MIT served as the model behind the IITs, but the role it has played in shaping technical education in India is far deeper than that
Indians’ focus on engineering has led to remarkable achievements in India and America. Indian firms produce a wide array of technologically sophisticated products sold in a global market. India’s information technology (IT) industry has become famous worldwide, generating over $100 billion of revenue and employing 3 million people.
In 2012 a trade journal noted that IBM was on track to have more Indian than American employees. In the United States, the role of Indians in Silicon Valley is widely recognized.
In 2015 Indian engineers occupy the presidency of major American universities and hold or have recently held deanships at Harvard, MIT, Penn, Berkeley, Carnegie Mellon, and UCLA. Indians’ position in the American technological workforce is so central that the appointment of Satya Nadella as CEO of Microsoft was hardly noteworthy.
How did this change happen? How did “Indian” and “technological” go from being mutually exclusive to being practically synonymous for the Indian middle class? And how did Indians fit so well into the American technological system, which was so foreign to Kunte in 1884?
This book argues that beginning in the late 1800s, a small group of middle-class, English-language-educated Indians began to imagine a technological India, and to do so, they looked to the United States and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in particular . For more than a century, Indian elites have gone to MIT, but perhaps more importantly, their technological imaginations have been shaped by MIT.
The fact that MIT served as the model behind the original conception of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) between 1944 and 1946 is widely known. But the role that MIT has played in shaping technical education, and indeed technology, in India is far deeper than that. The first Indian attended MIT in 1882 and the first suggestion that MIT had something to offer India came in 1884 from Indian nationalist Bal Tilak’s newspaper the Kesari.
After independence, the government of India explicitly sought MIT’s help in developing the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, resulting in a ten-year program anchored by MIT and supported by nine American institutions.
Later, four other IITs, ostensibly designed to showcase other nations’ models of technical education, increasingly converged on the IIT Kanpur/MIT model. While the IITs were designed to make India self-sufficient in technical education, from the time of their founding, they were increasingly integrated into an American system of technical education, where MIT stood at the apex.
MIT’s hold on the technological imaginations of the Indian middle class might be seen in Godavarthi Varadarajan, who in 1972 was an eight-year-old boy in a Tamil Brahmin family. That summer, his mother took her children from Ahmedabad, where her husband worked as a geophysicist for the state-run oil company, to her family’s home in Madras.
There, she and her father sat the young boy down for a serious talk about his future, laying out the path they thought he should aspire to. He should aim to be one of the winners of the National Science Talent Search Exam, given after tenth grade. After high school, he should secure entrance to one of the Indian Institutes of Technology. After IIT, he should win admission to MIT for graduate study. Finally, he should earn an MBA at Harvard Business School.
These goals, part of a “joint journey,” were continually reinforced throughout young Varadarajan’s schooling. Varadarajan followed this path (except for the Harvard MBA), earning a doctorate in engineering from MIT.
Source: Mint on Sunday