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.

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.

Passion vs Commitment

 

We often hear of people being passionate about something.  Not unoften, we also hear of people being committed to something. Is it better to be passionate about something or committed to something?

Passion is synonymous with fervour – a feverish excitement.  Commitment implies an emotion more sedate and steady; it is synonymous with dedication and a sense of responsibility. Passion connotes restlessness; commitment, dependability. Passion is a heightened feeling that seeks an outlet in activity external to the self. Commitment is a quiet force that impels the individual from within. Passion seeks fulfilment, whereas commitment is its own reward. One can be the architect and agent of one’s own happiness in the latter case, whereas in the former, satisfaction is contingent on  external factors.

Interestingly, despite their differences, it seems that commitment could metamorphose into passion, or one could be passionately committed to something. On the other hand, commitment to one cause can come in the way of passion for another vocation and passion for one thing can disrupt one’s commitment to something else.

Introspect: the mantra for success is within yourself

 

Successful people attribute their achievement to having a goal and working towards it purposefully.  But the not so ‘successful’ people have goals too; they also work hard to attain these targets… This being so, why do some people succeed in reaching or surpassing their goals while others with equal or even more talent, zeal and expertise fall short?  Introspection, perhaps, holds the key.

Before taking the plunge, successful people invest thought and time in assessing their strengths and drawbacks – personal qualities, lifestyle factors imposed by the circumstances of one’s upbringing and the social milieu in which one lives. This helps them set goals that are well suited to their temperament and life conditions.  Reaching their targets becomes easier since a high degree of self-awareness has informed their decision at the goal-setting stage itself. Their goals are based on what they have learnt about themselves: their interests, capacities, and inclinations. They have thought of answers to questions such as: why do I want to do this? Do I have the knowledge and skills to do it? Are there compromises I will have to make? Are there any trade-offs? Will I be able to accommodate these?

Having set the goal, and having started on the path, the successful individual does not simply doggedly keep at it.  Rather, they stop to take stock periodically. Self-reflection is an instinctive exercise, a force of habit: am I on course or is there any course correction needed? Have I overestimated my capacities: are there any skills or knowledge I lack? Have I underestimated the demands of the task: should I seek guidance or outsource some of the work?   At any stage, if their assessments warrant, they may not hesitate to shift the goal post or alter the contours of the objectives, limit them or even give up an endeavour altogether in favour of a more viable alternative.

Hard work is important in order to succeed, focused hard work even more so.  The ability to work hard is an admirable strength acquired by persistent training. But getting to the goal, for those who succeed in getting there, is not a simple act of jumping into the water and then learning to swim, or making a dash for it without pausing to look back. Their hard work reaches fruition as they have cultivated the habit of introspection as well.

Time, and Time Out

Time: It is The great equaliser.  It ticks away relentlessly at the same pace for every creature. Some compartmentalise time into neat packets and fit their work into these packets.  They are the ants of Aesop.  When the rain comes, their store ensures they don’t go hungry unlike the grasshopper that was singing through the summer and hence had to starve through the rain.

But then, there are the ants and grasshoppers of Maugham. The ants work assiduously, no lesser than the ant made famous by Aesop. But the grasshopper has been adopted as a pet. It can afford to sing or dance, summer or winter, autumn or rain as it gets everything on a platter. (Read Somerset Maugham’s Ant and the Grasshopper).

Now, where does that leave us ant-like creatures who are caught between not wanting to starve, and not wanting to strive, but not wanting to eat off a platter either?