Chennai’s Anna University Has a ‘Philosophical’ Problem

The department of Information Science and Technology at the College of Engineering Guindy (CEG), one of the four constituent colleges of Anna University, Chennai in Tamil Nadu recently introduced a new course in Philosophy.

On the face of it, it is a laudable effort to include humanities courses to the usual engineering classes. However, a closer examination raises some questions about the design of the course and possible ideological motives tied to it because of its skewed syllabus.

As per the latest All India Council for Technical Education mandate, the revised course structure requires students to complete 12 credits of Humanities, Social Science Management Courses (HSMC).

The department of Information Science and Technology has introduced five courses under HSMC: Technical English, Professional Communication, Film appreciation, Philosophy, and Ethics and Holistic Life.

In the name of Indian philosophy

The list of topics covered in the Philosophy course includes Plato, Socrates, and a few other Western European philosophers. It then dives into Upanishads, Vedas, and the teachings of the Gita. The course objective states that it aims to “create a new understanding by teaching philosophy through a comparison of Indian and Western traditions”.

But this syllabus narrowly reads Indian philosophy as just Hindu scriptures. While Western European philosophy is not tied to any one religion, Indian philosophy is presented as inherently Hindu.

The syllabus poses another issue.

Religion, as an institution, does not encourage critical questioning of its text. However, an important aspect of scientific education is encouraging students to question everything they read. By including religious scriptures in the syllabus, the course seems to have little scope to critically engage with the new material.

We fear that the college management may be content to impart the teachings of the scriptures with no room to question them. Just last year, the campus provided a platform to Isha Foundation’s Jaggi Vasudev to interact with students and share pseudo-scientific “truths” about the world, as part of the Youth and Truth campaign.

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From tolerating pseudo-scientific gimmicks to including religious dogma in the syllabus, scientific temper at CEG seems to have taken a serious beating. Instead of playing the “Hinduism is a way of life” card, which has been repeatedly abused in the recent past, a less imposing attitude towards religion and a more holistic approach towards philosophy would be welcome.

No meaningful choice

Although the syllabus may usually list multiple course options for each elective slot, in practice, students are asked to vote for the course they wish to learn. Only the top  few choices (decided by majority) are offered.

During our time at the Computer Science (CS) department, even as 20 of us requested a course on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Technologies, it was not offered because we did not have a “majority”. Eventually, we were left to pick between the two-three courses that had won a “majority”. This was the status quo in CEG and continues to be the practice today with rare exceptions.

Why not offer courses even if only five people wish to choose them?

The answer is simple: the departments are not adequately staffed to offer more than two-three electives each semester.

When the Philosophy course and its syllabus have been criticised publicly, vice chancellor M.K. Surappa responded saying: “If some student doesn’t like this course, he [or she] always has an option to choose any other course… so no course is compulsory, nobody is controlling anyone here”.

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Our experience shows that while a course maybe an elective on paper, it may well end up being a compulsory course in practice – thanks to staff shortages and voting mechanisms that limit students’ choices.

In CEG, it was notoriously common for new faculty in a department to teach HMSC courses even if they clearly fall outside their areas of expertise. In the CS department, Environmental Sciences was often taught to CS students, by CS faculty.

We cannot help but wonder why a college, that has dedicated departments for Management and Environmental Engineering, is forced to ask the CS faculty, who may well be out of their depth in these fields, to teach Management and Environmental courses.

Notwithstanding this worrying precedent, the Humanities department at CEG does not undertake any research on Philosophy. Hence, it is unlikely that the proposed course would be handled by faculty trained in Philosophy.

‘Course’ correction

To tackle these issues, the college has to address several issues.

First, the Humanities department needs to be staffed with research faculty, and these faculty can design and offer some courses that fit the AICTE requirements.

While in most IITs, faculty teach one course every semester, in CEG they teach two, and are left with very little time to do research. This needs to change.

Secondly, the college also needs to do a better job of handling electives and providing meaningful choices to students.

With the revised course structure coming into effect by the next academic year, there is still some time for the management to make amends. If the purpose of the Philosophy course is to foster critical thinking about the world, science, and society, then the course has a long way to go in letter and spirit. Merely making it an elective does not adequately address the concerns raised.

Prashant and Srravya are alumni from the Computer Science and Engineering Department at the College of Engineering Guindy, Anna University, Chennai.

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