Thursday, March 25, 2010

Skills for the survival of the civilization

Back when I was in grad school and a teaching assistant, my students would demand why they had to study "useless things which they'd never use anyway." I used to wonder about this myself sometimes and so I never had a good response.

Recently, in an welcome address by a professor, I heard something that I wish I had heard years back. It would have certainly given me a perspective I didn't have when in college. Let me explain.

As a student in engineering college, I had several courses where I had to learn esoteric things that I knew I would never ever even remotely use in my professional life. So why were they insisting that these things be included in the syllabus?

The best explanation that I could come up with was that in an attempt to make better engineers out of us, our engineering college was teaching us "problem solving." I told myself that even though we wouldn’t use the exact thing being taught, we were becoming better problem solvers. But that explanation always rang false and was never quite satisfactory.

Prof. M S Ananth of IIT Madras was giving a welcome address to a group of professors who were attending a workshop on NPTEL, the program I volunteer at.

He said that people should realize that there are two types of skills. One set is the skills needed for the survival of the individual. Vocational training institutions do a very good job of teaching these, and we can all readily see the value in these skills, because they help us earn a living.

The other set, he said, are skills for the survival of the civilization. These are equally important and shouldn’t be neglected. He felt that institutions of higher learning shouldn’t waver from teaching these skills. And those of us who are learners or researchers, no matter what our field is, should have faith that we are adding to this skill set in incremental amounts and continue our work.

Skills that are needed for the survival of the civilization – I had never heard it phrased quite that way. Wish I had heard this 20 years earlier.


Anonymous said...

Not so sure about Ananth's claim. Advanced physics/math/chem/engg has led to atomic bombs that can destroy all humanity.

When students ask you what is the use of x, the right answer is "what is the use of your existence?" That will hopefully redirect them toward existentialism and Darwin and then they might see the pointlessness of it all. A more practical answer would have been - "you knew the syllabus why did you take this course!"

The point here is that there is no reason to study anything deeply other than for personal curiosity and the thrill of understanding. Ananth is selling a fake drug - not unlike reincarnation, that somehow what you do will be useful centuries later. Theres tons of math thats useful and tons that isnt and possibly never will be. But you must do it just for the sheer curiosity and thrill - that is as meaningful as any other value including the drab and misguided utilitarianism that Ananths argument seems draped in.



Ram said...

Hey Arvind,

I am afraid that you are not taking Ananth's statement in the spirit it was delivered. I connected his statement to a question I used to struggle with and felt that it was one good response to the why study this now question.

Also, remember that it is the perspective that I took away from his statement about another way of looking at skills. Ananth was not responding to what's the use of x question.

The joy of learning can certainly be another valid answer.