(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.)