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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Thinking about old boys

August is the time when some old boys and girls come to say goodbye every year, because they are going abroad – most commonly to the United States – for graduate studies. Some of the most intelligent and decent people are among them: a few years ago there were Mayuri Mukherjee and Nishant Kamath, then there was Arnab Kar, and very recently there was Sanket Roy. Not all of these are engineers, by the way – Mayuri's subject was journalism and Nishant’s is geology, Arnab’s is physics and Sanket’s is economics. Meanwhile many of my best ex-students are being picked up from the top law schools and CA institutes and places like St Stephen’s and JU where they read economics or English by top shot employers for salaries which would sound fabulous to all engineers except IIT toppers (and that too, only from a few select departments). At the same time, old boys like Abhirup Mascharak (into his second master’s at JU) and Soham Mukhopadhyay who has gone to Presidency College have been telling me not only how much they like the ambience but also laughing about how their friends who have gone into (usually third-rate private-) engineering colleges, generally against their will, and generally at great expense, are already turning green with jealousy when they compare notes. And this news article tells everybody who wants to know how bad the general engineering employment scene is. Nothing, of course, that I haven’t been telling young people for years and years – don’t imagine engineering will bring you the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, don’t go into it unless you have a genuine interest in it (rather than the desire to get into just any job somehow), don’t develop the habit of looking for shortcuts and cheating and the tendency to look down upon a lot of subjects they teach in school as useless because you will regret it soon enough, don’t pretend to be ‘interested in science’ when all you want is to get into some B- or C-grade engineering school, because it’s not the same thing at all – eventually you’ll be struggling to switch streams and try to get MBAs or a slot in the civil services anyway – don’t get lost in the herd, because ‘everybody’s doing it’ was never a good idea for making good careers, don’t imagine that what was wise advice in the 1970s still holds good today, and so on (do read in this connection what I wrote in the post titled Engineer or bust some time ago).  

It hurts me, as an old teacher, to hear old boys coming over to say ruefully ‘Sir, you were right, I should have listened to you’, because I don’t like to see people getting hurt if I can stop them from being foolish. And it also hurts to see so much talent wasted – so many potential sportsmen, musicians, artists, teachers, judges, soldiers, administrators, lawmakers, moviemakers and businessmen becoming bored, tired, uncommitted and therefore poorly-productive engineers instead: we have millions like that swarming all over this country now, desperate to get into or hang on to very pathetic jobs somehow. As I joke about a certain engineer-turned-private tutor in my town who has been minting money for years now, he found out long ago that engineering doesn’t pay, but coaching confused hordes for the various engineering-entrance examinations pays hand over fist. He and many others like him have made their piles, but is that how a country’s human resources should go on being wasted decade after decade?

Nothing in this post is meant to offend those few of my old boys who are doing well in the engineering profession: if they are making good money, enjoying what they do and contributing to the country’s economic development, they have my best wishes. Indeed, there are quite a few like that who keep in friendly touch with me, and know perfectly well I have nothing against their type. But I have only pity for the much bigger tribe who know now that I was right all along, and who hate me for being right, and who can only stew in their own juice of frustration and failure and imagine they can somehow get their own back by telling me anonymously how much they hate me. Poor sods, they can’t even read, or else they’d have found out long ago (it’s written on this blog itself) that anonymous comments are filtered out automatically, so I don’t even read them, and even if I did, I’d only laugh, not out of true amusement but out of sadness and contempt. But even for them I have my best wishes: maybe it is still not too late to find out how to live a good life and change courses… it is a very sad thing indeed that they feel this obsessive compulsion to keep on visiting my blog (and thereby making me proud to see how fast the counter keeps rising!) and can never think of saying anything other than hurling irrelevant abuse! I, for myself, don’t feel any hatred and jealousy for these people at all; rather, I remind myself again and again of the saying that hell is when a man is burning up with hatred and jealousy inside, about which he can do nothing, because it stems from his own unbearably painful awareness that he has wasted his life.


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

What you have written in this post and said for many years is painfully true...I know many of my classmates who also attended your tuition classes can't stand you for this reason. Even if they don't malign you, they do not want to face you as it hurts their fragile egos to acknowledge that they have wasted their time in pursuit of things which they neither desired nor had the capability to do. The problem lies not only with engineering. I know a boy here who opted for basic sciences because he could not get admission in a good engineering college and now after post-graduation, he has joined FIITJEE as an instructor as he could not crack the Ph.D. entrance exams. Most of us have lost the ability to think that something can be done for the sake of itself only or for the love of it; instead we do this because that did not happen and in the process confuse everything. My sincere thanks to you Sir, for trying to open my eyes and sparing me this confusion. I hope many more will acknowledge their fallacies and try to understand what you really want to say instead of bad-mouthing you.

With regards,

Harman said...

