'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Monday, May 07, 2018

The JEE Season Is Here!

This is the season of IIT-JEE. For every smart student who will make the cut, there are going to be dozens of sincere students with dreams smashed and worse, morale crushed. Although it happened long ago, I vividly remember the trauma of flunking the JEE, how long the wounds took to heal... and I contemplate, above all, the sheer absurdity of a one-off competitive examination getting invested with life-changing importance and make-or-mar powers ("Come on. He got such and such a rank in the JEE. So, the guy has to be real good!" or "You failed so you cannot really be that good!"); my deepest sympathies are with every present day student going into the mincing machine (over the decades, it has only gotten more overpoweringly vicious).

Aside: A refrain among many sincere students who fail to clear the JEE is "I don't much like chemistry. I did the other papers well!". More than anything else, this is a manifestation of a peculiar caste-like prejudice very widely prevalent among Indians that considers chemistry distinctly inferior to Math and Physics.

Let me quote a bit (with slight edits) from 'The Man who Knew Infinity'; a part of the passage on Britain's Mathematical Tripos examination and how it used to be held in the late 19th century (Note: The Tripos was super difficult and ultra competitive. It had an elaborate ranking system with 'Wranglers', 'Optimes' and so forth. Those who topped became instant celebrities}.

"...And that was the problem: for there was indeed such a thing as Tripos Mathematics; and it bore little kinship to the *real* Mathematics of really serious Mathematicians. The Tripos was tricky and challenging and it certainly separated the Wranglers (the toppers) from the Wooden Spoon (the test was such that first ranker would score around 50 percent while the wooden spooner would struggle to get off the mark) and the Wrangler certainly was far more likely to become a fine mathematician than the straggler. (But, it was eminently clear to those who knew and cared that) the Tripos questions were about accuracy and speed in the manipulation of Mathematical formulas and some shallow cleverness but no real insight - and not even stubborn persistence; indeed, no question could be too long or deep so students trained themselves to look for the hidden 'Tripos Twist'.... "

Serious candidates took special coaching to crack Tripos. The coaches would not teach Mathematics for its own sake but train students in its smart skills and tricks; and some of the most successful coaches were former toppers, just like what would happen - and keep happening - with the JEE in our own country a century later(*)!

Bertrand Russel remarked: "Preparing for the Tripos led me to think of Mathematics as consisting of artful dodges and ingenious devices, rather like a crossword puzzle" The Tripos over, he swore never to look at Mathematics again and sold all his Mathematics books (he grew out of that phase later, happily)!


As is often the case with Indians, it would be tempting to lay the blame for much of the hype and nonsense surrounding the IIT JEE on Lord Macaulay and the lessons of nasty and obsessive exam competition we learned from our former British masters. But that would mark us out as particularly poor pupils; for the British understood the fundamental problems with Tripos and took serious corrective measures well before they let go of India; and 21st century India is still stuck vis-a-vis the JEE just the way Britain was obsessed with Tripos when Hardy and Russel were teenagers.

And it is not as if we ever needed any tutoring in asinine competitiveness. Indeed, let's pause and take a look at a passage from 'Once Upon a Time', a Popular History series brought out, apparently in consultation with serious historians, by the National Book Trust. Around the time of Emperor Harsha (7th century AD), two bright young fellows are discussing prospects of higher education at the then great University of Nalanda:

"I would love to join Nalanda!" Pundarika said. "The library there is so big it spreads over three buildings; and it has thousands of books!"

"Me too" said Vasubhuti. "And I would love to check out that grand sundial which sets the time for the whole subcontinent!"

"But, even just getting in is tough, my friend! To get admitted, one has to be a gifted and well-trained scholar. Even the Nalanda gatekeepers are learned and they do an initial screening of candidates; for every student they let in, at least four are sent away! And then, you have to pass other tests!"

"But then, how come the University has over five thousand students?!" queried Vasubhuti.

