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What are the IITs for?

Thanks to the vision of Jawaharlal Nehru, the IITs were built to create country’s scientists and technologists of the highest caliber who would engage in research, design and development. Why then would our IITs include a department of Humanities and Social Sciences, a centre for Design (where apart from the regular courses geared towards industry requirement, students are exposed to world cinema) and the visual arts (e.g. IDC at IIT Bombay)? At least one IIT (IIT Madras) offers a postgraduate course in Economics whereas IIT Gandhinagar offers a full-fledged Masters degree in Society and Culture! You might ask the question, “I want to go to IIT to learn engineering, physics, chemistry, material sciences, etc. Why must I undergo a course in humanities?”

An IITian is No Ordinary Engineer! 

The answer to the last question was well-articulated by our first PM (who had got a heavy dose of education in humanities along with natural sciences at Cambridge), who in turn asked the question “Can we combine the progress of science and technology with the progress of the mind and spirit?” Pandit Nehru thought that it was essential to familiarize engineering students with the great traditions in the humanities – whether it is philosophy, social thought, or political. He had an apprehension that industrial riches without toleration, compassion and wisdom, may well turn to dust and ashes. The kind of well-rounded exposure that a student may receive in the IITs is not available to most engineering students in India. I said ‘may receive’, because it is a pity that many IITians sadly do not make use of the opportunities to broaden their horizons.

Why Undermine Sciences?

It is a misunderstanding – humanities and the arts do not undermine sciences. Much has been said about the importance of the sciences, engineering and technology, and rightly so. Science is about hard facts and answering challenging problems. Engineering, even more so than pure sciences, is interested in the applications of valid, objective, scientific principles towards concrete solutions. In all this objectivity and certainty, what is the need of the humanities, which induce in their practitioners at least a little bit of doubt and scepticism? It may be argued that in our troubled times, the humanities may be more important than ever before. They remind us that we have had a history of deceiving ourselves – think of the Great Wars of the last century and read about how the scientific enterprise was pushed in the service of totalitarian and destructive regimes. Read about how the rhetoric of “development” has been advanced as an objective, disinterested project to substitute tried and tested indigenous practices of societies around the world with mass-produced industrial products that in due course destroyed not just local economies but local cultures, markets, foods, etc. This isn’t a tirade against science. We must distinguish between science and scientism (the view that scientific methods are indiscriminately applicable to all fields of human endeavour, including, economy, culture, philosophy, etc.)

Does Science Need the Humanities?

The project of science is one of the most beneficial endeavours in history. Yet science may have its limitations, spheres of applicability, and not least importantly, scientific practitioners may be embedded in their own politics. Humanities teach us about the various available answers to questions about the nature of reality, the purpose of life, the end of political institutions, and the best economic system. It also helps us understand the intricacies of aims, values, and problematics of the scientific project. Even if you may come to believe that science has nothing to learn from the humanities, you will still have an answer to a philosophical question about the nature of science! It then helps to have some knowledge of the vocabulary of the philosophy of science. Once you start doing scientific research at the highest level of abstraction, you’re bound to come across philosophers of science like Popper, Kuhn, and Feyerabend.

A Good Dose of Reflexivity!

Pandit Nehru had no doubts that India would develop and progress in science and technology but he said, “I am concerned with not merely our material progress but the quality and depth of our people. After gaining power through industrial processes, will they lose themselves in the quest for individual wealth and soft living?” Just look at the numbers to find out what percentage of IIT graduates migrate to America or Europe for good – the percentage would be even higher for those who wish to migrate. Nehru’s concern seems to have come true!

Does Humanities Make Students Unsure About Sciences?

The humanities tend to introduce reflection of a different kind than those of the sciences. For example, I have seen how students from various engineering fields saw themselves arguing differently when facing deep questions about what kind of political structure best ensures justice. Not only were the answers varied, all of them had different reasons for arguing for them, even though they were all reading the same texts. They realized that different contexts allowed for different kinds of solutions. Many of them prided themselves on being free thinkers. But they even understood that their problem-solving approach to engineering had made them single-minded to the extent that they could not look at social problems in a way different from their own prejudices and predilections. After a few healthy discussions with their sociology professors, they turned out to become well-rounded people.

How Do Departments Like Humanities or Design Function?

Most engineering students in the IITs undergo at least one course in the humanities. Usually, professors in humanities departments are experts in any one area like sociology, literature, philosophy, psychology, economics, and nowadays even Sanskrit! Similarly, departments, which have an accent on design, may offer courses in industrial design, animation, etc., and may also have electives for all the students at IIT. Undergraduate students can take electives as per their choice, and they’re highly encouraged to dabble in whichever field they like. These departments also have PhD courses where students from core humanities subjects pursue graduate work.

To ensure that you enjoy the composite culture and liberal education along with the most sophisticated technical education anywhere in Asia, you have got to get back to your books! And, yes, don’t neglect English – it will keep you in good stead!

To know more about IITs and IITians, here’s a sneak peek into IIT Bombay and the different kind of people you might encounter here 😛

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