About kshama

I'm a writer of stories - for the young and the old, for children and adults. I write fiction and non-fiction: novels, essays, short stories... I also research on a subject very close to my heart: the education of the under-privileged. The output of some of my work - stories, novels and essays - is available at http://revathikumaran.wordpress.com I also blog at https://kshama.wordpress.com

A #NewEducation paradigm for a #NewIndia

 

No one could have a difference of opinion regarding the fact that education results in, or at least should result in, learning. The differences arise, though, over what this ‘learning’ is or should be. A simple click on the thesaurus shows that to learn means to discover, ascertain, understand, to become trained in or skilled at or to gain knowledge of.  The question is: does our attempt to educate our children through institutionalized systems of schooling result in such learning? It seems to me that the institutions meant to educate have been reduced to measurement systems that cater to the need to quantify learning so as to grade the churned out products on a universally acceptable, recognizable scale.

Whereas education should free the mind, open it to new discoveries, help each individual child find their unique voice, cultivate a thinking mind and an independent personality, it is reducing children to a mass of regurgitators and nervous wrecks. Schools have become factories that churn out products that are expected to conform to set standards, the norm.  It’s a race against time, against copious competition, and there’s little space for imagination, innovation and such esoteric metaphysical irrationalities.

Knowledge, if institutionalized education assessments are to be believed, is in the textbooks and there are plenty of them to rush through in an academic year; learning is what you produce on paper or spout without a second thought, or a second’s thought for that matter.

To stem this mindless acquisition of what is considered an ‘education’ we have to stop trying to teach our children everything that can conceivably be taught so that they are not ‘deprived’ of the opportunity to know everything that there is to be known.

By all means, familiarise children with various disciplines but let not the learning be tied down to textbooks straitjacketed in terms of ‘subjects’: geography…history…statistics… economics… mathematics; Sanskrit…English…Tamil…Kannada…economics… life science, et al. Introduce young students, instead, to the notion of inter-disciplinarity which is the way of life in the real world, and expose them to readings from the best of literature in the original. From classics to modern works of fiction and non-fiction, build a curriculum with stories, poems and plays, essays, book extracts and published works of reputed researchers, drawing on all genres and disciplines, both nationally inspiring and globally renowned.

Reading is more likely to become pleasurable activity and result in meaningful learning as well as a zeal to learn more through self-discovery when the texts being read are those that have been authored by masters of language or experts in their fields, texts that have stood the test of time and scholarship. Besides, learning is a generative process that happens through exploration and discovery, discussion and conversation, listening and reading. No one has learnt every word that is in their vocabulary from their textbooks and their teachers!

As for Mathematics, rather than making it formidable by bringing in topics that have few applications in most people’s lives, relate it to real life commerce and statistics.

Logic and moral science, sports and home science were all part of the school syllabus once. There is no gainsaying their practical application. The first two equip us with skills of reasoning and analysis as well as values and virtues that are necessary for intellectually aware and equitably sound  decision-making. The latter two make for physically fit and capable and useful citizens.

Teach children to read and understand first, and then to communicate and to express their thoughts and ideas, and then to count and calculate, evaluate and analyse: A gradually evolving teaching mechanism that gives time for contemplation and absorption would alone result in wholesome learning.  And, perform tests of assessment through various mediums: written, oral, graphic, and/ or action.  Comprehension can be better evaluated if the opportunity is given to a student to express themselves in the spoken or written word, through pictures , models, and/ or mime , for, not everyone has the same comfort level with each of these modes of expression.

Maybe it’s a dream, perhaps a hope, but I wonder if India, which is supposed to be re-inventing or re-discovering itself, or both, can also spare some mind-space to re-conceptualise education and re-orient it towards its true purpose. Education is meant to result in learning; it should open the mind and help it grow in awareness about the self and the society. As of now, these functions are being poorly performed because of mistaken notions of what learning is meant to be, and what it is meant to do.

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The Language of Faith

 

There was a lovely, cheery song we all used to recite in Kindergarten. Five decades later, I still recall the lilting notes, and the words still make me smile. The song went like this:

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful

The Lord God made them all.

Each little flower that opens

Each little bird that sings

He made their shining colours

He made their tiny wings.

