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 "history". ------------------------------- 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 instance. 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 education. 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 stand. 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.
Last Updated: Sunday, May 17, 1998