MUSINGS M2 THE MAGAZINE
India Abroad November 29, 2013
Since when did STEM become so cool that a Miss America could be made its brand ambas- sador? Yes, I’m referring to Nina Davuluri.
Given her degree in brain behavior and cognitive
science, not to mention her academic awards, she’s
certainly qualified to be a spokesperson for science,
technology, engineering and mathematics. Still, I
couldn’t help wondering — when did Glitzy
I’m not being facetious, for it’s indeed refreshing
that an Indian-American — and a self-confessed
“nerd” — has become the new face of Miss America,
reflecting a changing nation in more than one way.
But my focus is not the 2014 pageant and the
accompanying drama, about which much has
already been said. I’ll stick to STEM. This acronym
became a buzzword only in recent years, though it’s
been around since the early years of the last decade
and existed as SMET earlier.
I feel a sense of déjà vu. Oddly enough, I’m
reminded of shirts, which I used to wear untucked.
But having long adapted to the tucked-in trend, I
now realize that tucking in is, well, out.
STEM was what we preferred in India, where we
used different terms for it — like MPC (math,
physics, chemistry) and BiPC/BPC (biology, physics,
chemistry), which would hopefully lead to a BE
(engineering degree) or an MBBS (medical degree).
For American students, STEM was far from a popular choice when I arrived here. I was amazed to
discover you could earn a degree in creative writing.
How attitudes change over time. Now in Atlanta,
even the elementary school near our house proudly
displays a “STEM Certified” sign. Given the trends
in employment, this emphasis is understandable.
Sure, the MFA is still widely available — but the
decline of liberal arts has been steep, particularly at
the undergraduate level, going by a report put out by
the American Academy of Arts & Sciences this year.
Between 1966 and 2010, the number of bachelor’s
degrees in the humanities fell from 14 to 7 percent,
with the drop accelerating in recent decades.
That’s a pity. We need the arts just as much as we
need the sciences. In the formative period leading
up to the undergraduate years, a more holistic
approach in education is better. For our globalized
world, we need individuals who are culturally aware
and empathetic, not just technically skilled. We need
well-rounded citizens who can think critically, act
responsibly. Liberal arts, anybody?
In India, if you were a middle-class youth, you
seemed to have only two career options: engineering
and medicine. To a large extent, that still seems true.
Not everyone can be an engineer or a doctor, but it
isn’t for lack of trying.
Did you know that the world’s highest concentration of engineering colleges — over 500 — is in a
district called Ranga Reddy, Andhra Pradesh?
Across India there are 3,800 engineering campuses
of varying quality that can absorb 1.7 million students annually. At independence, India had 38 engineering colleges that could accept 2500 students.
This boom was fueled by the Nehruvian enthusiasm for science and technology. On our totem pole, if
the heights of engineering/medicine eluded us, it
was respectable (or at least acceptable) to aim for the
science/commerce position at a lower level. We
avoided the humanities/liberal arts, which remained
at the bottom.
Take the renowned IITs. Although I wasn’t keen on
becoming an engineer, I sat for the all-important
entrance exam like hordes of other students—
because, as I was told, getting accepted was the key
that would unlock my golden future. I did not get in.
This high regard for Nehru’s temples of technology
is not unanimous. In an Academic Ranking of World
Universities this year, only 1 Indian university made
it to the top 500 list — and it wasn’t any of the IITs.
It was the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.
The Times Higher Education ranks the IITs, but not
in the top 200. To find the IITs in a top 50 list, you’ll
have to turn to the Asian university rankings put out
by the Times Higher Education and QS World.
In The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria
writes: ‘In fact, many of the IITs are decidedly sec-
ond-rate, with mediocre equipment, indifferent
teachers, and unimaginative classwork.’
Ouch. Let me add, however, that Zakaria’s assess-
ment includes praise. Many IITians have done excep-
tionally well no matter where they end up—which is
precisely Zakaria’s point. The best thing about the
IITs is that, although they cannot compare with
America’s best universities, they do a great job of
picking and bringing together the nation’s crème de
la crème, who will thrive just about anywhere.
What about those who attend tier 2 and tier 3 colleges in India? There can be a noticeable drop in
quality. This became apparent to me only after I
came to the US as a student. My academic focus in
India had been somewhat narrow, the curriculum
here at the undergraduate level was broad-based,
allowing students to explore all kinds of subjects. A
lopsided dose of technology—or science, as in my
case—can come at a cost, leaving gaps in one’s education. Cramming, and a fixation on make-or-break
exams, impedes analytical thinking and creativity.
That’s why America came as a breath of fresh air. It
meant freedom. You could explore new horizons,
enlarge your mind. Ironically, despite this country’s
prowess in science and technology, I didn’t associate
it with STEM, primarily. What came to mind first
was the great liberal arts tradition.
Does a bachelor’s degree in history imply a life of
poverty? Of course not. A liberal arts degree can provide great value, instill a lifelong love of learning,
prepare you well for the career specialization that
follows. Besides, for those seeking assurance in these
tough economic times, more practical minors are
readily available. I recently read about a new minor
in entrepreneurship and social enterprise. This trend
is bound to grow in the coming years.
At the same time, don’t we need historians,
philosophers and musicians, just as we need physicians, engineers and scientists? ;
A shorter version appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . Murali Kamma is an Atlanta-based
writer and editor.
Murali Kamma wonders if
the choice of an Indian
American with a degree
in science for the title of
Miss America reflects a