What they don't teach you at the IITs

Entrepreneurs need to be able to understand humans, individually and as a collective. For them, a liberal arts education is necessary. Because the scientific method teaches you inquiry. But the humanities teach you to apply that inquiry to yourself

Tanuj Bhojwani

[Image by McElspeth from Pixabay]

(This is the first article in a mini-series on why India needs to rediscover the importance of liberal arts studies.)

One of the odd quirks of having graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) is that people, some who have never met you, assume you're qualified to give sound advice to their sons, daughters, neighbours, nephews and nieces. I am genuinely humbled that anyone believes my opinion is important enough for them or their loved ones to consider before taking a crucial life decision. I feel responsible for telling them what I think is the honest truth: Joining IIT is a decision I regret, and I could never sincerely advise anyone to spend their undergraduate years at the IITs. If they are interested, I’d recommend they take up a liberal arts major instead. The conversation usually quickly wraps up at this point, and the concerned parent, neighbour, uncle or aunt immediately leaves, visibly aghast.

A large scoop of nuance is necessary here. I’ve had the privilege of attending two outstanding institutions—IIT Bombay for engineering and Ashoka University for a crash course in the liberal arts. While neither university is perfect, I think that attending only one is truly necessary for starting up, or for a successful career in tech. No, it is not IIT. I want to relate my experiences to convince you of two things. First, how an IIT degree can be harmful. Second, that a liberal arts education is essential for entrepreneurs.

Let me start by stating upfront that an IIT degree is a beneficial thing to have. Statistically, IIT degree holders are likelier to earn much more right out the gate than other undergraduates from any discipline, including engineering from other colleges. (Note: a study says that over time, the humanities catch up.) An IIT degree helps even if you’re not doing anything remotely close to engineering. As an entrepreneur, for example, it is much more likely that you will get funded than your non-IITian counterparts. The degree has tremendous signalling value and gives one a foot in most doors, but a degree is not the only point of an education.

By education, I do not mean syllabus, but the broader set of skills, tools and frameworks that one is equipped with to deal with the world. An IIT education, like most other engineering colleges, is woefully inadequate for the real world.  Yes, the syllabus is entirely out of touch with the realities of the modern, complex workplace. There is almost nothing of what I learnt that I could directly apply to what I’ve done since then. To be fair, that’s true of any undergraduate degree today—whether STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) or liberal arts. Why I take particular offence at the IITs is because other than an inadequate education, it also leaves its alumnus with another huge handicap—hubris.

All it takes to get into engineering is to solve some multiple-choice physics, chemistry and math questions that have been answered before by literally millions of people. The trick is to solve most of them correctly and quickly in under 6 hours without textbooks, Google or a calculator. A wholly unique setting that you’ll never encounter again once you leave your university. Yet this absurd initiation ritual is the cornerstone of the “merit” argument that the IITs propagate to select entrants. The syllabus of the undergraduate course itself is centred around solving problems from engineering textbooks and is not very different from other colleges. The professors are eager not to have to teach you the same course twice, and grade accordingly. A running joke on campus was that it is much harder to be kicked out of IIT for poor academic performance than it is to get in. At 21 years old, despite being underprepared and unaware of our own incompetence, most of my batchmates and I had this misplaced sense of confidence. We thought lesser of those without a STEM degree and acted as if we had already conquered the world.

The first brush with reality comes during placement season when the beloved engineering ideal of “merit” goes for a toss. Fluent English speakers with extroverted personalities, typically upper-class and upper-caste students, get coveted jobs even though their peers might have equal or better grades. Many of my peers were unable to cope with this reality at first because we spent our undergraduate years pretending these social problems didn't exist.

As a founder, or even as an employee at a startup, work is not restricted to answering well-defined math puzzles. In this day and age, specialised software automates most mundane work. The tasks at hand are more ambiguous, hairier than expected, and sometimes the right questions are harder to find than their answers. Many people see their current trajectories coming to a dead-end before they even start. A majority of STEM students switch careers (not just jobs) less than two years after starting their first one. But the lesson is harder to unlearn for IITians, as we live life in easy mode—our degrees open up avenues that we don’t have to work as hard for.

At an abstract level, a STEM education taught me to look at the world as a set of optimisation problems. There are inputs, outputs, and equations that govern the relationship between them. By conducting experiments and collecting data, you can discover these equations or at the very least, approximate them through models. The empowering thing about STEM education is that it builds an underlying belief that most problems are solvable. At the very least, a solution can be approximated, sometimes by simple trial and error. This belief is why we have genuinely miraculous inventions like penicillin or satellites despite the odds being against them.