Today, the song would be considered politically incorrect on many counts:

It is misogynist, many would say –  Why should God be portrayed as being of a particular gender? It’s parochial, promoting a limited world view of a particular  religion, liberals would argue. And worse, the song talks of an exclusionist God – is ‘He’ only for the bright and beautiful, the wise and wonderful and not for the plain people, the simpletons et al? Most would shudder at its reference to a universal ‘Creator’ and refuse to allow their children to be exposed to such ‘unscientific’ gibberish.

In all the hullabaloo, the sheer simple pleasure that a child gets because of the rhythmic resonance, because of the beauty of the world around that the words picture, would be discounted.  Of course, there is merit to the argument that prayers and hymns with religious overtones are not the only songs with rhyme and one does not have to bring God in to be able to make a word portrait of Nature.

However, the difference I have with those who question the language of faith has to do with their purported scholarly analysis of narratives they do not understand.

For instance, take this extract from a piece on economics from a daily newspaper.

‘… Wealth is a price-weighted sum of otherwise incommensurate assets, and those prices are determined in financial markets, which aggregate flighty expectations about the future into prices today…’

The daily newspaper is for a general reader, and the said piece is a book extract with a tantalising sub-heading, intended to invite the average reader of that newspaper: ‘There are various mechanisms by which government policy can be influenced.’ However, despite a degree in Commerce, I have no qualms in stating upfront that I could understand little of the said piece, and the sentence quoted here simply blanks my mind. That is because economics has its own language, its idioms, terms and phrases.

My argument is that religion or faith, similarly, has its own language, idioms, terms and phrases.  Articles and books that claim to be scholarly analyses of faith should be  subject to the scrutiny of experts in the field of faith.  Just as a general reader may not be able to understand the language of economics even of an article that appears in a daily newspaper , a scholar, be it of any discipline, may not be able to understand the language of faith because of their lack of exposure and training in the language that theology speaks. And also, perhaps, because to accept is anathema to minds trained to question.

Whereas fanatics’ motives are transparent and their misinterpretations of religious doctrines are limited by time, if not by reach, the word of academics very often lives on, cloaked in the guise of a rational approach of people trained to think, and by implication the right to question.

With the patronage of what might be termed the hegemony of brahmanical intelligentsia, academics proceed to unpack denseness and remove the wool drawn over words by a supposedly recacitrant religion. Their self-belief is almost narcissistic, and their attitude towards theology is snooty.

The outcome of their discourse and dissertation is a signal disservice to societies across space and time because of the simple reason that they are largely ignorant of the language of faith. However, as the stature conferred on them by society gives their voice an undue advantage, they influence the way people think and behave.

It is important that the language of faith be studied by those who are familiar with its nuances.  Iconoclasm should take a toll on the spurious scholarship of nihilism rather than trying to destroy the fabric of faith that holds societies together.

#Jayalalithaa: Feared, hated, admired, deified. Never loved.

The year was 1982 and I was a rookie reporter out on one of my first assignments.  Jayalalithaa (then spelt with a single ‘a’) had been invited to meet the press at the Chennai (then Madras) Press Club. A couple of days earlier Chennai dailies had featured a photograph prominently on their front pages: it was of Jayalalithaa and M G Ramachandran sitting together and watching the Asian Games. The Chief Reporter of the daily I was interning at had asked me to attend the Press Club meet. He also told me to ask Jayalalithaa a specific question: What did she feel about the photograph of her and M G Ramachandran featured on the front pages of the newspapers?

I was excited about the assignment and, when I got the chance to ask a question, naively reeled off the one my Chief had ‘planted’ on me.  I don’t remember the answer Jayalalithaa  gave, but the question or the answer to it set off a flurry of ancillary questions from other hacks at the venue, which prompted the moderator to intervene and say, ‘She is our guest and I request you all to give her the respect due to a guest,’ or words to that effect.

The next morning, when I entered the newsroom, spread across the tables were several vernacular dailies, each with screaming headlines gloating over how a young reporter had taken on Jayalalithaa. The Chief welcomed me with a huge grin and an exuberant ‘Bravo!’ But a senior correspondent was on the phone explaining to someone on the other side, ‘She’s just an intern, very new to the job, you know …’ She looked at me anxiously and asked, ‘Whatever made you ask her such a question?’ I had obviously stirred up a hornet’s nest!  When I explained that it was the Chief’s idea, the correspondent looked daggers at him. He guffawed, mightily amused.  I was flummoxed. My senior then advised me to be more circumspect.

