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Art + Science = Sense

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
April 2009
Art + Science = Sense

“Is M.F.A. the new M.B.A.?” somebody asked, not long before a financial tsunami crashed on these shores and sent shock waves across many places. That reference to a preference for more unconventional careers seems more pertinent now, given the sudden disenchantment with Wall Street. If finance is out, are the fine arts in? But it also makes one wonder how, in this period of growing economic uncertainty and insecurity, pursuing a life in the arts can be a serious option—for most people, anyway.

Whatever the answer, the fact that there are enough career possibilities in the arts shows how different affluent America still is when compared to most other countries. In the India I grew up in, a college degree in creative writing would have sounded too fanciful. We had no idea what M.F.A. meant. Master of Foreign Affairs would have been more plausible than Master of Fine Arts, particularly if we had known that this graduate program was popular all over America. For “bright and talented” youngsters in India, the future was never about M.B.A. vs. M.A. (the closest Indian equivalent to M.F.A.).

For middle-class Indians who hadn’t already opted for medicine in their youth, the future was about M. Tech. vs. M.B.A. or, for the more ambitious ones, M. Tech. and M.B.A. The focus was always on practicality and marketability, deemed essential in a fiercely competitive environment. In our lingo, incidentally, M.A. stood for more than just Master of Arts. Some would mockingly note that there were students who, even before reaching college, had decided to “Major in America.” Their fixation was TOEFL and SAT—and later, GRE and GMAT—rather than IIM and IIT.*

Regardless of our emphasis, what the medicine/engineering types and, as in my case, the science/commerce types had in common was—to put in bluntly—a condescending attitude towards the liberal arts types. On our totem pole, if the heights of medicine/engineering eluded us, it was respectable (or at least acceptable) to aim for the science/commerce position at a lower level. We avoided the humanities/liberal arts, which remained at the bottom. Some good students were attracted to this last track, to be sure, but we saw them as wealthy sophisticates who could afford to be impractical in life.

Marriage before Love

Though I had no intention of becoming an engineer, I did join hordes of other students to swot and sweat and sit for the all-important IIT entrance exam. Getting accepted, we were told, was the magic key that would unlock our golden futures. What if I didn’t have the aptitude or interest? “Don’t worry about it,” an elder advised. “It’s like marriage. Love comes after you tie the knot—not before.”

I didn’t get in, unsurprisingly, and soon realized that it wasn’t the end of the world. On the contrary, I was secretly relieved because now I could give up this charade and quietly opt for the science track. A couple of my brainy classmates, the anointed ones, got into IIT, which instantly set them apart from the rest of us. We all chipped in to give them a nice party. Another bright student, who had worked very hard, was devastated when he didn’t get selected even on his second attempt. The IIT entrance exam—like the IIM and IAS/IFS* exams, to a lesser extent—remains a brutal rite of passage every year for countless young people all over India.

This high regard for Nehru’s temples of technology is not unanimous. About two-thirds into The Post-American World, a recent bestseller, author and editor Fareed Zakaria drops this bombshell: “In fact, many of the IITs are decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork.”

Zakaria’s stinging assessment won’t win him friends among IITians, so let me hasten to add that he is actually praising them. Many IITians, as we know, have done exceptionally well no matter where they end up. Which is precisely Zakaria’s point. The best thing about IITs is that, although they cannot compare with America’s best universities, these and other premier Indian institutions do a great job of picking and bringing together the nation’s crème de la crème—who will, generally speaking, overcome hurdles and thrive anywhere.

But what about those who attend tier 2 and tier 3 colleges in India? From my experience, there can be a noticeable drop in quality. This became apparent to me only after I came here as a student. Compared to many who had studied in the U.S., my focus in India had been too narrow. While their curriculum had been broad-based, allowing them to explore all kinds of subjects, in my case, there wasn’t a whole lot I knew outside my core subjects. There were, I suddenly realized, embarrassing gaps in my education.

And I made another important discovery: Creativity is in, cramming out.

Darwinian or Egalitarian?

What’s so ironic now is that India’s educational prowess in science and technology—which helped power a spectacular boom—is being touted in the States, where youngsters are typically not attracted to ‘uncool’ disciplines like engineering and what we called MPC (math, physics, chemistry). In India, words such as ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ and even ‘cool’ were not part of our vocabulary. Technical and science degrees conferred status, not stigma.

