Wednesday, February 8, 2023
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India is short of educated people and IITs alone won’t help. But Faiz Ahmed Faiz can

The 1990s’ economic boom lifted many out of poverty but it put India in a situation where two generations have good degrees, but lack good education.

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I am an electrical engineer and last week I was horrified at the outrage that people at IIT Kanpur do not know about Faiz Ahmed Faiz. (In case you don’t know either and are too embarrassed to ask — Faiz was a Pakistani Marxist poet.)

Faiz? Faiz who? What has he got to do with improving the grade point average, landing a job at Google, securing funding for a startup or getting full scholarship for grad school at a top US university? Since no professor, interviewer or grad school selection committee member cares much about Faiz (even in the off chance that they know about him), the relevance of Faiz to an engineering student is zero. Since some of these students go on to become faculty, teaching the next generation of students who have the same objective functions, few professors know about Faiz either. Why are we surprised that our engineering colleges are unFaized?

It’s not just the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). It’s not only our engineering colleges. Medical, science, business, and commerce colleges likely suffer from the same Faiz ignorance. Sure there might be the odd physiotherapist here or an unnecessarily better-read physics student there, but, by and large, we should not be surprised if students and faculties at our top colleges do not know about Faiz. To be fair, students at professional colleges are not totally disinterested in arts and culture. Many watch Bollywood and Netflix shows. They follow cricket and football. They also read, as the sales figures of books of Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripathi attest.


Also read: The suspicion over Aadhaar shows why IIT engineers don’t have solutions to India’s ills


Preparation begins early

The education process of aspirational middle-class children starts early, when their parents enrol them in tuitions and coaching classes to prepare for board exams and JEE/NEET. School learning app Byju’s now has a separate application for kindergarten kids. As everyone knows, the competition is hard and you have to prepare for these entrance exams. Preparation requires time. Would you let your teenager’s time be wasted reading Urdu poetry or ask him to learn how to make the right-hand-side equal left-hand-side? Language and social studies are unavoidable irritations that you need to bear, before calculating how an electron moving in the z-direction moves in fluctuating magnetic field on the x-y plane. Can Faiz help solve calculus problems? If he can’t, he’s not too useful, is he?

Indians have been like this for at least three decades, during which engineers, doctors, accountants, and MBAs have acquired social status and economic power. So, most of our elite have had little exposure to humanities and social sciences. We can’t blame ourselves too much for this. After the 1991 economic reforms, we suddenly had access to career opportunities that could lift us out of poverty. Getting into a good professional institute was the gateway to a rewarding global career. If that meant preparing for JEE/NEET at the cost of ignoring other subjects, then that was the rational thing to do. It is still the rational option for a lot of families who couldn’t get on the bandwagon earlier: getting your kid into IIT, NIT or a good engineering college is the ticket to better prospects. That it is partly also a lottery ticket is all the more reason to encourage your child to prepare harder. Can Faiz help make the cutoff? If he can’t, what use is he?

So, we have ended up in a situation where the most intelligent people of two generations have good degrees, but lack good education. This was initially not a problem while we were still writing software codes and climbing corporate ladders. But now we need a lot of leaders in higher management, we need educated people in the civil services, people with “officer-like qualities” in the armed forces, and in all these cases, we are short of them. This shortage of broadly educated people will be felt even more acutely in the future, in a world where machines do the drudgery and humans exercise judgement. A solid foundation in science is necessary, but not sufficient. A young person today must be familiar with the arts and the social sciences to be equipped to succeed in the 21st century. That’s why the world’s best universities – including some IITs – are putting liberal arts into their science and technology courses.


Also read: Manipuris in Mysore Taco Bell: Why English and philosophy are key to India’s jobs crisis


Learning through Faiz

Contemporary education in any field is incomplete without economics and philosophy. As I wrote in an earlier column, “philosophy allows us to navigate in a world where technology has advanced to the frontiers of fundamental human capabilities. Science, engineering and mathematics will allow us to develop technologies like artificial intelligence and gene editing, but it is philosophy that will help us think how and how not to put them to use.

“Unless philosophy is understood by a wider section of the (Indian) population, important questions around what it is to be human, what is ‘ethical’, what should be permitted and what forbidden, and why, will be appropriated by religious groups and other vested interests. Clearly, a secular democracy cannot allow its ethical and moral values to be determined by religious dogma or preferences of interest groups.”

The upshot is that just like studying science was necessary for career success in the 1990s, learning social sciences and humanities is the requirement now — both for selfish and altruistic reasons.

Given the privations of our socialist past, we shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves for seeking a better future through professional education. But it’s about time we realised that we can no longer afford to ignore Faiz.