This lens is empowering, but it is also very limiting. It reinforces the second point I want to make: A liberal arts education is necessary, no matter what your choice of degree or career, but especially for entrepreneurs. With software becoming as capable as it has, the premium on STEM knowledge will not be very high for too long. Software is eating up various specialised functions—accountants, brokers, clerks, doctors. There’s no reason engineers or scientists will be immune.

What remains hard now, as it likely will be in the future, is to “know thyself”. Socrates said people make themselves appear ridiculous when they try to know obscure things before they know themselves. Some 2,400 years later, people rushing to learn artificial intelligence before they understand their own, still appears ridiculous to me.

As an entrepreneur, the firm I co-founded built and flew drones for everything from news channels and sports to emergency response teams and large infrastructure businesses. I can assure you that figuring out how to talk to strangers, understand them and then convince them is harder than rocket science. Literally. Whether it is employees you need to convince to work with you or customers you need to convince to pay you, someday you will run up against a wall of your own making that you can't cross. At some point, your neat little equation will break down, because it fails to account for the inherent irrationality of people. Many advise entrepreneurs that they need to learn sales or storytelling, but those are consequences. At the heart of it, it is the ability to understand humans, individually and as a collective, that one needs to learn. There is a reason why the liberal arts are also called the humanities.

In STEM, very early on, you learn of Boolean logic. Any statement can be judged as true or false, and its truth value accordingly, was 1 or 0. In the humanities, especially of the post-modern variety, Capital-T Truth is heresy. Truths come in multiples and in varying degrees. In STEM, there's always a right answer, and one must strive for it. In the humanities, there are no wrong answers, only options that vary in degree, and one must still learn to choose between them. I have to admit, this was incredibly frustrating at times to my STEM-educated mind.

These two differing educations clashed in my History of Science and Technology class, where a reading from a prominent scientific publication compared some human behaviour to that of primates. It said the similarity was not surprising as we share 98.5% of our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. Usually, I would’ve accepted this statement as valid and moved on. The professor then asked us to guess how much DNA we share with other humans, cats, dogs and bananas. My guesses were terrible. I didn't know we shared 90% of our DNA with cats or 60% with bananas. She drew attention to my uncritical acceptance of scientific fact, and the hegemony of the sciences over knowledge. What makes 98.5% the threshold for similarity and not 90% comes not from fact, but from my biases and deference to a certain kind of authority. A STEM education lulls us into believing our own bovine-excrement narratives about being objective and impartial, whereas in reality, you are 60% bananas. Science is excellent at producing data, but humans don’t process data, we respond to stories.

When you see scientists as humans with very human foibles and follies, you start understanding why Most Published Research Findings Are False (Ioannidis, 2005). The scientific method teaches you inquiry. The humanities teach you to apply that inquiry to yourself and to science itself. Thus strengthening your knowledge and teaching you many truths of the world that science can’t model (yet). The closest metaphor I can conjure is that looking at the world through a STEM lens is like seeing a movie in black and white. You’d still get the major plot points, and you can definitively say you’ve seen the movie. But to use the humanities lens is to see it in colour. There are details in the same picture that were always there, but they were just not visible to you because you didn’t have the tools to observe them.

At the end of the day, I don’t believe what I’m saying is very controversial. A predecessor to the term scientist was a natural philosopher. That is, those who applied the inquiries of philosophy to nature instead of the self or society. My appeal is that the natural sciences, by themselves, are a rootless branch—it remains incomplete without at least a little grounding in the knowledge of ourselves, as individuals and humanity as a collective. It is understandable to be proud of a degree such as one from IIT with signalling value, but don’t let your schooling get in the way of your education.

(Views expressed are personal.)

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Som Karamchetty on Oct 22, 2019 10:52 p.m. said

