DU Economics

Skimpy has been writing about how people with an Economics background from Delhi University have abysmal conceptual clarity about the subject.

Ok I guess I’m likely to get flak for that comment about the “BA types”. I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a few Economics toppers (undergrad)  from Delhi University. And I’ve found them extremely weak on fundamentals. They know what the graphs look like. They know the definitions well. They know the formulae. But are frequently found wanting when it comes to absolute fundamentals.

Considering that there are hajaar people in my sample (technically, in IITese, anything greater than 2 is hajaar), and given that DU is considered to be the best univ in India for a UG in Economics, I think my generalization is justified.

Coming back, Aadisht says that this lack of fundamentals in these people might be attributed to inappropriate teaching. I won’t rule out that reason. I have the sneaking feeling that lecturers and professors in DU are also mostly from the same background – with an undergrad in Economics. And would have themselves learnt stuff the same way.

When I said inappropriate teaching, I was talking about the terrible textbooks and curriculum more than the teachers themselves. I haven’t seen it for myself, but I got the impression that the fundamentals of microeconomics and macroeconomics form only four papers out of about twenty or thirty in the Economics Honours course at Delhi University. Equal weightage is given to highly arbit courses like Economic History of India and whatnot.

After that GTalk chat, I realised that there are two other important factors at work: the DU admissions system and the DU examination system.

DU admission happens on the basis of your Class 12 board exam marks. Class 12 boards consist of one massive exam at the end of the academic year, with at least a month of study leave leading up to it. DU exams are the pretty much the same. Although some internal evaluation and mid-year exams have been introduced in recent years (I think), the major component of evaluation is still the end-of-year exam with lots of study leading up to it.

To use another framework invented by the Wimp, people who grasp concepts immediately are studs. People who can’t grasp concepts, but make up for it by devoting all their time to mugging and understanding the implications of the concept and how to use it without actually understanding the underlying logic are fighters.

The problem with a massive exam where you get a whole year to prepare for it is that unless you design it very well to test only for conceptual clarity, it ends up obliterating the differences between studs and fighters. The studs will always appreciate surprise quizzes where they can use their understanding of first principles to come up with answers while the more structured, studying-oriented fighters will be caught unawares. Similarly, studs will prefer open-book exams where you have to figure out which first principle to use, and then build theories from the ground up, while the fighters will prefer closed-book exams where they can peacefully obtain marks by regurgitating a given formula or derivation1.

So the DU admission procedure neutralises any advantage studs have over fighters, which leads to the intake consisting largely of fighters. And then three years of an examination process which once again neutralises the advantage any stud in DU might have, means that the toppers will usually end up being mugging-oriented fighters rather than concept-oriented studs.

By contrast, engineering colleges have semester-based continuous evaluation, where the advantage given to a fighter is heavily mitigated. For starters, you have only a four or five month semester to mug, instead of a whole year. Secondly, your concepts keep getting tested throughout the semester. This means that the lead time you have to absorb a concept goes down, and puts additional pressure on fighters.

In the IIMs, the situation is made even more brutal. You have trimesters instead of semesters, and the lead time for fighters to absorb concepts falls to almost Nil. Studs have a clear advantage in this environment (except in courses with lazy profs who set only a midterm and endterm).

Two related points:

  1. A couple of years ago, Annie Zaidi complained that she loved English literature, but used to keep getting outscored by people who didn’t understand it but just mugged it like robots; that this proved that merit in education was nonexistent, and so there was no merit-based argument against reservations.
    Actually, rather than proving that merit in education is nonexistent, it only proves that Annie’s university rewarded meritorious fighters rather than meritorious studs. The policy response therefore is to change the evaluation system, not to proceed with reservations.
  2. The question of what you should be evaluating in an educational system – actual conceptual clarity or the ability to be functional despite a lack of concepts of course remains open. Ideally, an evaluation system would reward both the ability to grasp concepts and derive from first principles, and the ability work with something even if you don’t understand it. But that only reinforces the case for continuous, multi-component evaluation systems.

1: Skimpy’s anguished outburst in the Financial Derivatives class on this very topic will remain forever etched in my memory. In the memory of everyone who attended that class for that matter.