This Article is From Aug 20, 2015

Why IIT Founder Nehru Wanted Arts for Engineers

An acronym that has gained great of currency in the last few years, especially in the context of the debate around IITs, is the powerful agglomerate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). What I want to suggest today is that we need a balancing acronym which I will tentatively call LEAF (Liberal Education in the Arts Fields) for a more holistic view of education in general, and Indian education in particular. Such a perspective that gives due weight to culture, history and memory is especially moot when we have a very young population, as we currently do in India. How might STEM and LEAF complement each other under these circumstances? I'd like to ground my answer to this question in a very particular context namely, the role played by Humanities and Social Science Departments in the IITs today.

Although the IITs have been around for more than half a century, many members of the general public still do not know that the humanities subjects were included for credits in the curricula of the IITs from the beginning. Every single engineer who has attended an IIT has passed through its Humanities and Social Science (HSS) Department. But why? To understand this, let's go back to a major difference between a standard issue university and a technical institute.  

Briefly, a university, as its name indicates, aims to be inclusive, universal. This word was first used in English in 1300 to refer to "the whole entire number engaged at a particular place in giving and receiving instruction in the higher branches of learning" (Shorter Oxford). 

An institute, on the other hand, if we turn to its etymology, derives from the Latin verb for 'to establish' and has a more recent origin, since this word was only used after "1795 in post-revolutionary France" (Shorter Oxford). Note that this usage was coined nearly five centuries after the word "university". No wonder, then, that the characteristic feature of this model of learning is its modern emphasis on specialization or "expert" technical knowledge.

This stark difference between the ideologies of the university and institute, we can now see, is in fact exemplified by a 'meritocratic' system like that of the IITs. Students with an aptitude for scientific and technological subjects are exclusively admitted to these institutes on the basis of some extremely tough exams. However, the STEM and LEAF structure within the IITs is, surprisingly, far from exclusive. It actually presents us with an imaginative 'hybrid' of the two models cited. Indeed, the IIT Charter explicitly says that they were set up with two broad, egalitarian objectives:

a) the advancement of knowledge through education and research, in both Pure and Applied Science, in Engineering, Social Science and Humanities;

b) service to the community and nation (which we refer to as Extension activity) through the use of their resources both intellectual and material.

In the above respect, the IITs closely resemble the great US technological universities (MIT, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon) which themselves gradually expanded to include every discipline, leaving their instrumentalist beginnings behind, but retaining their commitment to 'excellence'. This 'turn to the humanities and social sciences' and the consequent flourishing research in interdisciplinary areas has, we know, been highly beneficial in the case of US universities and by no means detrimental.

In India, for a variety of reasons, we have chosen not to follow the US path, although some of the newer IITs (Gandhinagar, Hyderabad) have groomed their HSS Departments with particular care, as have some older IITs (Kanpur, Delhi). Some others offer postgraduate degrees in humanities subjects like Economics (Madras). This is because of a growing realization that the HSS Departments are today far from 'service' departments - if they were ever that. The HSS subjects, at their best, introduce reflexivity, an ability to argue and logically present arguments, delight in unfamiliar, independent ideas and a view of the universe not merely as a nuts-and-bolts construction, but a changeable sphere of human interaction that can be conceptualized from a variety of philosophical and civic angles.

The founder of the IITs, Jawaharlal Nehru, appears to have understood this well. Anticipating that such institutes could become too narrow in focus, he wanted a structural component within the system that was oriented towards turning technologists into 'better men and women'. Specifically addressing engineers, he said:

"I know you can measure with your techniques and rules the hardness and strength of this metal or that, of stone and iron and whatnot...How do you measure the strength of an individual? The human being as material is not only a difficult material but an exciting material because it is a live material, a growing material, a changing and dynamic thing. No two persons are alike and we have to build with that material... [and] function in the environment of India with the material of India... It is important that...engineers advance to become better men and women."

It is that task of moulding 'exciting' human material to which Nehru thought that the HSS departments could signally contribute. So I wonder how Nehru would have answered the anonymous commentator in these NDTV columns who not so long ago charmingly wanted to rid the IITs of "humanities cockroaches". With his deep mistrust of the humanities, this commentator is unlikely to have read Kafka's great story "Metamorphosis", where the hero wakes up one morning to find himself turned into a giant insect, prompting a truly deep meditation on the human condition. He would probably not have read the famous Tagore-Einstein dialogues and be quite unfamiliar with Martin Heidegger's mystic dictum that the 'essences' of art and technology are connected; and almost certainly, he would be befuddled by the views of a world authority on cockroaches, Srini Kambhampati at U Texas, who might assure him that not only are roaches are among the world's hardiest species, the nitrogen cycles on which we all depend would be quite shot were we to get rid of these alarming creatures. 

Ironically, though, a student at the IITs might be aware of many such intriguing, offbeat truths, thanks to his humanities courses - which could well serve to teach him the fine art of wonder, the basis of all science.

For the most part, I believe, the long suffering IIT students seem to enjoy their 'HUKKAH' courses because these allow them, as they sweetly put, to 'learn to relax'. Once, I got them to do a 'stereotypic' self-portrait in class. Here are the half-dozen or so jokey points they came up with:

1. Good at PCM, bespectacled, nerdy, very smart.
2. Lacking in communications skills, especially when it comes to girls.
3. Think they can conquer the world, extremely competitive.
4. Interested in sports, video games.
5. Not too keen on reading long books.
6. Practical, focused on details and on getting results.
7. Like the idea of money but are not too sure or sophisticated about how to spend it.

Nehru himself put that last point somewhat more elegantly. He had "no doubt at all" Nehru wrote, "that India will....advance in science and technology. But what I am concerned with is not merely our material progress but the quality and depth of our people. Gaining power through industrial processes, will they lose themselves in the quest of individual wealth and soft living?" he asked.

These prophetic thoughts about the corruptions of "soft living" have returned, as we know, to haunt us today. Nehru solidly put his faith in engineers as the "creators" of modern India, but it is this very creativity that he thought would be augmented and extended in HSS classes:

"The Engineering approach to problems would be the scientific approach coupled with the urge for creation, the urge to make and produce new things for the common good. The main thing is that the growth of the individual, the group, cannot be imposed on him."

The STEM and LEAF combine in short was written into the DNA of the IITs. It is time we see it flower.

(Critical theorist and writer Rukmini Bhaya Nair is a professor at IIT Delhi. She is the author of several academic books.)

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