A very well written article by someone who has acquired good talents in liberal arts! But, his premise is questionable.
An aside first for analogy. It was said that a professional at a toothpaste manufacturing company commented, “They want to stuff so many different chemicals into a toothpaste tube that there is no room left in the tube for the toothpaste itself.” This is what will happen if everything has to be taught at the IIT’s.
In 1959, I attended a refresher course in psychology that was mandated for us, Technical Teacher Trainees (a Government of India Senior Teaching Fellows scheme). The teacher, a popular psychology lecturer, instructed us about rats (the animals) and their behavior. My co-students and I did not think that we learned anything beneficial in any way.
Decades later, working at a US government laboratory, I attended several training sessions dealing with organizational psychology and social behaviors of people. Despite the fact that the instructors were not famous academics, their instructions were highly relevant, ample, and readily applicable.
There is an appropriate time for learning what is needed and undergraduate college is not necessarily the time for learning everything needed in a professional career. In fact, some of the lessons are to be learnt during one’s daily life by being open to the teachings of the society.
Besides engineers and technologists, there are numerous other professionals and operators that need lessons in various subjects essential for life in a society. Hence, some basic material should be taught in the twelve or so years that students spend in schools prior to the degree colleges. Then, there should be opportunities to learn inter-personal behaviors and communications during college. Finally, during their formative years in their careers, they should gain such skills.
Actually, while teaching at IIT in the Nineteen Sixties, I wondered why and how a few of the students got into the Institute. At the same time, there were some highly mature students with excellent skills in human relations - perhaps taught by their parents, society, and teachers.
Some young people are likely to start as engineers and move on into management and leadership regimes. During such a journey, they should be in a learning mode continually. Even the science and technology knowledge becomes obsolete over time. So will the human relations knowledge and skills. Everything needed for a career of four decades cannot be taught at a college – let alone an IIT. The toothpaste tube has a limited size!

Tanuj Bhojwani on Oct 07, 2019 9:09 a.m. said

Dear Arun,

Thank you for the kind words. I agree that engineering and management colleges are vocational, but I also believe a university should aspire for more than that. In fact, it is easier, in some ways, to teach age-old wisdom than to keep up with ever-changing technological and management paradigms.

I haven't yet had the chance to read your new book, but I've ordered it on amazon just now. Looking forward to it!

Ramnath just shared your email id with me, I'll write to you about the Ashoka Fellowship course.

Rahul Majumdar on Oct 07, 2019 3:57 a.m. said

Hey Tanuj

Thanks for the detailed response. Your piece is thought provoking and is important. Professionally my company is in the area of visual learning which deals a lot with practical and real life situations and skills. I am completely with you on the importance of soft skills and the lack of focus in IITs. However I believe the lack of focus on such skills is not a IIT vs liberal arts debate debate but should be a larger debate on the nature of schooling, learning and achievement in our society. I cannot speak for Asoka or other institutions and it was great to hear your experience. I completely agree as 17 year olds when we enter IIT its more of a default program having cleared an entrance test. However now post IIT and my IIM, and 2 decades later, I see my personal development as a potpourri of so many factors... school, home, friends, IIT, IIM, all the different workplaces, my own journey of entrepreneurship...I am not so sure any 3 year degree (IIT/liberal arts etc.)would serve the bridge the real life learnings I have had over these years. I see my batch mates from IIT - entrepreneurs, business leaders, sanyasis, film makers, writers....its so difficult to attribute or even isolate anything specific to the IITs to the final product each of them has become. I also know in IIT Bombay, my alumnus, people from my own batch are funding a liberal arts department .. so the winds of change are creeping into the IITs as well. As a corollary, people who have not been to IITs have been building ( and not building ) wonderful and not so wonderful careers as well. Absolutely children today should look at all options. So while the liberal arts courses/ classroom participation etc. which you talk of would be wonderful to build in at IIT( speaking more as alumnus) - I have a slight reservation with formalisation of the argument as engineering vs liberal arts etc. or did the IIT degree benefit ... and those kinds of conversations. The arguments here would be in the grey. On the hubris aspect, I guess it lasts for the youngsters probably a few years out of college....its a matter of growing up. But yes its been fun debating this.

Arun Maira on Oct 07, 2019 3:40 a.m. said

Tanuj, you have hit many nails on the head--like a good engineer!
First is the question, what is the purpose of education. 'Vocational' education prepares people to do a job. The education is focussed on teaching them the skills to do that job for which the 'education' is designed. Engineering and management schools are vocational schools. They aim to get their students placed in jobs to earn salaries. The schools are ranked by the salaries their students earn on placement.
With more rapid and less certain changes in the business, technological, and societal environment, these schools are failing to equip their students with a more fundamental capability, which is learning how to learn throughout ones' life.
A second failing of engineering and management schools is helping their students to reflect on the purpose of their lives and the purposes to which they will apply their skills. Will their skills, and the institutions in which they apply them, make the world a better place for others? Or will their skills and their institutions be focused only on what they get for themselves? These are ethical issues, which vocational schools avoid teaching, and do not know how to. 'Liberal arts', at its best, does encourage such reflection.
In my new book, "Transforming Systems: Why the World needs a new Ethical Toolkit", I humbly offer the outline of a process of 'learning to learn', and three core disciplines.
I spoke about it to the Ashoka Fellows last month, and I am delighted to now be invited to design and teach a course to the Ashoka Fellows about this. Perhaps you could help me!