When I reached home that night, my mother was excited and agitated: she had been attending calls all day enquiring if there was someone at home who was working in a newspaper and asking to talk to that person!

As televisions beamed Jayalalithaa’s final journey yesterday, I was reminded of the intangible fear and the very tangible hatred that seemed to hang about in the newsroom that day in 1982. But yesterday there was only mass adulation on display including of the rich, the powerful and the famous. Rigid political divisions dissolved in a universal admiration of her indomitable spirit. Even the media embraced her.

Fear and hate were no longer relevant as the entity that provoked those emotions was no more; but love was absent: there was no family, no friend, none she could call her own: As in life, so in death, Jayalalithaa was towering but alone.

Frontiers to freedom

Is humour for one offensive to another? Is fun at one’s expense mirth for another? When does humour transgress limits to become a slight? Are we touchy when we are made fun of but can’t hold back a smile when another is being mocked? These were questions that  were bounced off in a debate on television yesterday. The context was a PIL (public interest litigation) by a Sikh group in the Supreme Court of India against the infamous ‘Sardarji’ jokes that stereotype male members of the Sikh community as being dim-witted.

The Americans for their English (‘Americans haven’t spoken English in ages’, Prof. Henry Higgins, immortalised on screen by Rex Harrison, famously said), the British for their accent (when attempting to speak in Indian languages, for instance), the Germans for their love of ‘organization’ and their lack of humour (see the delightful ‘Those Magnificent Men and their Flying Machines’) and Indians for their love of loudness – in everything from speech to honking on the road to colourful attire – are all stereotypes that humorists unapologetically milk to the hilt.

While artists of all genres (from stand-up comedians to actors, writers, painters and media-persons) are unanimous that they have the freedom to spoof whoever they wish, they stop short of political incorrectness. Certain communities (of which the brahmin community is not one) and certain religious adherents (of which the Hindu affiliates are not one) are sacrosanct, their sensibilities and sensitivities are not to be trifled with.  As for the rest the said actors, litterateurs et al refuse to be held responsible for thin-skinned audiences.

Can there be frontiers to freedom? Should there be? Wouldn’t talk of ‘limits’ to freedom become oxymoronic? Perhaps, an answer can be found in this ‘Fool’s Prattle’. Says D V Gundappa in his classic work of philosophy for the layperson, Mankuthimmana Kagga:

The roving bird responds to the call of its nest, the ambling cow lets the rope on its neck hold it back. What is life if not bound by any value?

Self-restraint and allowing oneself to be restrained by societal norms are limits that make freedom a happy choice for all and not just the ones who claim their right to it. To be civil is not to be unfree!

What impacts decision-making?

No pollster – save a couple of isolated academics – would predict Donald Trump’s victory at the hustings.  The media gave the findings of the pollsters as much publicity as they could, and they also went all out to influence public opinion in favour of their choice for President. They made sure the public would recall instantly all the reasons why a Trump presidency would be disastrous: fear, anger and recoil was pumped up to hysterical levels to ensure Trump would not  have a smooth ride – or indeed any ride at all – to the White House.  The media, perhaps, did not give credence to Kahneman’s assertion (Daniel Kahneman: Thinking, Fast and Slow) that people are not as rational in their thinking as believed and their judgement is less influenced by emotions than by heuristics and biases.

But, do heuristics and biases inform our decisions to the degree that social scientists believe they do?  It is a simple rule of thumb that a person voting to have a good leader steering their country would choose experience in administration over inexperience in governance, a deliberate and considered speaker over a blustering ad hoc talker, a candidate with proven credentials in office, who had the backing of her party, over a maverick who had parachuted on to the political firmament with running battles against his own party bigwigs till voting day. A frenzied media – print and audiovisual – went all out to prejudice the public opinion against their representation of homeo horribilis. And yet, the will of the people seemed to have upended the consideration that heuristics and biases impact thought even more than emotions.

