Posted by: Vikram | June 17, 2009

The college culture of the United States and India: Part 3

What do these college newspaper headlines tell one about higher education in America ?


Lets start with the very fact that universities in America typically have functioning newspapers. Here is a list. Their presence and popularity indicates several things. First and foremost, it emphasizes the society’s commitment to freedom of speech, encouraging the gathering and spread of information among the population and cultivating quality journalists and reporters. Also, it increases the sense of ownership the students of a university have regarding their alma mater. Third it helps administrators and officials get a feeling for the general sentiment in the campus, i.e. it acts as feedback and is one of the things that keeps universities from becoming static ‘assembly lines’.

As I have pointed out earlier, social science studies in India are in shambles, with little support from the state or society. India does have elite institutes that have great reputations, but these institutes are in the engineering fields. There are some reasons to question this concentration of ‘eliteness’ in a specific field. Notwithstanding what the state’s motivations for the creation of elite engineering schools were/are, one has to ask how effective they really are ? And more importantly, are they enough ?

Is engineering really a discipline that needs elite graduates to progress ? In terms of their jobs and functions as an engineer, will there be much difference between a high GPA graduate from MIT or one from Louisiana State University ? I will argue not. This is because one can only become an effective engineer once one is actually in industry, the engineering profession is not one that a person can necessarily prepare for in 4 years of college.  Yes, you do need the basics and obviously there will be a difference between an average MIT and LSU engineering graduate, but that will be more due to basic intellectual capacity and motivation than their college education.

The laws of physics and mathematics are invariant in space, so are their applications1, so how differently can they be taught in different places ?

But does this analogy apply to a social studies or economics graduate ? I will argue not. Because in social sciences education, exposure, interaction and peer groups matter a lot more. Taking a class with a leading social scientist with 5 other highly motivated young people where there are frequent discussions and debate cannot be the same educational experience as one can get at less prominent schools, where simply finding one more person interested in understanding a social problem can be impossible.

So one must now ask the question, where else will a curious, intelligent college going Christian girl actually get the chance to interact with Muslim girls in veils, think about what it actually means to wear one, wear one and then communicate to others on campus (including engineers on the cutting edge of solar energy) what her experience was like. Who will become a better social scientist or journalist, a person who is educated in such an environment or one that goes to some neglected ‘humanities’ department in an Indian university ?

One can see how this reflects on the general Indian society itself. The nation which can launch rockets to the moon still cannot figure out how malnutrition is to be tackled.

1: I dont mean to say that applications of engineering wont vary with location but that the teaching of how to apply the laws of math and physics will not vary much from place to place.



  1. Your thoughts on higher education in the Humanities & Social Sciences in India echo some of my own. Regarding education in the liberal arts, you have to admit there is a certain class element to those who chose to/are able to pursue serious study in its various fields. For example, someone who is a first generation college student, i.e. first in his/her family to pursue education beyond high school, would much rather choose a ‘safe’ field such as engineering or medicine or aim at clearing the IAS exam, simply because it makes the most economic sense to do so. I would even go so far as to argue that for a country to have a vibrant intellectual environment in the liberal arts, a substantial middle class is pre-requisite; the liberal arts being a more likely choice of perhaps the 2nd or the 3rd generation college student.
    I’d imagine something of the sort applies to the US as well if you look at period such as the 60’s, when a new generation not only revolutionized the the popular discourse but also the intellectual one in various disciplines and departments across liberal arts colleges in the US. A generation, I would add, that was considerably better off than the previous one, considering most of them were born in the booming post WWII era. Now whether the second or the third generation born in India post the 1991 reforms demands better avenues for education in the liberal arts remains to be seen.

    Also, I’m not sure if your aware of this, but one of the IITs, IIT Madras, has started an undergraduate program in the humanities and social sciences. It’s a five year integrated M.A. program, with an option of majoring in either Economics, Development Studies or English. The first 2 years are common for all, and from the third year on you get fully immersed in your chosen stream (CGPA’s also a consideration, btw).
    (Full Disclosure: I’m currently in my fourth year there and my batch is the first.)

    • Welcome bq. You are right that there is certainly a class element to liberal arts studies. And I certainly hope (and indeed anticipate) more people taking up liberal arts education in India. But the question is will we have the very minimal infrastructure and the academic environment that will enable effective liberal arts education and attract bright, young Indians towards this field ?

      The IIT Madras program seems to be a step in the right direction, lets hope it spreads. I am still uncomfortable with an ‘institute of technology’ becoming a center for liberal arts education.

  2. Interesting post. I’d always taken college newspapers for granted-never knew that Indian colleges don’t have them.

  3. Why not? If MIT can do it, why not IIT(M)? 🙂

    • Touche, cant argue with that 🙂

  4. Vikram, is poetry considered to be part of liberal arts stream ? If so, then there have been many poets in the past who were quite poor. Pre-islamic Arabia, a desert, had a rich tradition of poetry even while the people struggled for life there. This would mean that in this particular aspect a middle class may not be a prerequisite.