Can Faiz help with preparing for the 21st century? I think he can. Let’s see.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Meanwhile, I’m contemplating as to what extent can this be implemented cuz a drop in the ocean read it; that readership itself being an ocean, a drop understood this; to those who fathom, a handful would teach(except to their kids, I am talking literally about teaching). And it still won’t get their kids to IITs and IIMs of the country. Can Faiz take a part in NEP 2020 implementation? If NOT, then No, Faiz can’t be of big help.

  2. Had you said Ram Dhari Singh Dinkar I would have said the article is unbiased..alas the leftists are at it destroying us

  3. Is knowing about Faiz and his poetry an indicator of wholesomeness of one’s education in the subcontinent? Many Urdu-knowing people, particularly of two-three earlier generations, are well-acquainted with Faiz and his poetry. They also admire his skill with words, his imagery and his metaphors, but some of them are least affected by his views and ideology. Indeed, some of them may be in total disagreement with him. I am saying this because I am pre-independence born Urdu-knowing individual who knows and knew many Urdu-poetry loving individuals, their backgrounds and their views. They may have great aesthetic sense but may entertain most regressive world view.

    • Faiz stands for literature of all kinds… all who don’t understand this simple thing urgently need remedial humanities lessons.

  4. By invoking Faiz, Nitin has gone over the top on this issue! It is now well accepted by all that our focus on degree and grades has been lopsided and we are ignoring humanities, in particular language and literature, completely. Also, it is not only engineers and science graduates who are ignorant of literature but also commerce and arts students as well! Due to internet and mobile revolution, we have lost touch for reading books as well, though thanks to google, one can now pick up any information in no time and this can vastly improve our understanding of the issues. There is no quick solution to this situation and hence, raising this issue through Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge symbolism may be well intended but badly out of context!

  5. Whilst I agree on the need for a broad-based education, why not poets writing in Hindi, Bangla, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Oriya, Assamese etc. We know so little about the literary heritage of our country. Why not study Indian philosophies and Sanskrit/Pali literature?

    • Faiz is a stand-in for literature of all kinds… appatently this is hard to understand for a lot of commenters here! They all urgently need remedial humanitirs lessons.

  6. Why is it expected for indians to know of urdu poets. Are hindi poets not needed or our south indian language poets are not enough. Bollywood has made urdu fashionable now waiting for media to make it more fashionable.

  7. Our brains are unique objects that can grow limitlessly. Learning quantum mechanics and learning Faiz (who of course is a stand-in for both literature and history) need not be mutually exclusive. I totally agree that science and engineering students need to learn humanities but as urgently, humanities students need to learn science and engineering. Our world is full of tech – if we don’t understand at least the basics of how that works, the risk is that they take on the force of magic and that powers that be can easily exploit our ignorance (misuse of information tech and AI is case to point). Only knowing how things work can we hope to be free of the tyrany of tech.

  8. Contrary to what is propagated Macaulay or British time education was broader and much better .In fact Bengal Renaissance was a result of that.

  9. India’s most literate an educated region Southern India has probably not even read Faiz or aware of him. But if Faiz is used as a metaphor for poet/ writer then the author makes valid points. India’s education system for the last 60 plus years has been a bad joke if not a monumental tragedy. All the IITs, IIMs , JNUs etc are part of the mess.

      • actually Indian higher education (including IITs and JNU) is, and has been for a while, of highest international standard. it is primary education that is lagging far far behind – THAT mess needs to be cleared.

  10. Well-written article. Despite the hype around our supposed strength in science and technology we are woefully short of creativity and innovation there as well. There is something fundamentally wrong with our education that produces professionals that lack curiosity, innovation and breadth of vision.

  11. Sorry, dear author. I too don’t recollect name of Faiz- an Urdu poet and that too of Pakistani origin. How many people in India really understand complicated Urdu words? At least half the Indians don’t. If you ask me my favourite poet, that would be from my mother tongue-Marathi. Each from the Sourthern and Eastern states would have his or her personal choice. Where does Urdu come from? Nitin Pai probably knows Marathi. Why doesn’t he recollect the great Kusumagraj, who incidentally is my most favourite poet?

  12. Your political beliefs overshadowed the essential point of view you choose not to disclose.

    One liners motivates few before a game or an exam or to protest but to motivate a generation we need heroes and heroes came from people, not from political parties, political parties came from them.
    And who we choose as our hero depends upon the us.
    You r/will never b one for none

  13. The professional education, at least in IITs as I know, has many probably “unneessary” science courses that can possibly be replaced by liberal arts and soft skills courses. For example, an electrical engineer may not need to learn too much of advanced chemistry though he may be doing so at present.

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