mr. Narayana Murthy and influential politicians like the Hon'ble Minister Mr. Jairam Ramesh himself as icing on the cake --- right now it just looks like sour cream!)

Why have the IITs failed to create a large number of creative engineering scientists?

The IITs represent the ambition of the middle-class in India to escape the mediocrity that they percieve around them. That is why parents are willing to invest so much time, money and mental energy on the task of getting their children admitted to these institutions. An IIT-JEE aspirant hopes to become part of an elite institute, an "island of excellence". However, the charm of the fancy labs and the professors with their strange accents quickly wears off. It then becomes the next aspiration to achieve "escape velocity" --- in our time this was through the landing of a "schol", while nowadays it is more often the plum MNC job.

However, this search is futile unless one discovers that mediocrity can only be erased by _creating_ excellence --- a much more difficult task than immersing oneself in it. The attitude with which most students enter coaching classes and then IIT negates the spirit of adventure and risk-taking that is critical to the creation of new ideas.

To escape mediocrity one must "boldly go where no one has gone before" or at least boldly go where the rest of your batch is scared to go! The few success stories of IIT alumni (to create new science and engineering ideas) come from people who did this.

So yes, Minister, the IIT students have sharper brains than most of their faculty. However, how many of these students realise their potential for creativity?


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