Filmmaker Bob Compton was in Atlanta for a screening of his 2 Million Minutes, which looks at how American students are in some ways falling behind their counterparts in China and India. As Compton points out, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Indian and Chinese schools are better at preparing the children that go through those schools for the high-wage, high-growth, high-technology careers of the 21st century. Both those systems are highly Darwinian. Ours is highly egalitarian, and that’s fine. But there’s a consequence to our approach.”

Left Brain plus Right Brain

There are at least a couple of caveats, however, as far as India is concerned. Since top-tier institutions are small in number and highly selective, as noted, the majority of Indian students attend tier 2 and tier 3 institutions, where the standards vary widely. It’s well known that firms like Wipro and Infosys have rigorous, extended training programs to bring new hires up to speed. Also, this lopsided emphasis on science and technology, coupled with a dismissive attitude towards the humanities, can lead to philistinism. To put it another way, although in simplistic terms, the Left Brain (logic, number skills) is overvalued and the Right Brain (creativity, imagination) is undervalued, producing robotic—rather than rounded—individuals. What’s missing is a holistic approach.

India’s educational system has its advantages, but the success comes at a cost. Andhra Pradesh, for example, is following a path that can only be disastrous in the long run. “None of the good schools in Hyderabad offer humanities and social sciences for plus two students any more,” writes Alex George in The Hindu. “Neither is any good student in Hyderabad opting for nor is allowed to opt for humanities. School managements say that there are no takers for humanities courses in AP [Andhra Pradesh].”   

Nehru would have been appalled by this unintended consequence of his policies. Though a champion of science and technology, he was a well-read intellectual with a deep interest in the liberal arts. “Would the future society of Andhra Pradesh not have any place for writers, economists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, public administrators, lawyers, psychologists, media persons, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and similar others?” asks Alex George.

What a scary thought! The message from Andhra Pradesh seems to be: Learn only if lets you earn.

As a student in England, Nehru became conscious of the limitations of his conventional education and made an effort to overcome them. “I took the natural sciences tripos, my subjects being chemistry, geology and botany, but my interests were not confined to these,” he recalled in Toward Freedom, his autobiography. “Many of the people I met at Cambridge or during the vacations in London or elsewhere talked learnedly about books and literature and history and politics and economics. I felt at sea at first in this semi-highbrow talk, but I read a few books and soon got the hang of it and could at least keep my end up and not betray too great an ignorance on any of the usual subjects.”

C. P. Snow, a physicist and novelist, was also associated with Cambridge University, where he became a Fellow at the age of 25. In a famous lecture called “The Two Cultures,” Snow bemoaned the gulf that separated art from science, leading to mutual incomprehension in the two camps. Each side appeared to devalue the importance, and relevance, of the other side. Intelligent, thoughtful people were either art-oriented or science-oriented in their interests—never both.

Snow was referring to the West of a different era, yet we do see that division today in another way. Young people in India are distancing themselves from the humanities, while their counterparts here are less drawn to science and technology. That’s a pity, since both scientific and cultural literacy, not to mention the skills required for careers in these fields, is crucial for thriving in a more globalized world. Scientific literacy, which can prevent dubious views on evolution or the cosmos, is just as important as cultural literacy, which can promote greater empathy for other cultures. The world needs engineers, physicists and biologists, but it also needs historians, musicians and philosophers.

Snow’s lecture created a stir in England, and partly because of it, there was a reevaluation of excessive specialization, especially at the pre-college level. A broader curriculum was introduced at the Advanced Level (A-level), which is somewhat equivalent to India’s Plus Two. His diagnosis and prescription, though given five decades ago, may be just as applicable today.

“It is leading us to interpret the past wrongly, to misjudge the present, and to deny our hopes of the future,” Snow said. “It is making it difficult or impossible for us to take good action.” And his solution? “The chief means open to us is education—education mainly in the primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and universities,” he concluded. “There is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy, as we are ourselves.”

Art plus Science equals Sense

By Murali Kamma

“Is M.F.A. the new M.B.A.?” somebody asked, not long before a financial tsunami crashed on these shores and sent shock waves across many places. That reference to a preference for more unconventional careers seems more pertinent now, given the sudden disenchantment with Wall Street. If finance is out, are the fine arts in? But it also makes one wonder how, in this period of growing economic uncertainty and insecurity, pursuing a life in the arts can be a serious option—for most people, anyway.

