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Stepping down from a Pinnacle - P.V. Indiresan

for those unaware, prof. indiresan was the director of iit-m sometime
back and considered to be the "best-ever" in the annals of iit-m
Stepping down from a pinnacle
P.V. Indiresan
    On September 5 (which interestingly enough happens to be Teachers'
Day), I retire after forty years (give or take a couple of weeks) of
teaching. It has been a long innings, and a privileged one too: I
taught only the brightest youngsters. However, such privileges demand
their own toll: I have never entered a class without a mortal fear of
being tripped up by those precocious brats. However, the relief I got
when each class was over was worth the trouble - it was like stopping
hitting your own head with a hammer!
    Since the time of Aristotle and Plato, it has been the practice to
decry the younger generation. Actually, each generation either mimics
the previous one or rebels against it.  That is how our children too
tend to behave: either behave exactly like us or do entirely the
opposite. My generation has passed through a revolutionary epoch in
our country's history and we deserve some credit for the same. My
generation has also pursued the pleasures of the flesh to an extent
unknown before, perhaps as a reaction to Gandhian self-denial of the
previous one. My generation have also let democratic power slip into
the hands of unabashed robber barons. So, my disappointment with my
students is not that they have not shown us enough respect, but that
they have not rebelled against our lack of ideals as much as they
ought to have.
    The past forty years has seen an unprecedented expansion of higher
education. Even now, two new colleges are being opened every week! As
a result, higher education has become big business, and is no longer
the vocation of the committed few. Such frenetic expansion has been
sustained because economic returns from education is enormous. Firstly
there is dowry; on top of it, the salary differential between what a
matriculate can get and a graduate can aspire for, ranges from about
Rs. 2000 at the bottom to effectively Rs. 10,000 at the top - a
lifetime difference in earnings of some Rs. 20 lakhs. No wonder, we
have a plethora of capitation fee colleges.
    These forty years has also seen an unprecedented increase in the
disparity between the quality of instruction in different colleges. In
the case of schools the situation is worse. Forty years ago, there
were no doubt some variations; then too there was a pecking order, one
would discern a difference between Presidency College and Pachiyappa's
College but there was not the yawning gulf we witness these days. I
started my education in a Corporation school in Madras and that did
not preclude me, and many others like me, from going on to acquire the
best education the country could provide. These days, however, a child
which has the misfortune of being condemned to study in our municipal
schools and even government schools, should more or less give up all
hope of academic advancement. Our governments, committed as they have
been to socialism, systematically made it impossible for the poor to
get quality education. The more committed the government was to
socialism, the worse were the teachers it recruited, and the worse did
it make the fate of poor students. So much so, in the field of school
education, the rich have built privileged islands of excellence of
their own leaving the poor in a worse shape than ever before.
    The politician's cure for this malaise is reservation. Reservation
is actually the old system of caste discrimination with the hierarchy
of castes turned upside down. Evidently, as a matter of principle,
present day politicians have no quarrel with the Brahmins on the
practice of hereditary discrimination; they only want to continue what
the Brahmins have been doing except that they want such injustices to
be reordered in their own way. The more times change, the more they
remain the same!
    Ten years ago I pleaded with the Parliamentary Committee on SC/STs
that they institute special scholarships for SC/ST students to study
in the best endowed schools in the country, even if such schools be
private ones. My contention was that when such students are exposed to
good teaching, they will be able to cope with higher studies far
better than what they can at present. The suggestion was rudely and
contemptuously turned down as that would take "too long a time". Ten
years have past, the situation has not improved. When a medicine is
not effective enough, the most appropriate thing to do is not
necessarily increasing its dose; changing it altogether can be a wiser
option. But it has become impossible to convince our politicians that
there are other remedies than reservation to help the
under-privileged. It is not that they have any doubts about the
utility of good basic education; the difficulty is, they are convinced
that they will get more votes by offering privileged seats to badly
educated students than by giving them good education in the first
       Although it was long years ago, many people, most of them utter
strangers, still recollect that I talked about this problem in a
Convocation report. I said at that time:
      Some members of the Committee (on SC/STs) have gone so far as to
   say that what we need is an Indian standard and not an international
   standard of instruction. . . . it is necessary to debate the
   fundamental question, whether, just because a group of people cannot
   cope with a certain level of education, they should have the veto
   power to deny such an education to the rest; whether social justice
   should imply that there shall be no institution at all in the country
   where merit shall be the criterion and also while the socially-
   deprived should have special privileges, the talented need have no
   rights of their own."

