Education Is A Great Leveller And IITs Do It Best

I have always felt that IITs have been the subject of unfair criticism over the years. I think IITs flowed with the liberalization wave of India. Indian economy opened and offered IITians a chance to go all over the world. Brain drain happened and media reportage on big salaries for IITians became the sensational stories of success every Indian wanted to chase. I read this piece by Sandipan Deb in Mint recently and I felt I had so much to say. After all, I come from the state where a phenomenon like Super30 exists, having lifted over the years hundreds of bright students from economically weaker households out of their circumstances, and enabling their dreams to make it to the IITs. If you are interested in reading more about Bihar’s obsession with the IITs, you could read this story I did ages ago , but this still holds true.

My op-ed for Newslaundry, prompted by Deb’s piece, primarily says this:


I write today because the film Super30 reminded me of Ratan. He was my best friend in college where I was studying for my 12th. Tall, dark and sensitive, with a heart pure gold. Every morning, our college van undertook a bumpy ride to reach his house on the outskirts of Patna. He would emerge from the front door, his shoes sticking to the kutcha road muddied in the rains. In monsoons, I would see him wade, and wear the same mud-stained jeans throughout the week. For a girl who was constantly told to make friends with people she could learn from, Ratan was my best friend in a city where girls weren’t expected to compete. Ratan had a dream too – to make life comfortable for his parents. His father, a clerk at the Secretariat, believed he could make it to the IITs. After all, Ratan was the top of the class, great at Maths and English and Science. Unlike the students in Super30, he didn’t even need the coaching. Just eight hours of study every day and everyone knew his chances were bright.

Ratan made it to one of the top three IITs and drifted away. In a decade, our paths crossed and I found him transformed. Ratan had acquired an American accent, his hair coloured ember, and muscles the size of Stallone. And he was doing his best for his parents: right from bearing expenses for his sister’s wedding to getting his mother a 10,000 rupee facial in a tony beauty clinic in Delhi. His job at an American multinational had taken him around the world, and in just five years at his job, he could now afford the fees of a mid-career MBA in S

Ratan hasn’t been the only IITian I know. As a journalist writing on India’s higher education, I met hundreds of them on the IIT campuses. I still remember writing about the trio at IIT-Delhi who made a fun film called Formula 69, and they weren’t the only ones devising brilliant ways to express themselves, within and outside the academic frameworks. There were others whose IIT education helped them overcome the limitations imposed on them by their physical disabilities and the barriers of caste. I distinctly remember the absolutely inspiring story of this talented guy with a major physical deformity, who if not for his IIT education, wouldn’t be leading teams at MNCs today. What’s more, he fared handsomely in the marriage department and now is proud father of two bright kids completing his circle of joy at home. Then, there were many others who burnt the proverbial midnight oil to study mechanical engineering but took up coding jobs in the American companies because the money was good. 

For long, parents in India have ambitiously woven the IIT dreams for their sons and the boys have obliged. The path is usually decided in the womb – if it’s a boy, he needs to go to the IIT; if it’s a girl, she needs to be a doctor. Anyone else doing anything else is not good enough, a mere compromise for vaulting ambitions of families propelling aspiring IITians into the real and daunting challenge of making it to the IITs. It’s here, in this clamour of ambition, that we get to see the great enterprise of millions of Indians for whom education remains a great leveller and IITs, with their high standards of pedagogy and rigorous training, have been doing a great job of it. 

Super30, beyond the grit and glamour of its success stories, is also a reminder of what an education at the IIT has done for thousands of Indians over the years.  It has inspired, uplifted and made them believe in the power of education to make their lives better, and this is better than anything the materialistic brands in your Instagram feed promise you every day. In Kota, the city where coaching centres are grim reminders of the rat race for the IITs, the students come from villages and small towns most people in India’s cities wouldn’t have heard of. They hear of them in the headlines of stories celebrating their incredible successes. Fair enough then that the appeal of the IITs endures; more than 11 lakh students appeared for the IIT-JEE this year.

The real trouble  lies in the culture of looking at the IITs as repositories of money-minting jobs. An education doesn’t just prepare us for jobs; a good education’s primary job is to enable dreams, find our ever-lasting purpose in life and to allow us to find ways to live for that purpose. Yet, the appeal of brand IIT remains inextricably linked to its promise of jobs with attractive pay packages. The media coverage on IIT placements and the preponderance of reports on pay packages makes it worse. Making it to the IITs thus has become sort of an Indian fable – person makes it to the IIT and makes it big. Not surprisingly, because for long, a person’s success and social status have been defined by his job and the economic value of his labour. For men in particular, failing to earn enough money doesn’t just mean economic hardship and loss of social status; it’s also an insurmountable barrier in the marriage market. 

Yet, the time has revealed that excruciating long hours and hard work have their limitations, especially in the age of automation which has wreaked havoc on jobs as we know them. It’s in this shaky new world that the nature of jobs, meaning of success and how one earns the living needs to be redefined. There may be cues for an alternative approach here. May be, disentangling from the pursuit of a job and career the pressure of making impossible amounts of money could lead us on the right path. Maybe then, we will see the unreasonable pressure on the IIT aspirants and the students easing up. And maybe then, we will truly learn how to appreciate the transformative power of the IITs, beyond the considerations of money and capitalistic ideas of success.

Do read the full piece here.

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