Make the syllabus easier, IITs

I woke up on the morning of August 13, 2009 to find in my inbox an email by Prof. V.K. Tripathi (VKT). The email commented upon the recommendations of the Yashpal Committee report on higher education in India.

Here is the Yashpal Committee report.
Here are VKT’s comments.

In his comments VKT addressed the dichotomy that haunts every part of India. There are people who go to expensive “English-medium” high schools (like I did) who have a perspective on their careers and ambitions. But at the same time India abounds with students who do not get access to good schools. Their language abilities are also limited. But many of these not-so-good students come to IITs – the hallmark of technical education in India and a world-brand.

So the professors in these esteemed institutions are faced with a dilemma. Their best students can perform miracles if properly stimulated and challenged. But pursuing such a vision can be almost lethal for the career of the not-so-good students, who will lag behind and even fail classes if the material is too advanced. Contradictory though it might seem, this problem is not insoluble. In this post I will propose a change in the IIT system that can potentially solve this problem. Let me begin.

I have recently come to a conclusion in my discussions with Sumeet about education in India that our major problem lies in the fact that our teachers in school expect everyone to be super-intelligent and extra-smart. Emphasis is always laid on constant perseverance to reach that ultimate level of academic achievement. The person who comes second in class is in some way not as good as the person who comes first.

This means that our system is catered to only the best amongst us. The average student’s self respect is compromised so many times in his high-school life that he loses confidence in himself, his talents and his abilities. No doubt, the best of our people are comparable to the best in the entire world, but that leaves out a huge chunk of our population. This is the main reason why India lags behind the developed world in infrastructure, education, health care and almost everything that is a necessary ingredient of a modern life.

This attitude dominates the culture in IITs as well. The average student by this time has taken recourse to unfair means in order to survive in this harsh system and has lost all his academic integrity. The tale just continues. In an attempt to achieve a motley mix of including everyone and yet maintaining a “high” standard, IITs are inviting a catastrophe.

Our freshman physics course in IIT Delhi (that is supposed to be taken by all students) was taught out of the Electrodynamics textbook by D.J. Griffiths. Here at MIT, a course of that level is taught to Physics majors in their 3rd/4th year. Our freshman math courses covered analysis and algebra of the level that makes up a major chunk of the average MIT Math major’s undergrad curriculum. The freshman chemistry course in MIT dealt with stuff we had covered in preparation for the JEE. Yes, the smart guys triumph – but majority of the people either fail or start disliking learning itself.

But here is where we start seeing the solution. There are people at MIT who are also superior to the average level. They have already tackled with that physics, that analysis and that algebra. But they have the option of not doing those courses. They have enough freedom in course choice and flexibility in the degree structure that they can pass out of classes that are compulsory. The system caters to the average person but leaves enough space for the smart people to develop their full potential.

If IITs develop enough flexibility in the curriculum and give enough choices to their students, their is no reason why we should be faced with a problem like we do. That of course has to be accompanied by a down-tuning in the level of our courses. The general curriculum should provide a quality education to the average student at a level he can understand.

I think that some professors in IITs would inevitably regret a “loss of pride” in down-tuning the course level, but that is their problem and insignificant for the society.

About Raghu Mahajan

Postdoctoral research fellow in theoretical physics, studying quantum gravity.
This entry was posted in Higher Education. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Make the syllabus easier, IITs

  1. its really an eye opener and nice suggestion for improvement..

  2. Aditya Puranik says:

    Really good stuff. I suggest that you write something on careers choice in Indian students. It would be really helpful to me as I’m in 12th and many more. In american universities there is no branch deciding factor. Here CS > Elec > Mech > Material Science. Every student decides field/college in a limited spectrum. I think everybody would like your insights on these topics.

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