Thursday, February 08, 2007

What do undergraduates gain by studying in a Real University?

Let me start with this report in Inside Higher Ed on Harvard's new undergraduate core curriculum:

Now the plan calls for students to take one course in each of the following eight categories:

  • Aesthetic and interpretive understanding.
  • Culture and belief.
  • Empirical reasoning.
  • Ethical reasoning.
  • Science of living systems.
  • Science of the physical universe.
  • Societies of the world.
  • The United States and the world.

* * *

In response to my post on Real Universities, several people have told me that engineering students in Indian universities (including IITs) do take courses in humanities and social sciences (H&SS). For example, Apurva points out that at IIT-K, the number of H&SS courses that are required is four; he notes further that Caltech students take 12 courses in H&SS.

Sidebar: Some IITs have recently started an integrated MA program in H&SS; some have always had an integrated M.Sc. programs in the physical sciences. Thanks to Arun Shourie's donation, IIT-K now has a full fledged department in biotechnology. By all indications, these programs are still too small to make a dent in the IITs' reputation as primarily technical (engineering) institutions. Yet, to the extent that these programs represent IITs' migration towards a Real Universityhood, I welcome them. [To this trend, I must add the MBA programs, and Kharagpur's law program.]

* * *

While I am all for undergraduate students getting a well-rounded education with a good mix of courses, my argument for a Real University has very little to do with a few H&SS options in what are essentially institutions in niche technical areas [see footnote]. In my post, I tried to argue for a Real University that would not only produce well-rounded engineers, but will also graduate also well-rounded economists, artists, scientists, doctors, lawyers, sociologists and historians.

If you are an undergrad student, you would be right to wonder about the advantages of studying in a Real University (as opposed to, say, an engineering college). Just what might these benefits be?

First and foremost, you will have friends from diverse academic disciplines. Your network of friends will be diverse. To me, this alone is a sufficient reason for choosing a RU over a mere technical college. But there is more: you will become familiar with -- at the least, you will hear about -- big ideas in many fields. Your mess hall conversations will be a lot more diverse and interesting. On issues that are not quite in your field, you will have someone on hand to provide a more informed perspective.

Your university library will have books, journals, tapes and videos covering a wide range of fields. Your university's student community will be a lot more vibrant -- particularly if the university also has a fine arts department!

If some of the ideas in other disciplines appeal to you, you will get a chance to minor in them. You will get scholars in all kinds of areas coming to your campus to give seminars. You will gain a better appreciation of inter/cross-disciplinary thinking. [Take a look at some of the things mentioned by Sunil Laxman in his list of top ten things you can do in grad school. In principle, they are available to undergrad students as well.]

More importantly, you will realize that every field has incredibly smart people grappling with extremely interesting and complex problems. You will realize that engineering (or medicine, or law, or science, or information technology, or hotel management) is not the only worthwhile endeavour in life.

And, you won't feel tired playing the 'crème-de-la-crème' game all the time! Liberating, isn't it?

As you can see, most of these benefits emerge from interactions among students themselves. Sure, formal arrangements -- opportunity to pursue a minor, or to attend seminars by Big People -- are important; but they are of use only to those who have the necessary preparation and the inclination to exploit them (admittedly, a small minority!). But the gains from interactions among students are available for everyone. In other words, these benefits really are in the air!

* * *

Footnote: To be fair, Apurva is not arguing that a few H&SS courses (or an enhanced number) are enough to make our colleges and their curriculum great. I'm sorry that I gave the impression -- due to some seriously sloppy writing -- that he is making precisely such an argument. He wrote in to tell me that he is with me on the need for -- and the benefits of -- RUs.


  1. Niket said...

    "you won't feel tired playing the 'crème-de-la-crème' game"
    I believe that arises out of the winner-take-all nature of the admission system for higher education avenues in India, the root cause being the disparity between demand (true or perceived) and supply. This also results in a general risk-averse nature of Indians, and perhaps contributes to the
    tendency to showcase your individual contibutions, even at the cost of team's goals.

  2. Patrix said...

    Abi, DesiPundit readers would love to read this post. Please link to it.

  3. Tabula Rasa said...

    Just to set the record straight on one point -- the benefits of RUs go both ways. I strongly believe that 'poets' should also have some minimum exposure to a scientific education.

  4. Santosh Saladi said...

    I liked this post which explains the benifits of being in a REAL University. Being a student of DA-IICT (, I am very pleased to say that our humanities deparmtment is very good and we have to take atleast 7 courses in humanities ranging from ANTHROPOLOGY to SATYAJIT RAY. Yhese courses have really been useful to many students as some have been able to spot out their interest in something other than technology and planning to do MA in social sciences.

  5. Abi said...

    Niket: Yes, there is a huge demand-supply gap, that causes the winners to feel generally superior. Enhanced opportunities (through creation of new institutions and expanding old ones) is important.

    Patrix: Thanks for that suggestion. Confused did link to this post on DP.

    TR: Yes, absolutely. The Harvard curriculum, for example, mandates two science courses for everyone!

    Santosh: I'm glad you get to do quite a few H&SS courses in DA-IICT. But does your institution have a full-fledged UG program in H&SS disciplines? How about the sciences?