Plastic Deformation of the Brain

Humans are the ultimate general purpose machines. What we are potentially capable of is virtually unlimited. Who we become and what we become capable of doing depends on the environment we grow up in and the programming that we are subjected to. To some degree at least, our educational system programs us. In some cases, the programming causes plastic deformation of our brains: the firmware is permanently and unalterably implanted.

If one is interested in the educational system, one cannot avoid studying the pathological results of a dysfunctional educational system. The IITs are widely regarded to be among the best institutions of learning in India. A few years ago, I had one of the most disheartening experiences of my academic life at IIT Bombay. I had been invited to deliver a guest lecture at a graduate level course. One of these days I will muster up enough courage to write about it.

For now, here’s a story. A correspondent who is a faculty member at IIT Bombay recently wrote to me asking me to consider what he called “a sordid mess.” Here’s what he sent me. It is a posting by a professor on an IIT Bombay course forum:

On Friday, 29th Feb, I wrote: “Also, I will bring out the second assignment during the weekend.”

To which Jinesh responded: “The first assignment is not yet published”.

This was shocking, to say the least. As per my records, I marked HW1 as “out, 2/10; due, 2/28” and emailed it to the TAs on 10th or 11th Feb at the latest.

So I wrote to Jinesh, CCing the TAs: “I sent hw1.pdf to the TAs many weeks back”. At which point, Dhaval responded: “We do not have privileges to upload documents. We will do it soon. Kindly grant us permissions.”

So for three weeks, the TAs were waiting for me (without telling me, btw) to add permissions to Moodle so they could post the homework. When they could just have posted a forum message and attached the PDF file, like I am doing now.

Or hey, used carrier pigeons. Or gone to hostel rooms and read the homework aloud to each and every student taking the class. Which is what they would do if a document related to their job or their health was at stake. I was expendable.

This says a lot about how Indians (do not) work as a society. It is extremely depressing to me. And now the TAs will say they are sorry, of course. But that won’t change anything.

The homework is still due on 2/28. Which means none of you submitted it. In a relative grading world, and especially a world where the job market will not evaluate you on how dependable you are in such matters, why would you care?

[NOTE: Names above may not correspond to actual people.]

Let me see. The TAs for the course must have had at least 16 years of schooling (12 years of school, and 4 years of college). At least in this case, they have demonstrated that their schooling did not teach them anything about taking initiative, of solving problems themselves, of not waiting to be told what to do. The system had successfully implanted in their brains that they have to follow orders, and sit quietly if orders have not been sent.

Yes, we are talking of IIT here. My correspondent cynically remarked, “The best and brightest that are still miraculously within our borders.”

Deva, deva.

Author: Atanu Dey


2 thoughts on “Plastic Deformation of the Brain”

  1. I have a similar story of my own to tell, while on this topic. I did not make it to the IITs, but have unconditionally held their graduates in high esteem – until now. I need more interaction before I can consider applying superlatives like the “best and brightest” to any individual.

    An IITB graduate student joined the same year as I, to study for a PhD in chemical engineering. On one occasion where some equipment was faulty and rendered experimentation impossible, the student went a whole three months without even informing his advisor about the scenario. Unbelievable. Quite shamefully, the student was dropped by his advisor and had to seek out another one.


  2. “To some degree at least, our educational system programs us. ”

    To put a tangent on that (learning) curve…

    I wouldn’t be surprised if proper research showed a strong negative correlation between life-skills and the number of degrees acquired; in what has come to be known as the Indian education system.

    Life-skills = “taking initiative, of solving problems themselves, of not waiting to be told what to do” / independent thinking + making well-reasoned arguments + communication / presenting information etc…

    I thinks these skills are default outputs of what could be called “A fairly well-run education system”.

    Here’s a theory (which one is testing & re-confirming everyday)

    A) Interest + Motivation is primary to success.

    B) “Intelligence”, prior experience, how much you know, are all secondary.

    C) The past success of the IITs / other centers of excellence is rooted in simple algebra… Select / enrol competitive, motivated people & put them all together. Over time add more stars to your alumni base.

    The theory is:
    People in “A fairly well-run education system” that imparts Life Skills are most likely to discover (A) above & apply (B) to achieve results akin to (C) … in far far far may more fields than engineering or sciences or management studies.

    No good people. No-good nation. No good people. No-good nation. No good people. No-good nation. Chicken. Egg. Chicken. Egg… or is it really?

    P.S. But of course, there are many other life skills like love / compassion / social skills etc… that are picked up from society in general (of which the education system is an important subset.)


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