Poor engineering: Applied science courses teach technical skills, without imparting philosophy of scientific method

  • It takes serious expertise in advanced science to put together a mission such as Chandrayaan-2.

  • Therefore, ISRO and Indian science and technology have much to be proud of, despite the incomplete success.

  • This and other similar successes of Indian science and technology have built upon a base of modern education that began in India with the establishment of the universities of Madras, Calcutta and Bombay (as those cities were then known) by the British in 1857.

Joining the Dots is a weekly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire

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Despite falling short by a mere 2.1 km after traversing the vast distance of 384,000 km from the earth to the moon, the journey of spacecraft Chandrayaan-2 has been a great achievement of Indian science, and especially of the sole public sector unit of the Government of India that has consistently delivered notable achievements — the Indian Space Research Organisation.

The spacecraft had four main components. The launcher, which is the rocket that fired the craft into space, worked fine. The orbiter, which is now a satellite revolving around the moon, is doing its job. It’s the final two components, the lander named Vikram which was supposed to soft-land on the moon’s south pole, and the rover which was meant to leave the lander and roam on the lunar surface, which have so far failed to communicate with earth.

It takes serious expertise in advanced science to put together such a mission. Therefore, ISRO and Indian science and technology have much to be proud of, despite the incomplete success.

 Poor engineering: Applied science courses teach technical skills, without imparting philosophy of scientific method

Image for representation only. File photo/Reuters

This and other similar successes of Indian science and technology have built upon a base of modern education that began in India with the establishment of the universities of Madras, Calcutta and Bombay (as those cities were then known) by the British in 1857. Literacy was then very rare in the country. Only a small priestly elite acquired literacy, while the vast majority remained blissfully unlettered. As late as 1901, the Census of India — a vast empire put together by the East India Company and the British Raj that then included all of today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma — recorded that the crude literacy rate, meaning the literacy rate for the entire population regardless of age, was 5.35 percent. The corresponding literacy rate for women at the time was 0.6. Burma led the provinces in education, with the highest literacy rates.

The total number of engineering graduates in the country at that time was 12. Bengal accounted for nine, and Madras for the remaining three of these very rare individuals, according to the Statistical abstract relating to British India from 1894-95 to 1903-04, Vol 39, published in 1905, of which I found an excel sheet in the Digital South Asia Library maintained by the University of Chicago in association with the Centre for Research Libraries.

The total number of engineers in the much smaller territory of today’s India easily runs past the crore mark. There were 8,18,787 students enrolled in engineering courses in the country in 2017-18, according to the report of an expert committee of the All India Council of Technical Education headed by BVR Mohan Reddy on engineering education in India. The approved annual intake at the time was 16,62,470 students, meaning more than half the approved seats in engineering colleges were lying vacant. The number of students who found job placements at the end of the academic year was 3,45,217, which means that the majority of the new engineering graduates, over 58 percent of them, did not get jobs. The quality of jobs that the rest got is not clear from the report. However, there have been occasional reports by hiring firms, and outbursts by industry veterans, that the majority of Indian engineers are actually unemployable.

Once, many years ago, I was one of those unemployed and probably unemployable engineers. I had enrolled for the course simply because it was then understood that engineering and medicine were the courses of choice for boys from middle class families, and I had managed to secure a seat on merit. Within a month I had lost interest in engineering. Teacher after teacher came to class and wrote notes on the blackboard, or gave dictation, from ancient notes. These were diligently copied down into new notebooks by diligent students. The notes were then studied, a process that involved a mixture of understanding, committing to memory, and learning to do exercises. Nothing outside the notes was of any concern to the diligent student. The teacher’s tattered notes thus made their way from ancient notebooks to the latest exam papers via a process that touched the human mind only lightly.

The entire universe of knowledge outside the notes, even in engineering subjects, remains unknown to the average Indian engineer.

The civil engineer knows little about electronics, and vice versa. No doubt this has to do with paucity of time, and often of interest. Nonetheless, there is a serious absence of even rudimentary knowledge of subjects further removed from the syllabus, such as history, geography, sociology, political science, philosophy or constitutional law. Everyone comes to engineering and medicine from science backgrounds. Their entire educations are directed towards securing marks. This, they presumably do successfully to enter engineering and medicine courses. Thereafter, they often acquire a false sense of superiority over arts students, and towards the arts subjects as well, without actually engaging with those topics.

When they graduate, these engineers, many of whom go on to do management degrees, like their counterparts from the medical schools, are considered highly educated. They hold confident opinions on politics, society, history, mythology, religion…everything under the sun. However, many of them never read an actual book outside of the select chapters of their textbooks relevant to exams. In recent years, reading Chetan Bhagat has often been the height of their literary adventures. The engineers and doctors are therefore as qualified in politics and history as the average arts graduate is qualified to conduct a brain surgery or send a rocket to the moon. However, the engineers and doctors do not see it this way. They make confident assertions on politics and society often gleaned from WhatsApp forwards. Nothing can be done to educate them, because they are ignorant of the fact that they are ignorant.

Education in subjects such as engineering, medicine and management are rooted in utilitarian ideas. The ethos is one of solving problems, or generating profits, or both. Logic and reason are used as tools towards given ends, but the deeper questions about the values of those ends go unasked. Imagined orders such as nation, culture, and economy are treated as though they are natural orders. Students learn the skills of the technician without absorbing the philosophical ideas of the scientific method. An attitude of scepticism and a respect for the empirical in everyday matters might have inoculated the average doctor, engineer and MBA from slipping into error in their judgments in other fields, but unfortunately such attitudes are rare. Instead, the mix of deep insecurity masquerading as loud confidence, pettiness, and susceptibility to superstition — so common across much of the world now — are the hallmarks of our professional classes.

They may send probes into interstellar space. Here on earth, their worldviews remain unexpanded by exposure to the vastness of the universe.

Samrat is an author, journalist and former newspaper editor. He tweets as @mrsamratx

Updated Date: Sep 13, 2019 10:00:10 IST