    No one in the government has cared to grapple with these questions
even after ten years.  To my eternal sorrow, I must say that when I
raised this issue, although many politicians respected my stand, it
was the bureaucrats and the academics who treated me like an outcaste.
Today, we want to produce a cryogenic engine, and that too in two
years. How are we going to take on such challenges when our entire
education system is based on antipathy to competence, and teachers
themselves are the worst culprits?
    For years now, the UGC has been advocating the system of
autonomous colleges so that at least a few colleges can have academic
autonomy to keep themselves up to date. But the most virulent
opponents of the scheme are, once again, teachers. It seems that after
four decades of compromise on quality, mediocrity has acquired an
unassailable vested interest.  We look at awe at what Japan, South
Korea or Singapore have achieved, but forget that their success has
been based on a solid foundation of quality education. As second rate
teachers can only produce third rate students, who in turn (when they
get to become teachers) produce fourth rate students, we have got on
to a path of exponentially decaying standards. This danger is liable
to be aggravated because state support for education is dwindling, and
more and more education is getting to be dominated by commercial
ventures.  Commercialization on the supply side, and suppression of
true competition on the demand side can prove fatal for quality in
    Where exceptions do occur, and good quality education is provided,
the students tend to forsake the country and migrate. If they are
forward class students, often they have no other option; even
otherwise, it becomes a matter of prestige to settle abroad. So, even
those who have been specially patronised by the government tend to
forsake the country whenever they have the ability to compete
internationally. In other countries, special efforts are made to
retain the best students within the country, and within the
profession. In India, ever since independence, the status of the
professional has been systematically destroyed. Forty years ago, not
only Vishveshvariah, many others like Khosla, Thirumalai Iyengar were
national figures of repute. Does any one know today who is building
Narmada Dam? Or, who has designed PSLV? Engineers have indeed become
faceless people. Further, in those days, Sir A. Lakshmanaswami
Mudaliar could simultaneously be the Vice-chancellor of Madras
University and leader of the opposition in the Madras Legislative
Council. He was primarily an educator and an intellectual, and only
incidentally in politics. That is unthinkable now; these days,
vice-chancellors are often primarily politicians (or even policemen)
with little or no pretence for intellectual worth.
    It is frequently asked why intellectuals do not debate social and
political issues. Strictly speaking, there are administrative
restrictions preventing them from making public statements. For
instance, according to their service rules, IIT teachers cannot write
to the press without prior permission. I myself started to write
accidentally - to rebut an over- critical article in the Hindu against
IIT Madras; one thing led to another until it became a habit. As a
matter of fact, I was formally warned against writing to the press by
the then Secretary in the Education Ministry. It so happened that on
the same day, Indira Gandhi was in Madras and there was a press report
that she had commended the importance of academic freedom. So, I
promptly dashed off a short letter to the Hindu enquiring whom should
I obey - the Prime Minister who wants academics to exercise freedom,
or the Secretary who prohibits me from doing so? For once, the
traditional timidity of the IAS came to the rescue - the Secretary
never raised the question again!
    This raises a fundamental issue: can an employee contravene rules?
Was I not wrong to have broken the same rules which I was charged to
enforce as the Director of IIT Madras?  It is a difficult question to
answer. One has to balance the needs of discipline against the
imperative of freedom. It is also a very personal decision: I
concluded that the rule denying IIT faculty access to the press was a
negation of the higher principle of academic freedom. If the Secretary
had pursued the matter, the legality of restricting the freedom of
academics would have been tested. I presume the question has been
quietly buried.
    However, academic freedom has its own boundaries. In my opinion,
it would be improper for an academic to do any politicking. The
difference between an intellectual and a politician is this: whenever
a problem arises, the politician asks "who" is involved; the
intellectual inquires "what" is the problem. When Gandhiji urged that
we not condemn the British, but only the actions of the British, he
was emphasizing the basic principle of intellectualism. The politician
tries to replace one culprit by another; the intellectual tries to
evolve a new structure where the probability of error is less.
Incidentally, intellectuals (or anyone else for that matter) can
rarely solve problems; at best, they can only replace one problem by
another - hopefully by a less irritating one!
   In all these years, I have one grouse against fellow Professors:
they do not appreciate that a professorship is no less prestigious
than any administrative position one may dream of.  That being so, why
should they be afraid to say what they want to say? Perched on a
personal pinnacle of their own, they have nothing to gain, so they
have nothing to lose! Yet, they prefer to grumble than to take a
    Let me conclude with the parting advice I have given to a
generation of students: "Whichever organisation you join, you will
discover that your superiors make silly mistakes all the time. But, a
time will come, when you yourself will occupy such a superior
position. At that time, do not repeat the mistakes of your
predecessors; make original ones of your own!"
    As I step down, I pray for an ideal society where bureaucrats
cannot delay, policemen cannot break the law, politicians can have no
secrets; also for universities to have the freedom to decide what to
teach, whom to teach, and who will teach, and be sanctuaries for
intellectual iconoclasts.

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