"That's because so many candidates come, from all over the land. And even from other countries like Lanka, Java, Sumatra,..." explained Pundarika. "And mind you, a mere selection to Nalanda is nowhere near enough. You got to work very hard through their program and clear a final examination too. Each scholar who passes it is garlanded and paraded thru city streets on the back of an elephant. And those who fail are driven off, tied to the backs of asses, their faces blackened!"

"God, then it's better for guys like us to avoid that place!" said Vasubhuti.

Remark: Although the above story does not say it in so many words, one gets the feeling that in the India of 1400 years ago, one could simply avoid a top-rated, competitive place and not be made to feel devoid of intellectual worth. And *that* is where we seem to have really changed.


'Infinity' also notes: "(Well over a century ago) the personal qualities encouraged by the Tripos, J J Thomson (who would later become discoverer of the electron and Nobelist) would make so bold as to suggest, made it excellent training - for the Bar!". Now, the qualities inculcated by the JEE appears to have become excellent training - for the IIMs and money-making, oops, wealth creation!

And, mercifully, the flunking-the-JEE picture definitely has another side: for instance, I know a guy who remarked "I failed JEE. but no, I didn't do it all that poorly. I did the English paper very well!" - and he has gone on to become a superb scientist and expositor; And I am NOT talking about Venki Ramakrishnan(**)!


(*)A certain all new institution dedicated to 'science education' has advertised itself in a big way on billboards all over the city with pictures of Einstein, Newton, Hawking,... and the punch line: "Experience a unique way of Learning designed by IITians for the Future IITian!". And Bollywood is coming up with a biopic on super teacher Anand Kumar, founder of 'Super 30' which, among other noble things, probably pioneered the 'IITians coaching for JEE' trend.

(**) Quite a few web pages console those who don't get thru JEE by listing some top people who too didn't. At least one among them begins the list with APJ Abdul Kalam. Kalam was no IITian but it looks very unlikely he ever gave the JEE - he was nearly 30 years old when the first JEE was held in 1960.


  • At 9:43 AM, Blogger oceanofsecrets said…

    A very relevant observation on the modern education system, sir! Sprinkled with parallels,in your unique style. I feel this applies to entrance examinations and the many competitive exams of today like NET as well. It is a sad state of affairs.

  • At 12:50 AM, Blogger Nishant Chandgotia said…

    This is a very interesting post. Can I though ask, how can a country (as large as ours) select students? Do you have any suggestions?

    Secondly, I would like to register for updates for both your blogs but there does not seem to be a link which will allow me to do so. Have a look at:!topic/blogger/fC6cDrJ_-Xg

    Let me know if you need help. I am easy to find.

  • At 1:58 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    Thanks Ocean for visiting. True, all our entrances are similarly and deeply flawed.

    Thanks Nishant. Yours is a difficult question. The problem with our system to me is its horrible elitism, the disparities.
    Among those employed by the acclaimed Singapore healthcare system, the ratio between the least salary and the highest is within 1:10 (and that '1' is an eminently decent pay) whereas in a single hospital in a typical Desi town, that ratio could be worse than 1:100.

    And companies blatantly follow different payscales for its employees depending on their academic pedigree (one scale for IIT BTechs, another for IIT MTechs and so on), not knowledge. We need to change top to bottom. Civilization is about keeping disparities within civilized limits and India is among the most barbarous;

  • At 5:25 AM, Blogger Nishant Chandgotia said…

    This is an interesting statistic (1:10). I tried looking for a source but couldn't. In India, of course inequity in India is rampant. Though the problem is apparent all solutions seem impractical.

  • At 1:44 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks again Nishant.

    I got that bit of info on Singapore from someone who works there. Indeed, this exchange with you makes me think one should research more and write another piece on a real problem that afflicts india.

  • At 3:12 PM, Blogger Nishant Chandgotia said…

    I would love to hear more!


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