Whatever the answer, the fact that there are enough career possibilities in the arts shows how different affluent America still is when compared to most other countries. In the India I grew up in, a college degree in creative writing would have sounded too fanciful. We had no idea what M.F.A. meant. Master of Foreign Affairs would have been more plausible than Master of Fine Arts, particularly if we had known that this graduate program was popular all over America. For “bright and talented” youngsters in India, the future was never about M.B.A. vs. M.A. (the closest Indian equivalent to M.F.A.).

For middle-class Indians who hadn’t already opted for medicine in their youth, the future was about M. Tech. vs. M.B.A. or, for the more ambitious ones, M. Tech. and M.B.A. The focus was always on practicality and marketability, deemed essential in a fiercely competitive environment. In our lingo, incidentally, M.A. stood for more than just Master of Arts. Some would mockingly note that there were students who, even before reaching college, had decided to “Major in America.” Their fixation was TOEFL and SAT—and later, GRE and GMAT—rather than IIM and IIT.*

Regardless of our emphasis, what the medicine/engineering types and, as in my case, the science/commerce types had in common was—to put in bluntly—a condescending attitude towards the liberal arts types. On our totem pole, if the heights of medicine/engineering eluded us, it was respectable (or at least acceptable) to aim for the science/commerce position at a lower level. We avoided the humanities/liberal arts, which remained at the bottom. Some good students were attracted to this last track, to be sure, but we saw them as wealthy sophisticates who could afford to be impractical in life.

Marriage before Love

Though I had no intention of becoming an engineer, I did join hordes of other students to swot and sweat and sit for the all-important IIT entrance exam. Getting accepted, we were told, was the magic key that would unlock our golden futures. What if I didn’t have the aptitude or interest? “Don’t worry about it,” an elder advised. “It’s like marriage. Love comes after you tie the knot—not before.”

I didn’t get in, unsurprisingly, and soon realized that it wasn’t the end of the world. On the contrary, I was secretly relieved because now I could give up this charade and quietly opt for the science track. A couple of my brainy classmates, the anointed ones, got into IIT, which instantly set them apart from the rest of us. We all chipped in to give them a nice party. Another bright student, who had worked very hard, was devastated when he didn’t get selected even on his second attempt. The IIT entrance exam—like the IIM and IAS/IFS* exams, to a lesser extent—remains a brutal rite of passage every year for countless young people all over India.

This high regard for Nehru’s temples of technology is not unanimous. About two-thirds into The Post-American World, a recent bestseller, author and editor Fareed Zakaria drops this bombshell: “In fact, many of the IITs are decidedly second-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent teachers, and unimaginative classwork.”

Zakaria’s stinging assessment won’t win him friends among IITians, so let me hasten to add that he is actually praising them. Many IITians, as we know, have done exceptionally well no matter where they end up. Which is precisely Zakaria’s point. The best thing about IITs is that, although they cannot compare with America’s best universities, these and other premier Indian institutions do a great job of picking and bringing together the nation’s crème de la crème—who will, generally speaking, overcome hurdles and thrive anywhere.

But what about those who attend tier 2 and tier 3 colleges in India? From my experience, there can be a noticeable drop in quality. This became apparent to me only after I came here as a student. Compared to many who had studied in the U.S., my focus in India had been too narrow. While their curriculum had been broad-based, allowing them to explore all kinds of subjects, in my case, there wasn’t a whole lot I knew outside my core subjects. There were, I suddenly realized, embarrassing gaps in my education.

And I made another important discovery: Creativity is in, cramming out.

Darwinian or Egalitarian?

What’s so ironic now is that India’s educational prowess in science and technology—which helped power a spectacular boom—is being touted in the States, where youngsters are typically not attracted to ‘uncool’ disciplines like engineering and what we called MPC (math, physics, chemistry). In India, words such as ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ and even ‘cool’ were not part of our vocabulary. Technical and science degrees conferred status, not stigma.