Debashis Bhattacharya on Oct 06, 2019 7:29 p.m. said

Hi Tanuj
I really appreciate your reply. I think you are really trying to make a difference and I was saying to Indrajit earlier that this is a very important point and the fault actually lies not with the person but the emphasis that is given at least in India on securing a higher grade or marks as the case maybe. There is very little by way of aptitude assessment and exposure to various activities so that the child makes an informed choice. As a result of which they are not used to failures, become defensive, speak half truths and later on in life become untrustworthy. If we were to compare apples with apples and oranges with oranges and dealt with the best then the all round growth and development of a child who had more understanding parents and institutions is better. You and I didn’t have that. Somehow I managed because I had talent. The reason I did academics at such a high level was because that was my passport to take part in activities. The reason for topping the class was not for any academic intent but because then our parents couldn’t question why we wished to play football or whatever. We didn’t do stuff because it was character building but because we lived it and we came across as cool. My friend and I just happened to beat the system. But later on I started loving the subjects. I still say that I became a surgeon because I am a failed opening batsman. The school preached otherwise. But it fell on deaf ears. What my point is there are enough opportunities in India. Everyone playing cricket doesn’t have to be Sachin Tendulkar, or the one taking interest in school plays doesn’t have to be Amitabh Bacchan. But the one playing cricket or acting doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed- What will cricket give you or what will school plays give you? At the time we never had an answer, so the only way out was to top the class. So in a way we bullied ourselves. You don’t even have to top the class to be Steve Jobs, in fact he didn’t even have a degree. Education needs to be redefined. You can sent your child to Kota and he may or may not get to IIT but he will need a liberal arts degree. At least you have been honest and I really commend you for some of us to come out and speak. I’ve changed the rules for my daughter. She is so happy and yes she is also a candidate for any IIT or medical entrance in this world. Indrajit will tell you that she has prodigious talent but she is opting for an an academic career when the time comes. I would love to take this discussion forward and would appeal to Founding Fuel that this is a topic that needs to be made into a movement so that parents feel reassured that they are helping their child. There are lots of anecdotes that have helped me grow as a parent. Once my daughter wanted to go out with boys, so she asked me for my permission. So I asked a white friend whose daughter is the same age as me. She said , “We have the same worries as you and have some advise which I call commandments for my daughter. And an advise she gave is what I wish to share. “Remember as much as it’s her first time, it’s also your first time so chose well because any misplaced opinions will scar both of you.” However, let us not be harsh on our parents, because they were also parents for the first time and did what the others did. But we need to change the game because I have learnt from my parents mistakes

Abhijith Balakrishnan on Oct 06, 2019 5:19 p.m. said

I couldn't but agree more. If I could write, this is how I would have written to express my views.

Coincidentally, I shared a similar view in a professional WhatsApp group this morning. It was a group of Mariners. Master Mariners actually. And the discussion was a post-mortem of an Accident that could majorly be attributed to carelessness and therefore to human factors - which is a favourite causal factor in our industry.
My argument was that while technical education does equip the officer with necessary skills, it doesn't help him deal with people which is what would be required when (s)he moves up in rank and commands a vessel. And for that he would have to de-skill technically and upskill the humanities and liberal arts side which would equip him to deal with irrationality of the human mind and thereby actions. If the Captain has to deal with a wayward officer who needs guidance, he should be able to dig into this side of his education- which is sadly lacking and mostly looked down upon.

Tanuj Bhojwani on Oct 06, 2019 4:14 p.m. said

Hey Debashish,

Thank you for the detailed analysis of my childhood. I'm not blaming the IITs, I think they are outstanding institutions. Yes, this is my personal regret and you've hit the nail on the head by picking on the fact that "No one bothered and was not important." and "Time for change". I didn't have someone tell me that other colleges also have more to offer. I'm just attempting to do that now for those who read this.

I still think to each his own. However, I do not think most of us who start preparing for IIT at 16 or earlier, can honestly claim we took a very informed decision. I hope this piece starts the conversation that lets them make that choice after hearing more viewpoints than I did.

Tanuj Bhojwani on Oct 06, 2019 4:06 p.m. said

Hey Rahul,

I actually agree with most of your analysis. You're right about 5, that individual IITians are diverse, and this piece doesn't try to take away from any individual, hence I try to pick on a sufficiently common factor, only one severely debilitating factor - the hubris.