Recent upheavals in the polity of the US and India appear to be opening up uncharted avenues for research into the human psyche. Despite all that he has to his discredit the  American electorate have given a startling thumbs up to a Trump tenure. Despite all the difficulties that they have to personally undergo, the Indian public have voted overwhelmingly for the government’s demonetization initiative.

A title for Bill Clinton and the larger question of labels

 

Should he be first lad, first laddie or first dude? First husband, first gentleman or first mate? Mr. President or Governor Clinton? The question of finding a title for Bill Clinton, were Hillary Clinton to be elected President, has been the subject of much mirthful noise on social media platforms.

Whether or not Bill Clinton becomes the first male spouse of an incumbent President, we are suddenly confronted with the question of finding a neutral title. Truth be told, we have already been seized of this necessity. When women became the CEOs of companies, there was a scramble to find a substitute for the cumbersome ‘Chairwoman’ and Chairperson was agreed upon as a gender-neutral term. Actress is passé and authoress antiquated. It is all about actors and authors nowadays. For drivers and conductors, cooks, teachers and doctors, neuter-general terms have always been the norm. As has been the case for Presidents and Prime Ministers.

Taking advantage of the high profile discussion generated by the American election, I wonder if it is possible to settle for gender neuter terms for several categories: a beginning could be made with ‘partner’ or ‘spouse’ instead of husband and wife; ‘sibling’ instead of brother and sister; and ‘offspring’ instead of daughter or son.

#DonaldTrump, #NarendraModi and the Media

The so-called ‘Hindu’ Right’s fondness for them is not the only factor that Narendra Modi and Donald Trump have in common. They also share the mainstream media’s hatred. Hacks rip the remarks of these men out of context, view their words through deep yellow lenses, and go blue in the face trying to cause the maximum damage to their bête noires.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, ‘the puppy analogy’ as it came to be known was repeatedly thrown at the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. A Reuter’s interviewer asked Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, about the mob killing of scores of Muslims in his state in 2002 after the burning of a train carrying Hindu devotees:

 Do you regret what happened?, Modi was asked.

“…if we are driving a car.. even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad…” replied Modi (see more of the interview here).

The media and its minions pilloried Modi and his mindset, claiming he had compared Muslims to dogs. The interview was in English, but even on English television channels, anchors and panellists would deliberately translate his remark into the vernacular as the corresponding Hindi expletive ‘kutta ke bachcha’ is particularly provocative and damaging. Incidentally, soon after the #GujaratRiots, Modi had been asked about it by another anchor for an Indian channel. Modi’s response had been similar. But Modi had then used the analogy of a flower that gets crushed. (You can catch the 2004 interview with Shekhar Gupta for NDTV here)

Trump has, similarly, been derided today for ‘his unwillingness’ to ‘respect the integrity of the electoral process’ and for ‘challenging one of the pillars of American democracy’:

Trump was asked whether he would accept the electoral verdict, regardless of the outcome.

 Trump said “I will look at it at that time.”

 And then, after a lengthy explanation about the reasons why he thinks the election isn’t free and fair – corrupt media, crooked Hillary and all the rest – he was brought back to the topic.

  “…Not saying you’re necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you’re not prepared now to commit to that principle?” asked Chris Wallace.

  Trump, in his characteristic, sardonic way, said, “What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”

It was a spontaneous attempt at irony, no more – for where is the question of not conceding? It is a non-sequitur.

In the second debate, a fortnight or so ago, Trump was torn to pieces for “threatening to jail Hillary”.

Hillary’s said, ‘… it’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.’

Trump met the spiteful comment with a dry, ‘Because you’d be in jail.’

The drollness was lost on the media and the question of Hillary’s disappearing e-mails escaped scrutiny in the hullaballoo the media contrived to cause over just a bit of wit – probably unexpected, and therefore unacceptable?

To end with a #Trump-Modi comparison again, all those who are Modi haters, and therefore Trump haters as well, would be on the side of the media that is revelling in pouring scorn on Trump right now for his horrifying “lack of presidential temperament” in seeming to question the electoral process, one of the pillars of American democracy. Interestingly, their clique in India is the very same group that talks of Modi as “your” Prime Minister, refusing to concede that he is their Prime Minister too as he is the Prime Minister of all of India, elected by a popular mandate that they were not able to undermine despite their raucous clamour.