The answer to whether the standard of IIT students is regressing can be found if you all are prepared to travel 25,000 years in the past. This was the period when we - the Homo Sapiens lost our nearest ompetitor - the Neanderthals.
Arguably, one of the key attributes which distinguished us from Neanderthals is intelligence. But what is intelligence? Most evolutionary biologists agree that it was our cognitive superiority - our ability to question and accomplish complex tasks, our desire to create and our willingness to travel to undiscovered frontiers which led to our survival.
As things stand, humans are the only species to have derived the speed of light, mapped genome and sent fellow beings to the moon. And as tephen Hawking indicates, colonising the space - our and other species' only hope to continue to survive - is only possible if humans continue to evolve on the path of intelligence.
When India decided to build IITs as 'institutions of national importance', I am assuming it thought of a place where the most intelligent of its citizens enter and most intelligent of its scientists and engineers emerge. But how does India measure that it is sending the most intelligent to the IITs? Or to put it in the words of Gould (1981), does it measure our men justly? Ironically, the gatekeepers of IITs have failed to keep pace with the advancement in our understanding of intelligence. The IIT-JEE which selects 10,000 odd out of the 5, 00,000 interested - seems stuck in the early 20th century when concepts like multiple intelligence (Gardner, 1983) were absent and the over- reliance on psychometric tests to easure intelligence was rife.
Today we understand intelligence to comprise emotional and social intelligence, abstract thinking, creativity and all those attributes which prevented our extinction. Incidentally, in the purely objective type JEE there is no mechanism to measure multi- dimensional intelligence.
This can probably explain why people such as Dr Ramakrishnan, the 2009 Nobel Laureate failed to clear it. One can clear the JEE without ever listening to Mozart, reading Kafka or exploring the connection between Fibonacci and Pingla. The opportunity to do all this at secondary school is also snatched away by the time one spends to clear the IIT entrance.
The JEE's unidimensional nature has given birth to a peculiar beast - IIT coaching centres. A beast which can achieve the unimaginable feat of turning humans back to apes! This is the beast which promotes rote learning as supposed to critical hinking. It works to prevent you from travelling to unknown territories or asking novel questions. The beast doesn't appreciate the importance of carving novel paths. Hence, it never encountered a Steve Jobs. It provides set formulas and trivialises complexity.
It is similar to the training of chimpanzees such as Sheba and Kanzi - who through years of training were able to perform complex tasks. But in reality these were simple tricks which were taught through repetitive learning. This can also explain why more students score higher than their predecessors in the JEE without any difference in intelligence - the Flynn effect.
Beware, as this beast has extended its arms to engulf even 10 year- olds who are now given this regressive mantra - question you perish and ape you thrive - something that has been beautifully highlighted in French playright Lonesco's T he Lesson . I can elaborate on the play's theme but following the spirit of this article will make you venture into the unknown.
A version of this article first appeared in India Today.
(The writer is a doctorate from University of Oxford and an Associate Fellow at Oxford Center for Higher Education Policy Studies)