Re-Imagining

December 23, 2006

I had already quoted Hoodhboy once before when writing about Salam.

Now, (via 3 quarks daily) I came across another one of his speeches titled “Re-Imagining Pakistan” – It’s the Commencement lecture by Pervez Hoodbhoy at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, December 9, 2006. It is quite an interesting read resonating well even with the Indian context…

First, I wish for minds that can deal with the complex nature of truth. Without minds engaged on this issue there cannot be a capacity for good judgment. And, without good judgment a nation will blunder from one mistake on to the next. Now, truth is a fundamental but very subtle concept. The problem is that things are usually not totally true or totally false. Still, some things are very true and others are very false. For example it is very true that I will be killed if I stand on the tracks in front of a speeding train. And it is very false that the earth rests on the horns of a bull. But these are quite easily established; separating true and false is often extremely difficult….


My second wish is for many more Pakistanis who accept diversity as a virtue.
So I am not asking for unity, but acceptance of our differences. Let’s face it, we’re all different. The four provinces of Pakistan have different histories, class and societal structures, climates, and natural resources. Within the provinces there live Sunnis, Shias, Bohris, Ismailis, Ahmadis, Zikris, Hindus, Christians, and Parsis. Then there are tribal and caste divisions which are far too numerous to mention. Add to this all the different languages and customs as well as different modes of worship, rituals, and holy figures. Given this enormous diversity, liberals – who are rather good people in general – often talk of the need for tolerance. But I don’t like this at all. Tolerance merely says that you are nice enough to put up with a bad thing. Instead, let us accept and even celebrate the differences! …

My third, and last, wish is that Pakistanis learn to value and nurture creativity. Creativity is a difficult concept to define but roughly I mean originality, unusualness, or ingenuity in something. If nurtured from an early age in children, it leads to great writers, poets, musicians, engineers, scientists, and builders of modern industries and institutions. No one can dispute that creativity is a good thing. But how come Pakistanis – with some important exceptions – have done so poorly on the world stage? Why are there only a dozen or two internationally known Pakistani inventors, scientists, writers, etc for a nation of 165 million people?…..

There cannot be creativity in a society where students learn like parrots, where the teacher is an unchallengeable authoritarian figure “jo aap kay baap ki tara hai”. Except at a few leading universities, the written word – even if it is in a physics textbook – is slavishly followed. The students in our public universities are just overgrown children, including the ones who are in their mid- or late twenties. In fact they prefer to be called girls and boys, not women and men. For recreation they do not read books but walk aimlessly in bazaars and waste time in pointless chatter. Most have never read a single classical novel, either in Urdu or English. In my department – the best physics department in the country – their only contribution to what you see around is the huge birthday or “mangni” greeting cards displayed on bulletin boards. Teachers insult them, throw them out of class, and encourage deference and servility….

Meanwhile, closer home, Abi links to a TOI article on IITs by Pankaj Jalote titled “Slip Sliding Away”. (Pankaj Jalote was a prof. at IITK who has now moved to IITD. He has written similar articles before.)

IITs have been slipping in the global university rankings for the last few years. In our euphoria about India’s progress, such reports are mentioned in passing and then promptly forgotten.

IITs have made a name for themselves largely on the success of its graduates, and less on the strength of its R&D output. And most global ranking of universities are predominantly based on R&D.

The performance of IITs (and other such institutions in India) is likely to continue dropping globally. This is not to say that they are static — indeed the R&D output from IITs is increasing, but relative to others it is slipping.

Interestingly, the relative decline is not because established R&D centres in the US and Europe are becoming bigger, but because newer entrants from China, Korea and Singapore are doing much better.

The central reason for the decline of IITs in relative ranking is the archaic academic governance structures that exist in Indian institutes…

Re-Imagining seems to be the call of the day. The question is will people heed that call ?

Update[30/12/06] : Now it’s Kalam’s turn (PDF file)! (via Abi again )

“…While I was preparing for this talk, suddenly a thought occurred to me. I chose to call randomly a few of my friends, from different walks of life and ask them “When you hear of IIT, what strikes your mind first?”

The first person, I called was a Professor in the United States of Indian origin and he is an accomplished educationist and an India lover. He was frank enough to say that it conveyed immediately nothing. He said, 20 million children are born in India every year.. [few of them] are being admitted to the IIT. They are the best children in India. Wherever you put them they will do very well. The value addition by IIT is very low to the students it admits.

He felt that, there may be many hidden Ramanujans and Einsteins amongst the vast majority of the students whom the IIT system does not touch. The greatest challenge .. is to find a mechanism to identify those needles in the haystack.

Then I called another friend, who was a General in the Army. He said innocently that we have nothing to do with IITians. What he meant was while many students from regular engineering colleges join the Army, “We have not come across any IITian joining the Army in the last two decades”.

Then I asked another well known professor, who was not in IIT system, but from a well known post graduate institution. He said that, it is a great challenge for the Professors in IITs to teach the students.

I called a former Director of one of the IITs and a teacher who had been in the IIT system since its inception. The Prof. said that IIT means striving for excellence and discipline.

Then I talked to one IT friend and asked him what his views are? His reply was that IIT takes the best students and delivers the best to the world. He felt that, the direct benefits for the nation in terms of knowledge products and Intellectual property is rather minimal.

I talked to a distinguished alumnus of IIT, last night. He was very happy that, the IIT had given him the ambience of a centre of excellence and an opportunity to learn and grow. He was quick to add, that they selected the cream and the output is also the cream. The cream of the cream goes to the US and they become the best. The best in and best out. It is ironical that the IIT which is mandated to produce the best minds for teaching and research is unable to attract the best faculty today…

Then I asked a friend of mine who had held senior position in the Government in the science and education management, his reaction was that the IIT stands for a brand India. However, of late it has become an exclusive institution in a world which should become more and more inclusive and converging. Today more children from urban affluent families who can afford to pay Rs. 10000 per month on education alone could dream of joining IIT. There are around 8% of girl students in IIT, while the general average over 30% in engineering. Many institutions of same caliber as IIT in the western world, have been contributing much more to the industry than what we see IITs in India. The industry – IIT interaction has to become an icon to put their brand on many products that will be used by the public on a daily basis – there should be little bit of IIT in every Indian….”

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