Illustration by Sorit
The philosopher J.L. Austin once said that under the heading ‘truth’, we have not just a simple quantity or relationship but a multiplicity of things. Stress is like truth. It is complex and reveals itself in a variety of ways. For a recent (2011) Thomson Reuters survey found, rather astonishingly, that India was amongst the most stressed countries in the world. What does this imply? It suggests that we need to look anew at the problems of stress in India. The stress that university students feel today must be placed in this larger context.
Students at the IITs are not, in my view, stressed in a manner uniquely different from other college students in India or the rest of the globe who leave home for the first time to stay in crowded hostels in small towns or metropolitan centres. There is much excitement in this youthful freedom and intimacy, but there is also fear and anxiety. Herein lie the seeds of ‘stress’—parental stress, peer group stress, exam stress, economic stress, sexual stress, ‘mess-stress’ and even ‘what kind of cellphone do I have’ stress.
If IIT students are under any extra pressure it could derive only from the enormous burden of expectation placed on them. Their performance is always in the public eye. At 18 or 19, they have seemingly arrived at a pinnacle of success and seem condemned to stay there forever. Over the four years they spend at IIT, this ‘performance stress’ builds up inexorably; it is just as damningly cumulative as their CGPAS or cumulative grade point averages. There’s no let-up, little room for rebellion or error. IITians today who’ve attended coaching schools before they enter the hallowed portals of their institutions have already been well trained in a culture of conformity. They know they have to ‘max’ all their endless courses, avoid being less than a ‘satti’ at any cost and be ‘placed’ in an enviable job at the end of it all. Yet, four failure-less years and the promise of a blemishless future is like asking every IIT student to win a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ without ever having had a chance to live life—surely a recipe for slowly corroding stress.
Smart, motivated students with a cocky self-image enter the IITs but, once there, are often subjected to the seismic shock of finding themselves in classes with students who are equally sharp. It is at this point that competitive stress begins to assert itself. Some begin to drop out of courses, some ‘cheat to beat’, some take drugs and many grow disillusioned and resentful. To keep doing badly causes great psychological conflict amongst students who hitherto thought of themselves as ‘the best’. It is these students who are most critical of the vaunted IIT system, since they don’t see themselves as the ones with a ‘misfit’ problem; it’s the system that has a problem if it does not recognise their worth. Extreme manifestations of these recurrent feelings of frustration, inadequacy and loneliness can, as we know, drive some mad and others to self-annihilation. While this syndrome is by no means true of most students, the numbers could be large enough to cause worry, and the contagion could spread.
The IITs are, of course, aware of the magnitude of these stress-effects. Students are now far less likely to be hauled up before disciplinary committees (called DISCOS!). Brutal and demeaning forms of ragging have been effectively curtailed. Mentorship and fresher orientation program have been introduced. Professors in the humanities and social science (HSS) departments have been enlisted to advise on the social aspects of stress and counsellors appointed to aid students who face depression and psychological trauma, even if it’s true that at the moment there are too few counsellors and going to them is still, by and large, stigmatised.
At IIT-Delhi, seriously disturbed students can have their parents visit and flats are set aside for the purpose. What is heartening is that students strive to find answers to their stressed-out conditions themselves by consulting their worldly-wise ‘seniors’ or forming their own hostel friendships, often within the regional and language groups with whom they feel ‘at home’. This sort of emotional bonding is a very significant bulwark against stress over a period of time. There is not one solution but my own view is that we should link these specific solutions to the problem of stress to the bigger educational dilemmas facing Indians.
Currently, as we know, the entire ‘IIT system’ is itself under considerable stress. The IITs feel that the JEE examination that they devised over the years and the instructions they subsequently provided to students produced a ‘world-class brand’ that should not be subjected to hasty changes. This argument has obvious merit. At the same time, the robustness of any brand depends on its ability to respond to change and it must be recognised that the world is in the middle of an education revolution that has radically altered transactions of information and codes of communication. This is a major challenge—a stress point.
Since all IIT students must take at least four such courses for credit, virtually every student comes into contact with foundational ideas in philosophy, economics, literature, sociology, psychology and so forth. Increasingly, however, these courses, too, are a source of stress since students often enter the IITs without the kind of linguistic and logical skills needed to decode complex texts. The world is a complex text, to paraphrase Schopenhauer.
In the era of Facebook, it’s not good enough to be a good student, you have to be able to communicate effectively, share ideas, feelings, take risks, multi-task and deal with the virtual text of the world. It is also conceded that educational aspirations amongst our youth have changed, partly owing to burgeoning employment opportunities in sectors such as media, communications, software and management. Some of the brightest students leaving school deeply resent being funnelled into engineering, medicine or one of the sciences/arts subjects at an age when they’re undecided about the career of their choice. Dual degrees and interdisciplinary programmes could be the solution; the IITs could be a role-model in this respect.
Illustration by Sorit
Given that content is now freely available on the Internet to IITians, perhaps the teaching emphasis there should now shift to learning through research and experimentation, even if the cohort being educated is at first not just young but ignorant. Adaptability is key in a situation of competitive survival, but IIT students are already competitive. What’s needed is a move to a cooperative model which enables them to ‘come out of themselves’.
Nothing is a greater stress-buster than doing something for others, or doing something just for the pleasure of doing it. This may sound idealistic, but the young are typically idealistic, and India is demographically young. It is, therefore, important to harness this youthful energy. For example, the HRD ministry is apparently short of about 20 lakh teachers at the primary and secondary levels of schooling. Why could the adrenalin, enthusiasm and knowledge of IIT students not be harnessed to educate youngsters in the basic sciences and maths, especially if such a scheme was both incentivised and competitive? IIT alumni could pitch in to provide infrastructure. True, IIT students might lose a ‘gap’ semester or two doing such ‘national service’, but they would gain a life, group survival advantage and, very likely, a less stressed life in the bargain.
At present, IIT students intern with companies or go on international exchange programmes. This is a start, but it is still part of an instrumentalist, career-oriented outlook. What is urgently needed is to devise new modes of e-learning, stimulating methods of knowledge-sharing and practical problem-solving in sync with the interconnected zeitgeist of the 21st century. Perhaps it’s time, then, to return to Nehru’s vision when he set up the IITs with the humanities and social sciences as an integral part of their structure. At the time, he wished the IITs to produce complete citizens, ‘creative’ engineers responsive to the country’s needs while being world-class in their skills: “I know you can measure with your techniques and rules the hardness and strength of this metal or that, of stone and iron and what not [but] how do you measure the strength of an individual?” he queried. In truth, this remains a central question India and the IITs must answer today.
(The author is a professor at IIT-Delhi. The views expressed here are her own.)
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