It is truly sad when people pursue a career path based on what is available/attainable/fashionable instead of realising what they love and digging their heels in to pursue those dreams.

There is no greater hell than waking up every morning and not looking forward to the day.

That being said, it is also true that pursuing ones' passion is a lot easier in some coutries than others.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Nearly 18 years back, I chose to leave Durgapur because I wanted freedom from the private tutors, the continuous discussions about entrance examination among peers, the unnecessary competition, and the intense scrutiny.

True, I did want to study Economics, but to be honest; my love for quizzes, theatre, journalism, books, etc drove me out of Durgapur not the love for Economics. I could not accept that I may have to give up everything else to study for a career in engineering or medicine.

Thankfully, my parents were always supportive.

I am not sure whether I would be considered a professional success, but I enjoy immensely that I did not get bogged down during those youthful years of my life cramming notes/books. I had to make new friends though because most of the ‘engineering hopefuls’ did not really keep in touch. I was probably not in their ‘elite’ league.

Good luck to your ‘new old boys’. I am confident they will continue to do well and you would have more stories to tell about them.


Ria Pariksha said...

My sister is a student of class VI. She isn't fond of mathematics as she is not good at it and it always fetches her the least marks. Her father has stated clearly that if she doesn't opt for science after her ICSE he'll ask her to quit studying and call it a day. Its quite evident that if she wishes to choose some other stream for XI-XII she won't be supported by her family and thus end up in a private institution! She'll be deprived of any kind of joy in studying, lost in the crowd of voluminous books which interest her to the least. Why don't the parents understand that the 'science student' tagline is not glamorous any more?

sayantika said...

Dear Sir,
Recently, an engineer cousin of mine saw the pile of history books that I have bought to prepare for my exams and said, "Esob history pore ki hobe...Joint diye engineering porle ato porte hoto na." He can't even imagine that I like studying history. I thought of launching a tirade but then chose to keep quiet because he wouldn't even try to understand. I just feel pity that he can never understand the beauty of history, which I once foolishly thought to be a boring subject until I joined your classes and read Saradindu Bandopadhyay's historical novels. Ironically, this cousin's father is a history teacher and later my mother remarked that the money obtained through teaching history had made him an engineer. And now he is driving into his daughters' heads that getting into the IITs should be one's sole purpose in life.
Thanks and with regards,

Abhishek De said...

Dear Sir,
today after reading your blog, I took a pause and my mind reeled back to those days when you used to call me Debabu. Years have passed, with the highs and turmoils, hardly kept any contact with the only person who has framed and developed(and the first one to realize)my potentials. These may seem to muse the ears of flatterers but this is the truth of my cherished heart that has thrived on the wisdom imparted by YOU.
Coming to the context of this post, I liked Science but was never good in it. In my +2, I pursued Science mostly as a continuation of my interest in science at high school. But soon I realized I've made a mistake, eventually led to a very poor rank and score in entrances. But, that's not the end of it.
What I learnt, rather discovered, was my potential in Computer Science. Today, I'm nurturing on my Programming Skills and honing my skills on Software Development. I'm not pursuing Engineering by force, although I'm in a grade C college, B.P Poddar Institute Of Management & Technology. I love my work, and I contribute to OpenSource, that help millions somehow. I believe that miracles do happen, and we should look at the brighter side of the sun, even during an eclipse.
Thank You once again.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I shall start acknowledging comments backwards for a change. Abhishek, good to hear that you remember and have some good feelings, though not keeping in touch cannot really be justified, as I am sure you know. You have my best wishes anyway. Sayantika, I shall lay a great deal of the blame at the door of such pathetic teachers of history: they have never respected and loved what they do, so what else could their children learn from them? One can hardly imagine any history great in the Ramesh Chandra Dutt/Jadunath Sarkar/Susobhan Sarkar/Irfan Habib/ Nurul Hasan/Amalesh Tripathi mould who would have given that kind of 'advice' to their children! Besides, a love of history bespeaks a love of culture, and the typical engineer in India today has just about as much 'culture' as 'Virus' and 'Silencer' in 3 Idiots. Ria, a certain class learns things with a big time lag; it's a well known sociological phenomenon. And by the way, this class is overwhelmingly restricted to small towns now, and that too, basically small industrial towns. This sickness will go away, but it will take some more time, and I fear that it will be replaced by some even more despicable craze, like all parents fanatically desiring their kids to become VJs and fashion models.

Tanmoy, good thing you ran away, and I wish you all happiness and fulfilment. But some of us had to stay behind and fight, didn't we? Even muck clearing takes a lot of fighting, and sometimes it can be one's lifelong business...

Harman, you are only partly right. Thousands have struggled and fulfilled their dreams in India. But it takes far more conviction, guts and sheer dogged energy than most people have, I guess. And Saikat, it's been a pleasure. May you go from strength to strength, and never forget what little Sir could do for you...