Filmmaker Bob Compton was in Atlanta for a screening of his 2 Million Minutes, which looks at how American students are in some ways falling behind their counterparts in China and India. As Compton points out, in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Indian and Chinese schools are better at preparing the children that go through those schools for the high-wage, high-growth, high-technology careers of the 21st century. Both those systems are highly Darwinian. Ours is highly egalitarian, and that’s fine. But there’s a consequence to our approach.”

Left Brain plus Right Brain

There are at least a couple of caveats, however, as far as India is concerned. Since top-tier institutions are small in number and highly selective, as noted, the majority of Indian students attend tier 2 and tier 3 institutions, where the standards vary widely. It’s well known that firms like Wipro and Infosys have rigorous, extended training programs to bring new hires up to speed. Also, this lopsided emphasis on science and technology, coupled with a dismissive attitude towards the humanities, can lead to philistinism. To put it another way, although in simplistic terms, the Left Brain (logic, number skills) is overvalued and the Right Brain (creativity, imagination) is undervalued, producing robotic—rather than rounded—individuals. What’s missing is a holistic approach.

India’s educational system has its advantages, but the success comes at a cost. Andhra Pradesh, for example, is following a path that can only be disastrous in the long run. “None of the good schools in Hyderabad offer humanities and social sciences for plus two students any more,” writes Alex George in The Hindu. “Neither is any good student in Hyderabad opting for nor is allowed to opt for humanities. School managements say that there are no takers for humanities courses in AP [Andhra Pradesh].”   

Nehru would have been appalled by this unintended consequence of his policies. Though a champion of science and technology, he was a well-read intellectual with a deep interest in the liberal arts. “Would the future society of Andhra Pradesh not have any place for writers, economists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, public administrators, lawyers, psychologists, media persons, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers and similar others?” asks Alex George.

What a scary thought! The message from Andhra Pradesh seems to be: Learn only if lets you earn.

As a student in England, Nehru became conscious of the limitations of his conventional education and made an effort to overcome them. “I took the natural sciences tripos, my subjects being chemistry, geology and botany, but my interests were not confined to these,” he recalled in Toward Freedom, his autobiography. “Many of the people I met at Cambridge or during the vacations in London or elsewhere talked learnedly about books and literature and history and politics and economics. I felt at sea at first in this semi-highbrow talk, but I read a few books and soon got the hang of it and could at least keep my end up and not betray too great an ignorance on any of the usual subjects.”

C. P. Snow, a physicist and novelist, was also associated with Cambridge University, where he became a Fellow at the age of 25. In a famous lecture called “The Two Cultures,” Snow bemoaned the gulf that separated art from science, leading to mutual incomprehension in the two camps. Each side appeared to devalue the importance, and relevance, of the other side. Intelligent, thoughtful people were either art-oriented or science-oriented in their interests—never both.

Snow was referring to the West of a different era, yet we do see that division today in another way. Young people in India are distancing themselves from the humanities, while their counterparts here are less drawn to science and technology. That’s a pity, since both scientific and cultural literacy, not to mention the skills required for careers in these fields, is crucial for thriving in a more globalized world. Scientific literacy, which can prevent dubious views on evolution or the cosmos, is just as important as cultural literacy, which can promote greater empathy for other cultures. The world needs engineers, physicists and biologists, but it also needs historians, musicians and philosophers.

Snow’s lecture created a stir in England, and partly because of it, there was a reevaluation of excessive specialization, especially at the pre-college level. A broader curriculum was introduced at the Advanced Level (A-level), which is somewhat equivalent to India’s Plus Two. His diagnosis and prescription, though given five decades ago, may be just as applicable today.

“It is leading us to interpret the past wrongly, to misjudge the present, and to deny our hopes of the future,” Snow said. “It is making it difficult or impossible for us to take good action.” And his solution? “The chief means open to us is education—education mainly in the primary and secondary schools, but also in colleges and universities,” he concluded. “There is no excuse for letting another generation be as vastly ignorant, or as devoid of understanding and sympathy, as we are ourselves.”

*American abbreviations:                                     *Indian abbreviations:

GMAT: Graduate Management Admission Test IAS: Indian Administrative Service         

GRE: Graduate Record Examination                   IFS: Indian Foreign Service

SAT: Scholastic Aptitude Test                            IIM: Indian Institute of Management

TOEFL: Test of English as a Foreign Language IIT: Indian Institute of Technology


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