This afternoon we went to visit an IIT, an Indian Institute of Technology, which are a system of India’s Ivy Leagues which are basically free once you get in. These are the most prestigious universities in India and entry into one guarantees you a money making job abroad or more recently, in India if you want to stay. The difference in an IIT versus a regular university was apparent the minute we drove through the gate. The IIT-Madras (it was only changed from Madras to Chennai in 2001) is on the same grounds as a national park and there were deer and monkeys running around the banyan forests.
The professors live on campus and their children can attend one of two schools on campus, a private school or a public school. The campus is like an island of calm in a city of 10 million people’s chaos. The Indian government funds these universities fully and there are more than 300,000 who take the entrance exam to get into 6,000 seats at 13 different IITs around India. He gave us a copy of the entrance exam, which kids take after 12th grade, and there is second semester organic chemistry, calculus-based physics, and advanced calculus on the exam. They learn this prior to getting into college! Is there any wonder that they are putting out so many engineers to Silicon Valley?
Not only it the entrance exam extremely intense and competitive, once you are successful at scoring high enough to be offered a position, your score and rank determines what type of major you can have. More desirable fields are only available to those who score the highest because they get first priority of choice. Once you have a major, you are pretty much stuck with it. So really, Indian kids are deciding at about age 16 what they want to do with their lives. Some kids have mentioned to us here that kids in the US just have so many choices and that if one choice doesn’t work out, they choose something else. Here, the competition is so fierce that if your first choice doesn’t work out, you will have to fight and fight to get a chance at something else. I guess that is just a consequence of such a large population.
The chemistry professor/admissions director of the IIT who spoke to us today (by the way, there was a wasp flying around the whole time and landed on one of our guys’ heads while he just sat perfectly calm. I would have FREAKED out!) said that he attributes India’s rise in the world over the last 10 or so years to India’s extensive amount of rote learning, teachers’ ambition to teach huge amounts of information, and the competition between people. The people who get into the IITs are India’s best and brightest and I can’t help but wonder if the system is still just pushing through the rich because kids cannot really get into IITs without spending huge amounts of their time at coaching centers. Also, a huge portion of the society is getting no education at all and so the strict societal divisions are just being perpetuated.
But, they do have some affirmative action to propel people from lower castes/classes (they have used these words interchangeably and so I am kind of confused which one they mean) and people from tribes and they are given special dispensation if they are high achievers to get into the IITs. Women are also given special consideration and the female population of the IITs country-wide is about 15%. It is always important, I have now realized, to keep in mind scale in India. There are just so many more people than in the US or anywhere besides China and when you talk about India’s middle and upper class, it is just so many people. Their middle class probably equals our entire population so I think I just have to keep remembering that. I don’t know what I am really trying to say by writing that, but as we wonder how, with mediocre teaching practices, India has exported so many engineers and doctors, scale becomes a very important factor to consider.
We also went to a fishing village in the city when we got back from the IIT by autorickshaw. This is always an adventure. The fishermen we talked to were showing where the tsunami came up to in 2004. They said it was about 10 meters up the side of buildings and all of the huts close to the beach were wiped out. This is right in downtown Chennai we are talking about, not some tiny village in the middle of nowhere. It reeked of fish, my favorite smell, and we saw a woman was selling a small shark. She wouldn’t let us take her picture without giving her money so we didn’t but there were a bunch of tiny kittens running around too trying to get little bites of fish. About 30 minutes was all I could stand of the fish smell before we had to come back. Plus, it gets dark quite early here, around 7 pm. Once we get back north a little bit, our evenings will be a bit longer I hope. Tomorrow we are going to coastal temples and fishing villages with our tour guide who sounds exactly like Dr. Evil. Then, Thursday we are again on the move to a city called Pune, pronounced Poona.
I am sure nobody wants to hear another word from me today as these are pretty hefty entries. It was a very busy day!!! I’m so glad I brought my computer so that I can lay in bed and type because with all the sweating and trekking around, I am dead by the end of the day! J