Nishant said...

Dear Sir,

Thank you for the very kind words. I don't know if I have said this to you before, but you were largely instrumental in me opting for graduate studies.

I remember I had carried an old edition of Barron's guide to the GRE when I'd gotten into college. So right from the first day, somewhere at the back of my mind, I knew that I was going to apply for Grad. studies, thanks largely to you. You had told us numerous times in class (school and tuition) that if we have any amount of real interest in what we study, we should consider opting for higher studies. I am the sort of person who always goes with the tide, so that initial direction is very important. I am glad that I didn't stick to my job, not that it was bad (it was interesting and I would have learnt many things, and the pay was good), but the willingness to learn generally decreases with age and the onset of other worldly responsibilities.

Now I realise that being in academia (becoming a professor or a researcher) is way more difficult that being in the industry. Solving problems is one thing, but asking the right questions is something else altogether. Hence I have a lot of respect for some of the people in academia who manage to retain their enthusiasm for serious research for a long time.

I don't know if I will end up being a researcher, but the I enjoy the things I am learning here now. So, thank you once again.


Navin said...

Dear Sir,
I would like to add, that it is indeed better to take up unconventional choices in undergrads. Firstly if one considers himself or herself brainy in an analytical way, I would strongly suggest subjects which are now in the purview of the non engineering disciplines. These are the days of inter disciplinary skill sets and it is increasingly necessary to have skills which were looked down upon when we were growing up.

very recently I came to know that if one can get a masters in Geology from the US, every oil company in the world will be willing to hire you at a cushy jobs with a green card to follow in 2 years. It is akin to campus placements, which is unknown in US universities and I know of Phds in Pure math, who have enrolled in a masters in geology to start earning bucks like what is typical of bankers.

Also it is far easier to get a job studying biology these days in the US, the latest craze being medical physics. it pays well to be a physicist these days .



Suvro Chatterjee said...

Two points to make, Navin: 1) the subjects I have mentioned, to wit geology and physics, economics and journalism, law and CA, English and history, are hardly 'unconventional' choices, and 2) my real grudge is against the stupidity that leads hordes into engineering year after year without knowing what it entails, as a curriculum and as a career - and, despite their inability (by and large) to make good in their own lives, their penchant for telling everybody that there's no alternative, or else that all alternatives are somehow poor options. That affects the work I do very strongly, you see! Hundreds join my tuition every year in order to get good marks in English and History and Economics exams, even while they are convinced that these subjects 'do not really matter' and therefore they neither need to respect them nor work hard at them! I find it hard to think of any attitude that could be more asinine, more gross than this... and it seems to be shared by parents and kids equally strongly! How do you think I feel when some of these same idiots come over 7 to 10 years later, because they are now sitting for tests like the GRE, the NET, the CAT or the civil services entrance, and want me to work miracles for them, making up for all the deficiency of learning that they have accumulated over the first 22 or 25 years of their lives? How do you think I feel when I see morons of 15 paying more attention to schoolboy problems on physics than to Shakespeare, merely because they think that it 'pays' more (doesn't even do that, actually: even without over-exerting myself I earn more than most engineer dads do!), and at the same time think they have a 'right' to get 90%-plus in ICSE English because they are paying me a tuition fee?

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

The discussion here now is showing as a real problem being proved by stats and numbers. The Telegraph t2 today carries a story 'Empty Classrooms' on the drastic decline in Engineering and Business Management enrollment. Seats remain unfilled by the thousands and many colleges and programs face closure. The article also discusses about the change in perceived value of pure sciences (specially Math) and commerce education, training and programs. Both students as well as recruiters and the industry are finding better value in these programs and degrees than Engineering and Management.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

I wasn't trying to prove something so much as arguing a point, Subhasis: in law or social discourse, nothing can be 'proved' as in geometry. I know about the numbers you are talking about, but the point is, are they making any difference to the way the kids and parents I deal with think and act? The answer, so far, is a resounding NO. 99% of them (and I mean it literally) are hell-bent still on walking blindfold and learning nothing until they break their noses against a wall... or going about telling one another and their juniors that one's career is 'shining' if one has got a cyber hack's job at Infosys or Cognizant at 20-30,000 a month, and one doesn't have any choices in the matter. Therefore - by their warped logic - reading anything other than math and science seriously in school is a 'waste' of time (and as to how 'seriously' they study even math and science can be told from the fact that 9 out of 10 of them would make a sorry mess if they were asked to teach any of those subjects ten years after they left school, as I know from long direct experience). And they keep paying me in ever bigger numbers every year so that they can get top marks in the board exams without actually having to learn anything! Do I have a right to feel bad about that or don't I? If I could be content with being a mere instructor rather than a teacher, and cared only about my bank account, it would have been a different matter altogether...