You're also right that learning doesn't simply begin and end in the classroom, and you should look at the IIT experience holistically. Most IITians look outside of the classroom for their education. I did too! And these extracurriculars did teach many things the classroom didn't. Had I not been to a very different setting and a very different kind of classroom, I would've find myself vociferously saying what you did, defending my education. We end up learning those skills, despite not because of our education. (also, the same hostel experience is available to liberal arts colleges as well, but that’s an aside)

But the contrast helped me see what was lacking, not just in the classroom, but in the holistic IIT experience. Despite a tough entrance, we weren’t really challenged in college. Like the History of Science example, we never used the classroom as a space of challenging each other and resetting beliefs. In the Liberal Arts education, you bring your own experiences into class, making learning from the diversity implicit into the classroom.

A humanities course does offer many (but not all) of the skills that you agree with in 1. I argue that such skills are inherent in its structure and curriculum. With no right answers, each student picks their own topics and explores them, rather than solving the same problem to reach the same answer.

I am not saying my education was terrible per se, but its the opportunity cost I regret. I could’ve seen more of a color movie in the same time that I did a black and white one. No doubt that I reaped massive rewards from that degree, and learned important life skills too. I don’t think we need to shut down IITs. This is more about what could have been!

Tanuj Bhojwani on Oct 06, 2019 3:34 p.m. said

Hey Gopal, thank you for the kind words.

Gopal Pradhan on Oct 06, 2019 3:16 p.m. said

STEM prepares you for answering questions like "How" a bridge has to be built ? But its the Humanities that prepares you for answering the question, the most important one, "Why" the bridge needs to be built ?

Having the utmost clarity of "Why" has always been the hallmark of Great Leaders.

Kudos to Tanuj for this lucid piece.

Rahul Majumdar on Oct 06, 2019 1:13 p.m. said

The argument here seems to be 1. There are life skills which matter for an entrepreneur -agreed 2. These life skills are learnt through a course curriculum - would beg to disagree 3. A humanities course curriculum offers these life skills - disagree - am not sure how much any curriculum addresses this...on the other hand, the individual's ability to develop these life skills as he experiences different situations probably does 4. An IIT "education" does not offer these life skills - agree and disagree.... the formal degree of course does not teach any of this. But most iitians would consider iit as an overall package going well beyond the course curriculum - hostel life with students from all over the country from very different social backgrounds, interaction with very bright students which opens the mind and creates ambition and aspiration, lots of extra currics for those who choose to indulge in these etc..the very fact that life skills can be learnt in the classroom itself is a questionable assumption - typically its the life/work experience which shapes people/entrepreneurs and they also evolve as life evolves. 5. Lastly iitians come in all shapes and sizes ...some showing great instincts and great "liberal arts " skills and others woefully lacking in these..not sure this kind of generalisation works....I guess each individual gets something else out of iit and life in general.

SUSHMA VERMA on Oct 05, 2019 7:21 p.m. said

IIT creates robots. Those who study humanities, become creators. Creators create companies and hire robots. Though Creating ability can be present inherently and does not die by being through IIT. Hence many great creators come from IITs too as they are fortunate to have both sides. Cheers! Going to the next level on this topic, being a creator needs no degree at all in total. Also, IIT has no promise to make creators. Cheers!

Debashis Bhattacharya on Oct 05, 2019 10:40 a.m. said

Not sure if I’ll agree in its entirety and I’m not sure if a liberal arts degree is essential. Why blame the IITs who are doing their job.

The process starts much earlier in school where the interest in arts and sports or even communication skills are developed. Some take this opportunity and are encouraged by their parents and develop their artistic side, communication and organising skills and are artists by their own right who do not earn money with these things but are proficient in them. Another is volunteering for school activities which build character and personality. Doing a liberal arts degree later on is telling me that mate you didn’t take your chances when they were there. So the point is instead of sending you kid to Rohtak please send your school to a good school and encourage all round development. There used to be a section in all our report cards which did not contain marks but grades on this. No one bothered and was not important. But if this were given emphasis on and people cared then why is there need to blame IITs. You have been assessed on half your education mate and IIT is only half the education so you had to do a liberal arts degree to compensate for the other half. This is not the case in the West. Possibly they know a little less about complex calculus and composition of rocket fuel, but the star student all have a glittering other half of the report card. Time for change isn’t it? As they say “Change is good - embrace it.

About the author

Tanuj Bhojwani
Tanuj Bhojwani

Fellow

iSPIRT foundation

Tanuj Bhojwani, a recovering IITian, has been both a VC and an entrepreneur. Currently, Tanuj is a Fellow at iSPIRT foundation. At iSPIRT, he works on policy issues related to digital identity, payments, data protection and drones.

Tanuj lives in Bengaluru with his partner, Prajakta, who runs a startup that helps women find a workplace that respects them. He is originally from Mumbai, where his mother, a dentist, his father, an entrepreneur, and his sister, a banker, still reside. Tanuj credits his parents for teaching him to be curious, and therefore, everything else.

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