    If not, then ignore my post.

    Vinod, poetry is definitely part of the liberal arts. But I was referring more to the social sciences like History, Economics and other subjects that study societies.

  5. Vikram, what is the banner picture on your blog? Reminds me of the slums of Brazil ot of the relics of the Aztecs

    Its a place called the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh.

  6. This is a very interesting post but I wonder if you’re reaching the right conclusions here. Individual I.Q. and aptitude notwithstanding, the kind of teachers you have in an elite institute and an ordinary one does create a vast difference in the type of students you produce. I can cite the experience of TN here.
    Due to the IT boom a lot of engineering colleges mushroomed here and most of them churn out graduates with questionable efficiency.

    Rags, you are correct for the Indian context. But I will argue that is because a lot of the ‘engineering colleges’ that have sprung up across India are poorly regulated. So thats why the quality suffers. The situation in America is quite different, you can get a good engineering education at most universities, partly due to the better quality of universities here but also because like I point out in the post, you dont need elite education to be a good engineer.

    I partly agree with bq here. Students in India can’t afford to take up arts education because they have very few employment opportunities once they finish their graduation.

    Besides the stigma to an arts education is so widely prevalent among the middle class that if you show an interest towards it people automatically assume you are not ‘smart’ enough to study science. Its so sad but true.

    And I think it is this stigma that we can start addressing before anything else. A lot of the other things are not directly in our control (setting up universities, regulating the quality of education), but this really is in our control.

    Even if the govt. provides funds and sets up good institutes to provide arts education you can’t attract bright students to it if they think they won’t have enough employment opportunities once they complete their graduation. For the middle and the poor class a good education means that they should be able to earn good money after their education. If an arts education cannot provide that quite obviously the bright being bright will go to other avenues that wiil guarantee that.

    Pursuit of wealth is the primary preoccupation of the Indian middle class and they won’t go to arts unless they find it rewarding.

    I think this is currently true, but it is changing and will change even more in the coming decades. The question is which direction it will go in. I can tell you from my experience here in the US, that a lot of the American middle class has the same preoccupation, but there is a significant number here that think beyond wealth.

    It is interesting to note what seems to have happened in China, apparently a lot of their new ‘post material’ generation is aggressively nationalistic and quite contemptous of social issues being raised, especially by foreigners. This is partly due to the control of information by the state and general lack of freedom of speech. In India, the middle class shows signs of becoming aggressively nationalistic, but as long as there is free speech I think there is a chance that they will embrace more rational and meaningful ideas.

    “The nation which can launch rockets to the moon still cannot figure out how malnutrition is to be tackled.”

    IMO this is due to the failure of the bureaucracy to hire talented people from the social sciences rather than the failure of the arts colleges to produce talented people.

    Btw, is Spiti the largest district in India or something… read that somewhere…

  7. Oops! That should be the district with the smallest population, not the largest.

  8. To be fair, I think this is something of an American thing really; many top UK universities don’t have papers as such either! I think the same is true of Europe as well but not too sure.

    The nation which can launch rockets to the moon still cannot figure out how malnutrition is to be tackled.

    Well, that is because solving malnutrition in India is a distribution problem now, not a production problem. This means that it is less about science and more about politics; which our depoliticised chattering classes run miles from in critical thinking. Not to mention that some very powerful lobbies and groups have a vested interest in not solving this problem.

    • Conrad, one must ask why our chattering classes run miles from in critical thinking ? I think the lack of social science education plays a big part.

  9. […] Read more: The college culture of the United States and India: Part 3 […]

  10. It is not directly related to this post but very relevant to education system. I want your opinion on–the paradox of what economist A.K. Shivakumar points out is the children of rich going to public universities and children of poor going to private money squeezing institutes. These second rate institues turn out second rate students,condemning the peripheral to further periphery.

    • Still unanswered, why ?

      • Sorry yayaver, my mistake.

        I think what might be happening is that the children of the poor, must be on an average doing worse than those of the middle class and rich. This is because the middle class and the rich have access to much better schools and the money for the ‘coaching institutes’. The poor are probably left with no choice but to take a gamble and send their children to these expensive and often dubious institutes.

        This is why the state needs urgently to regulate the private universities and expand its own higher education system. That doesnt necessarily mean new universities but also vocational and diploma institutes. One more thing that could be done is that the state offer to cover a portion of poor students fees, regardless of where he/she studies.

        That being said, I must say that the situation in this particular matter is dire even in the US. Even here the rich and middle classes are much more likely to be able to get into better universities, public or private. A lot of the poorer students end up going to community colleges or training institutes (which overall are not a bad option). But the much more serious problem here is that of student debt.

  11. […] This is the fourth in a series on my observations on university education in America and what India can take from them, here are the other parts Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. […]

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